Don’t get me wrong — Jack Daniel’s is a very impressive company. Its sales growth over the past 40 years is mind-boggling. During the 1970 and 1980s, most American whiskeys saw their sales drop. They laid off workers and cut back on capital upgrades.
But not company the Jasper Newton Daniel started 150 years ago. It went gangbusters, helped in no small part by celebrities like Frank Sinatra and Michael Anthony of Van Halen, who guzzled it on stage. (Anthony even had an Old No. 7 electric guitar made.)
And Daniel’s did itself a great favor by taking a rather fanatical attitude toward execution. If they were going to make a bazillions cases a year, they were going to keep quality high. It presently keeps three full timers on the payroll to do nothing more than burn wood into charcoal, which is used to filter the whiskey after it comes off the still. It continues to use a copper still, and gets its barrels from its parent company, Brown-Forman, and nobody else. A Jack Daniel’s microbiologist cultures the yeast it uses by the thousands of gallons, and the lactobacillus for its sour mash. To call the Jack Daniel’s distilling crew control freaks is both accurate and a high compliment. No wonder the stuff sells in 160 countries.
I stood alone on the sixth floor of the Marriot Marquis next to the brass keydrop. Travelers from around the world swarmed about me, checking in and out. Outside cold winds howled through Times Square. If ever there was a day to be tasting whiskey…
A week earlier an unbelievable email had popped up on my screen- an invite to have a private tasting with Jimmy Bedford, Master Distiller at Jack Daniel’s. What better way to learn about Jack Daniel’s two super premium whiskeys, Gentleman Jack and Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel Whiskey?
Out of the horde he stepped, the man whose photo I had seen so many times before. A kindly PR fellow, Clay Dye, from Dye Van Mol & Lawrence, introduced us and took us to a quiet area in an adjoining restaurant, where we sat and got the lowdown on Gentleman Jack and Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel Whiskey.
Most of AlcoholReviews.com’s readers are likely familiar with Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7 Black Labeled Whiskey. Our readers are also likely aware of the difference between Tennessee whiskey, which Jack Daniel’s is, and Bourbon. In terms of the production process, whereas Bourbon is distilled and then sent to barrel to age, Tennessee whiskey is distilled then filtered, then aged in barrels. In the case of Old No. 7, the whiskey is run through 10 feet of charcoal made from hard sugar maple before being aged in charred white oak barrels, which are, Mr. Bedford noted, used just once.
Mr. Bedford impressed the difference between Bourbon and Tennessee whiskey on me by allowing me to sample raw spirit just after distillation (call it proto-Bourbon), and raw spirit that had been charcoal mellowed (call it proto-Tennessee whiskey). The difference was obvious, what was once fine white lightning was now much softer.
Gentleman Jack (80 proof) takes the Jack Daniel’s formula for Tennessee whiskey and incorporates and extra step- a second charcoal mellowing AFTER it has been aged. The result? Well, Old No. 7 is fair copper and has a fireball candy spiciness on the tongue, along with a nutty taste. Gentleman Jack is much smoother, much softer, exhibiting more barrel and charcoal flavors, along with faint currant and hazelnut notes. It’s quite good. (Rating****)
Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel is an intriguing product. Unlike Old No. 7 or Gentleman Jack, each bottle of Single Barrel comes from (you got it) a single barrel, chosen by Mr. Bedford for its excellence. So that makes the whiskey in a bottle of Old No. 7 or Gentleman Jack a blends? “No,” Mr. Bedford rightly noted, “They are intermingled whiskeys. Blends usually are whiskeys that are made from the products of many distilleries. We don’t do that. Our No. 7 and Gentleman Jack are made only from Jack Daniel’s whiskeys, intermingled to create a consistent taste and quality.”
The Single Barrel (94 proof) that I sampled was much darker than the other JD whiskeys. Six to seven year in the barrel left it a deep copper-red color. In the mouth it was much more intense, and far fuller in flavor. The grain, caramel, vanilla and charcoal flavors were wonderfully balanced, and it was clearly the best of the the three. Bedford’s thirty-some years at Jack Daniel’s was born out by the quality of this whiskey. (Rating ****)
Before our time together ended, Mr. Bedford mentioned that in addition to buying bottles of JD Single Barrel, folks could also purchase a whole barrel. For about $8500 you could stop by JD’s Distillery, and go into their storehouse to pick a barrel. The barrel would then be drained into about 240 fifth bottles, and shipped to you along with a customized sticker and a brass plaque and framed certificate of ownership. When I asked how many folks took advantage of this opportunity, Bedford smiled. “Well, so far we’ve sold about 600 barrels. We’ve even had some repeat customers.”
Ignore the gibberish about “secret ingredients,” and the business about filtration getting rid of “impurities” is a bit cockamamie, for it is impurities that make alcohol taste like something. (I.e., if you filter away all the impurities you end up with tasteless, odorless pure alcohol.) One one thing you do not see is the aging of the whiskey, which produces much of a whiskey’s flavor.
The August 10, 2009 copy of the New York Times reported the death of Jimmy Bedford at age 69.
Some years back, I met Mr. Bedford for an interview at the Marriot Marquis Hotel in Manhattan. He was in town for a whiskey festival, and graciously gave this then young spirits writer a half hour of his time.
Bedford was the sixth master distiller at Jack Daniel’s. Like so many other whiskey-makers, he liked to say that his job was to ensure that his product stayed the same. Of course, things cannot stay the same. Equipment gets updated, the fermentables used to make the whiskey evolve, the product changes, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse.
While at the helm, Bedford ramped up production of Jack Daniel’s #7 and offered new whiskeys, such as Gentleman Jack. When he stepped down in 2008, the Lynchberg distillery was booming.
Many moons ago, we put these two Tennessee whiskeys side-by-side for a tasting. Which was best, the global goliath and cultural icon, or the less-well-known brand from Tullahoma?
To see, read the below classic review from the year 2001.
George Dickel No. 12 and Jack Daniels Old No. 7
by F. Sot Fitzgerald
The other night I was in a classy restaurant. Eyeballing their cocktail and liquor list, I laughed. “Look!” I said, leaning nearly into the lap of a woman I had just met, “They screwed up. They have Jack Daniels listed as a Bourbon.” She looked at me confused, and returned to her drink. I slinked back on to my stool and let her be.
Since I couldn’t tell her that all Bourbon is American whiskey but not all American whiskey is Bourbon, I’ll tell you. And if you know this already, well, then, skip ahead. Bourbon is a type of American whiskey. By law Bourbon must be made from 51% corn and it must be aged in new charred white oak barrels. Contrary to what some folks say, Bourbon does not have to be made in Kentucky to be Bourbon (it’s not like Champagne, which must be made in Cham…you get the point).
Jack Daniels and George Dickel are Tennessee whiskies. What makes a whisk(e)y a Tennessee whisk(e)y is filtration, about which more is said below.
Jack Daniels Old No. 7 (86 proof) is made of corn, rye, barley malt and “iron-free” water. It’s filtered (poured) through charcoal before going into barrel. It’s ridiculously popular but is a good whiskey. It tastes of caramel, some vanilla on nose, and charred wood close.
George Dickel No. 12, though less likely to appeal to whisky (note the “e”-less Scottish spelling of Whisky that Dickel uses) novices, is superior to Jack Daniels Old No. 7. It’s distilled from corn, barley and rye, and as they note, it has “no preservatives, dyes, or strange ingredients you can’t pronounce.” It is double distilled then charcoal filtered through sugar maple before being “chill-mellowed” for 7-10 days.
What’s chill mellowing? I’ll let the folks at Dickel speak for themselves:
“Somewhere along the way, George discovered that the batches of whisky he tasted during the winter months were noticeably smoother than the ones from warmer seasons. George learned that the chilled whisky became more viscous (thick), so it filtered more cleanly. This produced an extraordinarily smooth-bodied whisky. He called the process chill-mellowing.”
Then it’s plopped into charred American white oak barrels and aged for no less than 8 years.