In more than 165 countries, Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey is revered for its individual character, a character shared by the mysterious man who pioneered the brand — Mr. Jasper Newton “Jack” Daniel of Lynchburg (pop. 361), Tenn. A runaway at the age of six, a distiller by 13 and a remarkable innovator his whole life, Jack Daniel wasn’t only a real person — he was a real character. His strong, individual spirit was evident at an early age. At six, with his mother dead, nine siblings at home and his father newly remarried, Jack left his family. Ironically, running away because he felt neglected would eventually bring him to the world’s attention.
“Young Jack came to live and work with the Call family,” said Roger Brashears of the Jack Daniel Distillery. “A Lutheran minister and a whiskey-maker, I guess you could say Dan Call was Lynchburg’s leading spiritual advisor.” The Reverend Call made Jack Daniel a partner in his whiskey-making operation and eventually sold him the entire business, after deciding he needed to devote his full attention to other spiritual matters — his ministry.
It was Mr. Jack who had the foresight to move the distillery to a source of limestone water flowing from a cave spring in Lynchburg. The water flowed at a constant 56 degrees and was free of good whiskey’s worst enemy, iron. Mr. Jack was also the first to register his little distillery during the early 1860s when the federal government began its regulation and taxation of whiskey.
Today, the Jack Daniel Distillery remains America’s oldest registered distillery and is on the National Register of Historic Places. Always an independent character, with a mind of his own, Mr. Jack sold his whiskey to both sides during the War of Northern Aggression (also known by some as the Civil War). It was a daring stance that endeared him to both sides of conflict, but could have just as easily seen him shot as a spy.
Mr. Jack also showed his individual nature by holding on to the charcoal-mellowing process when others abandoned it for cheaper methods of making whiskey after the war. He mellowed his whiskey drop by drop through 10 feet of charcoal made from hard sugar maple. That made Jack Daniel’s whiskey about twice as expensive and three times as long to make, but it also gave it a smooth, refined character. Mellowing changed the whiskey enough that the government gave it a special designation as “Tennessee Whiskey.” So while others turned to less costly methods of making whiskey, Mr. Jack remained true to charcoal mellowing, a tradition that continues at the Jack Daniel Distillery.
“He was all of five-feet-two-inches tall and I think his stature may have had something to do with his individual nature,” explained Brashears. “He was hardheaded and unchanging when it came to charcoal mellowing.” Here in Lynchburg we like to say, ‘Don’t ever kick a pulling mule.’” Naturally, when everyone else went to bottling their whiskey in round bottles, Mr. Jack chose a square bottle. That shape has since become synonymous with his Tennessee sipping whiskey.
The little-known Tennessee distiller finally came to the attention of the world at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair and Centennial Exposition. That year, Mr. Jack traveled by train to the Fair, where unbeknownst to his friends in Lynchburg, he had the audacity to enter his charcoal-mellowed sipping whiskey in an international competition. He returned to Lynchburg four days later with the World’s Fair Gold Medal for the best whiskey in the world. It was the first of seven gold medals his whiskey would win.
As dedicated as Mr. Jack was to his unchanging method of crafting fine whiskey, it’s ironic that something unchanging did him in — a simple combination to his office safe. One day Mr. Jack’s spirited nature got the best of him when he had trouble with the combination and kicked the safe in frustration. At first, he only suffered a limp, but eventually gangrene set in. Six years later, on October 10, 1911, Mr. Jack died. Because he had never married, the distillery passed down to his nephew Lem Motlow.
Lem, whose name still appears in the fine print on every bottle of Jack Daniel’s whiskey, played an important role in the growth of the distillery. It was Lem who saw the distillery through the 29 years of National and Tennessee Prohibition. When Prohibition ended, he reopened his Uncle’s distillery and returned to the charcoal-mellowing tradition in spite of the extra costs it involved. In 1956, the Motlow family entrusted the distillery to another great American whiskey family, the Browns.
Today, the Brown-Forman Beverage Company in Louisville, Kentucky continues to charcoal mellow Jack Daniel’s whiskey drop by drop, remaining true to the strong, individual character of the man . . . and his whiskey. “Yessir, if Mr. Jack were alive today, he’d be happy to see that not a whole lot has changed here in his hometown,” mused Brashears with a grin. “The Farmer’s Bank and Courthouse are still standing. There’s still no USA Today box on the square. And his distillery is still operating in a dry county and still charcoal mellowing his whiskey drop by drop. “Some things just aren’t subject to change.”