Talking whiskey with Jack Daniel’s master distiller

LYNCHBURG is a tiny town in Tennessee, a humble southern farming community in the middle of a dry county - where dry means its biggest export cannot be legally bought where it is made.

The town would be just another one-traffic light blip on the atlas but for one fact: it is home to the Jack Daniel whiskey distillery.

Every drop of whiskey bearing the brand's iconic label is created right there in Lynchburg, drawing from the town's natural springs to aid in the process.

And there is every chance that drop of amber liquid in your glass has been checked by Chris Fletcher, the man in line to become the company's eighth master distiller and that includes Jack himself.


The Jack Daniels distillery is built on a natural spring.
The Jack Daniels distillery is built on a natural spring. contributed


The assistant master distiller has a long and proud family history with the company, and he has just arrived in Australia to share his wisdom and passion for all things whiskey.

Speaking from his Tennessean hometown, Mr Fletcher recalled long weekends walking through the distillery with his grandfather Frank Bobo, who just happened to be the company's fifth master distiller from 1966 to 1988.

"It was always a magical place, even when I was too young to realise what whiskey was," Mr Fletcher said.

"I would go in there on Sundays and there was just this feeling that it was somewhere special."

Towns in Australia have often existed at the boom-and-bust whims of external economic pressures - a gold rush might temporarily transform a town into a bustling regional centre; a mining downturn may gut a once-lively community.

But the people of Lynchburg, Tennessee, have found a way to rise above the ebbs and flows, by maintaining a sustainable core industry for the past century and a half - except during the Prohibition years.

It all comes down to the distillery.

"Lynchburg only has about 500 people, so almost everyone has something to do with the distillery," Mr Fletcher said.

"If you're not working in the distillery, you're most likely farming for the ingredients or driving one of the trucks.

"Jack Daniel's is now all over the world, in Australia and Japan, and every drop is made here in Lynchburg."

The thing is, you cannot even buy alcohol in Lynchburg.

Mr Fletcher said the distillery's gift shop was the only place in Moore County where "decorative bottles" of alcohol can be bought.

"It's not illegal to drink in a dry county - you just can't sell it," he said.


Chris Fletcher is Jack Daniel's assistant master distiller.
Chris Fletcher is Jack Daniel's assistant master distiller. contributed


Mr Fletcher is heading a Jack Daniel's tour of Australia to celebrate the company's 150th anniversary.

He will visit several capital cities to share his knowledge of the company's history and host "time-travelling drinking experiences" and whiskey tasting master classes.

The born-and-bred Lynchburg native has a friendly Tennessean drawl, whiskey in his genes and a deep respect for the man who first created his favourite drink.

He said the Jack Daniel's story, perhaps slightly embellished over the years, went like this.

Jasper "Jack" Daniel was only six when his mother died, leaving him and his nine siblings behind with his father and stepmother, whom he often clashed with.

After moving in with his uncle, the young boy befriended a local Lutheran minister named Dan Call, who also ran a store with a whiskey still out back.

Jack became the minister's protege and quickly mastered the distilling trade.

When Reverend Call's wife heard a sermon condemning the evils of alcohol in 1863, he was forced to choose between his "immoral" pursuit and his ministry.


Jack Daniels
Jack Daniels contributed


And, quite likely, his domestic happiness.

So there Jack was, a 13-year-old boy with the opportunity to buy his mentor's whiskey still and continue to ply his trade.

He took the chance and his business flourished, keeping him in work until his death in 1911 after kicking a safe, breaking his toe, getting an infection and losing his leg - and then his life - from blood poisoning.

In fact, most of the young Jack's tutelage may have come from a man named Nearis Green - one of Reverend Call's black slaves and a master distiller in his own right.

That piece of history had been whitewashed and all but forgotten until very recently, when the company decided to embrace the past and pay tribute to the skilled slave.

"It's great to be part of something with so much history. You can really feel it every time you walk into the distillery," Mr Fletcher said.

This is Mr Fletcher's first trip to Australia and he is eager to share his southern hospitality with whiskey connoisseurs from this side of the world.

His master classes will be held in Sydney, Brisbane and Perth throughout August.

For a chance to attend visit -ARM NEWSDESK

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