Lynchburg & the Jack Daniel's Distillery Tour
May 14, 2008.
We stopped by Lynchburg, Tennessee this morning to visit the Jack Daniel Distillery. It was a great tour. After the tour we moved the motorhome to Poole Knobs COE Campground near Smyrna, TN. about 20-miles SE of downtown Nashville. Campsites are $9 a night with elect & water (we have the National Park systems 1/2 price geezer pass) so if you aren't 62 years old yet it will cost you $18.
Now back to this morning. We overnighted last night with the Super Wal-Mart in Fayetteville, Tennessee then got up and made our way 15-miles up the highway to Lynchburg and the Jack Daniel's Distillery. Jack Daniel's has a large parking area with ample space for motorhomes pulling automobiles. For your information if you are in an RV and want to visit the town of Lynchburg you can drop your motorhome in the Jack Daniel's lot and take your tow car to town. The town of Lynchburg also has a large parking lot where you can park your RV and walk about 2-blocks to town.
Jack Daniel's Distillery in Lynchburg, where we are about to take a tour
It was raining as we arrived in Lynchburg. Even with the rain Joyce was able to get this picture through the front window of our motorhome. One of the "barrelhouse" buildings where Jack Daniel's Whiskey is aged, in oak barrels, is situated on that hill. Note that I said one of the buildings because they have many of these huge buildings where Jack Daniel's Whiskey is aged. We did not tour that building but we did get to tour at least one building where the Jack Daniel's in oak barrels was being aged..
While we enjoyed the Jack Daniel's tour it did not start at the beginning of the sequence. Unfortunately, I am going to present the tour in the order which we received the information.
Our first stop was at the site where workers were making charcoal that is used in the "mellowing" process. More about how charcoal is used to "mellow" whiskey later. Charcoal is made in a place called the "Rickyard". These stacks of wood that look like pallets are called "ricks".
Rickyard at the Jack Daniel's Distillery tour
This is a close-up of what a rick looks like. Those are 2" X 2" hard sugar maple boards, spaced just so.
Hard Maple "Ricks" used in Jack Daniel's charcoal mellowing process as seen on the Jack Daniel's Distillery Tour
The charcoal mellowing method Jack Daniel's goes through is also called the "Lincoln County Process," because its development was in Lincoln County, Tennessee - which used to include Lynchburg. The process is not an easy one. The charcoal must be made from hard sugar maples. Tall maples growing on high ground have proven best at contributing to the mellow taste Jack Daniel's in known for. Once a tree is selected, it is cut into 2" X 2" strips and these are carefully stacked to form a rick. Burning the rick is an art all unto itself. Wind direction must be observed keenly, and a good sense of timing can mean the difference between a good batch of charcoal and a pile of useless ashes.
Our docent told us the rick was set on fire using 140-proof alcohol. The ricks in this picture wait to be made into charcoal.
Tanks full of charcoal and whiskey that we saw on the Jack Daniel's DistilleryTour
In any event every drop of Jack Daniel's Tennessee Whiskey will make its way through a full ten feet of densely-packed, hard sugar maple charcoal. The whiskey is slowly dripped into the vat and allowed to seep through the charcoal naturally. It's a slow journey, but they say the result is worth the wait. That charcoal journey creates a smooth-sippin' whiskey with a unique taste. Some of the Jack Daniel's whiskeys are run through the charcoal process multiple times. They have "stillmen" that keep a close eye on the vats. The moment that the charcoal's mellowing ability begins to diminish, it is replaced with a fresh batch.
This picture shows two charcoal vats. Remember they are 10' deep. A deck is used to access the top of the vats. The building we visited must have contained 50 to 100 of these charcoal vats on the floor we visited. I have no idea how many floors were in that building but a LOT of space is taken up with this charcoal process.
Sample charcoal barrel used for demonstration purposes on the Jack Daniel's Distillery Tour
This is just a sample of the charcoal used. It enabled us to get a better idea of the process.
The alcohol being filtered or "mellowed" via this "Lincoln County Process" is between 120 and 140 proof. Once this alcohol has "mellowed" by dripping through the charcoal the smooth, mellow spirit is mixed with spring water to lower the proof. The result is probably 80 to 95 proof spirits. This is then poured into new, charred, white oak barrels that have been made by Jack Daniel's craftsmen. I will discuss this craft more later. These barrels are then placed in a barrelhouse where the whiskey matures. The maturation process imparts much of the whiskey's taste and all of its distinctive color as the seasonal changes in temperature force the whiskey in and out of the wood.
Grain silos at the Jack Daniel's Distillery where we were on tour
Grains (corn, barley & rye) are delivered to this building where they are stored in the white silos. Jack Daniel's Distillery uses a lot of grain.
Grain silos at the Jack Daniel's Distillery
Adjacent to the grain silos is the brick distillery building.
Picture taken of Grain Silos on our Jack Daniel's Distillery Tour
This is a close-up of the silos. Note that they are made with vertical boards held tightly together with steel rings, much like the barrels their whiskey is aged in.
Grain delivery area of the Jack Daniel's Distillery
This is where grain trucks deliver grain. Each truck will place the trailer over the two humps. A worker will remove the lids then grain from the trailer will fall into the bins below. We did not get to see this operation while on tour but we have seen how this is done on our trips out west.
Grain display set up for the Jack Daniel's Distillery Tour
According to our docent three grains corn, malted barley and rye are used to create Jack Daniel's Whiskey.
Grain display on the Jack Daniel's Distillery Tour
Jack Daniel's actually mills their own grain but we did not get to see that process.
Now it is time to make "mash". The ground grain is mixed (according to that age old recipe passed down by Jack) with water taken from a spring on the property. This water is important because it is free of any iron. Whiskey makers like water that is filtered through limestone which this spring water is. In addition to the water a little spent stillage from previous whiskey batches is added. This mixture of grain and water, called mash, is cooked over high heat in a mash cooker.
I would like to have toured the milling operation but it was not part of the tour. Also we did not get to see the vats where mash was being cooked. Oh well you can't see and do everything.
The cooked mash is cooled, then yeast is added and the combination is allowed to ferment for approximately six-days. During this time, yeast converts natural sugars in the mash into alcohol and carbon dioxide. This activity also generates a fair amount of heat so cooling coils within the vat are used to make sure the temperature does not exceed 85 degrees. The resulting liquid, known as "distiller's beer," is then pumped into the still. The still is heated, and because alcohol has a lower boiling point than water, the alcohol turns to steam and rises. Rising to the top of the still, the alcohol condenses back into liquid form. At this stage the whiskey is a full 140 proof.
Picture of cooking mash taken on the Jack Daniel's Distillery tour
Joyce took this picture of fermenting mash bubbling in a huge vat. I wonder how many thousands of gallons of mash this vat contained? We were on the second or third story of this building looking into the top of this vat. When you look at this huge vat remember that this is the vat where yeast has been added to the cooked mash. This is where the natural sugars contained in the grain are converted to alcohol.
Unfortunately, I did not get any pictures inside of the distilling process. As you can imagine 140-proof alcohol is flammable and they do not want flash photography in the building.
The taste of whiskey actually differs from barrel to barrel. As we have already discussed many things affect the taste of whiskey. Where the barrel is located in the barrel house during aging also determines the level of "maturity" and taste. In the late 1990's Jack Daniel's started marketing "Single Barrel Whiskey". One customer purchases the entire barrel of whiskey. Jack Daniel's bottles the barrel but the customer also receives the barrel in addition to the bottled contents. This 94-proof whiskey is drawn from barrels resting in the upper floors of the barrelhouse, where the whiskey receives the fullest measure of maturity. Its robust flavor, deep amber color and subtle differences in flavor from barrel to barrel make not only a great whiskey but also good for conversation. If you are interested in purchasing one of these Single Barrels you can schedule a visit to the Jack Daniel Distillery to share in the task of selecting the perfect barrel to suit your own particular taste. Otherwise a group of master tasters determine which barrels qualify for "Single Barrel" quality then the head master distiller will oversee the actual selection. They will hand-bottle your barrel of whiskey into around 240-elegant 750ml decanters.
Single Barrel line on the Jack Daniel's Distillery Tour
We toured the bottling line where the Single Barrel whiskey was being bottled and packaged. On each bottle of Single Barrel whiskey you will see a special label that tells you the barrel number, where the barrel matured in the barrelhouse, "the rick," and the date it was bottled. In addition a medallion around the decanter announces that this whiskey was bottled exclusively for you. The total price of a "Single Barrel" will depend on the barrel's yield and local taxes. The barrel price will range from $9,000 to $10,000 ($35 to $40 per-bottle).
This lady is packaging some bottles being prepared for the one barrel at a time program. I will try and explain this "one barrel at a time" program.
Packaging line on the Jack Daniel's Distillery tour
This is another lady packaging some of the "Single Barrel" products.
Now something for you whiskey sippers that need something unique to share with your friends while sipping some fine whiskey. As you know Jack Daniel's Old No. 7 is a name known around the world. Oddly enough, no one knows where the name originated. Mr. Jack first gave this special designation to his finest whiskey in 1887, but never revealed why. Some say it comes from "Lucky Seven" or for seven tries at a mash recipe. Our favorite is the legend of seven lost whiskey barrels on which Mr. Jack simply wrote the number "7" once they were discovered. Later, a merchant found the whiskey inside the marked barrels so remarkable he called for "more of that Old No. 7." One thing is certain, the mystery has created a lot of conversation. And possibly, that's all Mr. Jack had in mind. Now you know the rest of the story. VBG
Oak Barrel display on the Jack Daniel's Distillery Tour
Taking a stack of wooden staves and a few steel hoops and crafting them into a strong, leak proof barrel is an art. Skilled coopers start by cutting the staves, planing them, steaming them into shape then binding them with the steel hoops. Next, the inside of the assembled barrel is carefully toasted - "charred" with a flame.
Some distillers are content to store their whiskey in used barrels. Jack Daniel Distillery only uses new oak barrels. They believe that unused oak delivers the richest flavor and character.
Because Jack Daniel's feels that the quality of these barrels is so important to the aging process of their whiskey they craft their own oak barrels.
Charred white oak barrel display on the Jack Daniel's Distillery Tour
This is a display of 3-barrels. The first barrel is raw white oak. The other two have been exposed to a brief hot flame that chars or "toasts" the inside. Note that the two charred barrels have been exposed to different levels of internal charring. Different whiskey is aged in each of these barrels with each creating a distinctive whiskey.
Several things contribute to a whiskey's maturity. Age is just one of them. Mellowing whiskey drop by drop in charcoal gives it a head start before it goes into the barrel. The quality of the wood used in constructing the barrels also plays a part as does the place the barrel rests in the barrelhouse. According to our docent barrels stored in the upper levels of the barrel house reach higher temperatures in the summer thus forcing the whiskey to permeate the white oak in the barrels. That is why they rely on taste rather than date to determine when the whiskey is ready.
After the tour we disconnected our Saturn and headed to the town of Lynchburg to browse through the knickknack shops. That didn't take long. We reattached the Saturn and continued on our way.
Until next time remember how good life is.
Mike & Joyce Hendrix
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Until next time remember how good life is.