Beth Hart plays the Ryman Auditorium.
I’d heard they were finally giving whiskey-sampling tours at the Jack Daniel Distillery in historically dry Lynchburg, so I called my friends at Grand Avenue to rent a chauffeur and car. (The idea of spending the night for a DUI in some rural Tennessee jail did not appeal to me in the least.) On a rainy Saturday, relaxed by 75 miles of Bloody Marys, we tumbled out of our sleek, black, van-like vehicle at the distillery visitors’ center.
“We want to take the drinking tour,” I told the nice, older woman at the desk.
“You mean the enhanced tour,” she corrected me.
I soon discovered that while Moore County is still dry there now exists some nifty new agreement between Uncle Jack and the law: the distillery can’t sell whiskey per se but it can sell a longer tour. And those bottles of Jack for sale in the gift shop? The whiskey is actually free (wink, wink) but the commemorative bottle will cost you, coincidentally, about as much as a fifth of whiskey. Wink-wink.
I hadn’t toured Uncle Jack’s place (and that’s what many locals call him: Uncle Jack) for more than 20 years. It’s a slicker, scripted, more Disney-like experience now, evidenced by our bushy-bearded guide, Chris, who cranked up his native-Tennessee accent 57-percent for the benefit of Yankee visitors. In the first hour we learned that Uncle Jack had a size-four foot—and a temper that killed him. One morning he couldn’t open the safe so he kicked it so hard that he injured his toe and, in the end, died of gangrene. We also learned that Jack’s real name was Jasper Newton Daniels, which he hated and shortened. (Perhaps this was a source of that deadly anger).
Though Jack never married, Chris assured us he had many lady friends, evidenced by the two wrought-iron chairs placed at his grave at the cemetery in town, where his mistresses could sit and cry. Only the enhanced tour includes a stop at the grinding room, where they pulverize the burned wood that they eventually filter the whiskey through to produce that famous, mellowed taste.
“Look there on the wall and you can see some famous people wrote their names,” said Chris. Scrawled in charcoal were several questionable autographs: Dolly Parton. Amy Grant. God.
We passed through a dark room with walls blanketed by hundreds of brass plaques bearing peoples’ names – the “Members of Society,” Chris said. For around $10,000 anyone can buy an entire barrel of Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel, earning a spot on this wall and an abundance of whiskey that might last some people a lifetime. “Great Father’s Day gift – don’t you think?” I whispered to my wife.
Finally, it was time to taste. We all received three small plastic jiggers each filled with a third of an ounce to sample. The first with regular Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey, another with Gentleman Jack, and a third with the superior single-barrel product, which gets its mellower, sweeter flavor from being stored on the warmer, top floors of the barrel houses.
“Now remember,” Chris reminded us. “This is Tennessee sippin’ whiskey. “Don’t just throw it back. You got to sip it.”
Just as we’d done on wine tours in Napa, we sloshed the samples through our mouths, trying to discern the differences in the three amber, fiery solutions.
“Can y’all see and taste the difference that three extra feet of charcoal makes?” asked Chris, referring to the additional filtering that Gentleman Jack receives.
“Not quite,” I said. “Can I have another one just to be sure?”
— Ad Hudler is a Nashville-based best-selling novelist and copywriter who loves whiskey almost as much as gin. He can be reached through his website AdHudler.com.
Jack Daniel’s enhanced sampling tours, $10 + tax (per person), are offered Monday - Saturday at 10:30 a.m., 11:30 a.m., 12:30 p.m., 1:30 p.m., 2:30 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. Tours last appoximately a hour and 45 minutes and are offered on a first-come, first-served basis. Of course they're for anyone 21+ and fill up quickly (no reservations). For more information go to JackDaniels.com.
You’ll also want to have lunch at Miss Mary Bobo’s, featuring Southern cooking served family-style in a historic inn where Mr. Daniels dined years ago. Reservations required: (931) 759-7394.