You might think that a story involving a 13 year old and a whiskey still in the mountain country would end badly, or at least quickly. The story continues, however and its success has become the stuff of legend. As in any good legend, there are mysteries.
There is no question over what you’ll find in those distinctive bottles marked Old No. 7. Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey is a creation all its own. And while the craft mob may sneer, order a Jack anywhere in the world and you will get the same thing. Most brands can't say that.
Ask the good people who work at the nation’s oldest distillery (and nationally recognized Historical Landmark), and they will tell you that Old No. 7 is definitely not Bourbon. If you aren’t careful, they’ll yell it at you.
The story starts in September 1863, when a Lutheran minister by the name of Call decided making whiskey in gallons didn’t set the right tone for his flock. So the Rev. Call sold his still to a local 13 year-old boy - possibly for his birthday. To modern eyes, giving a whiskey still to a well-armed teenager would be a short-sighted thing to do. As it turns out, young Jack Daniel was no ordinary boy with the capacity for industrial whiskey production.
By 1866 the Jack Daniel Distillery was licensed and located in Lynchburg, Tennessee at the only home it has ever known: a nearby a cave spring where the water flows at 800 gallons a minute at a constant 56 degrees. This was the site that young Daniel first crafted his Old No. 7. Today, a statue of Daniel still stands guard at the mouth of the cave.
Even the No. 7 is a source of mystique. Theories regarding its meaning abound: was this recipe the seventh attempt? Did Daniel’s signature J look like a 7? One popular legend is that he had seven girlfriends at the time he hit upon the famous recipe and wanted to dedicate it to them all. Anything is possible. To this day, in his own style, Daniel is still helping the young and old alike get lucky in love.
It’s more that just lore and mystery that goes into making Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7. The fact is that Tennessee Whiskey is an official classification. Jeff Arnett, only the seventh Master Distiller in the company’s 152 year history, knows the process and the distinction well. They make bourbon according to those laws, in white oak barrels specially constructed, toasted and charred. This caramelizes the wood’s natural sugars which imparts to the whiskey its amber color and flavor. “The process is achieved naturally” Arnett adds, “the color and flavor have to occur on their own.” Then the product goes rouge and is mellowed through ten feet of sugar maple charcoal, which makes spirit into Tennessee Whiskey. “We do bourbon one better.” says Arnett.
While his company continues to give us the famous Old No. 7 recipe, the man himself passed on. In 1911, Daniel made the tragic mistake of going into the office early one day. Unable to remember the combination of his office safe at such an unsociable hour, he got mad and kicked it. Hard. He broke his toe and the subsequent infection that set in killed him.
For the faithful, if you make a pilgrimage to Lynchburg, Tennessee to visit the distillery, you will find Daniel’s grave flanked by two wrought iron chairs. Locals say they were set there for the benefit of the many ladies who had enjoyed the hospitality of the confirmed bachelor.
While a lot has changed in the world since 1911, Old No. 7 has been remarkably resilient, weathering changing tastes and even laws. If you are looking for some irony to go in that cocktail of lore, dedicated process and history, Lynchburg is the seat of Moore County, which has been dry since Prohibition.