Q&A with Jeff Arnett, Master Distiller at Jack Daniel’s (Tennessee, United States)

Jeff Arnett - Jack Daniel's Master Distiller

Bottles of Jack Daniel’s feature heavily among the whiskies I have reached for most and polished off with ease, my most memorable “bottle kills”. The “Jack Daniel’s” logo has the ability to make me salivate and crave a big ole rack of ribs in an instant, and whenever the pressure is on to quickly choose a whisk(e)y (because the other half is waiting to watch a movie), my default option is usually to grab a bottle of JD and then snuggle up on the couch with a glass and our chihuahua. Apparently Frank Sinatra called Jack Daniel’s “the nectar of the gods”, and I tend to agree.

A litre bottle of Jack Daniel’s Sinatra Select, which was gifted to me by my soon-to-be wife on her return from a trip to New York, is long gone. I have made my way through bottle after bottle of Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel Select, and each of these bottles has been subtly different (but just as tasty) as the last. Then there is the old vintage bottle of Jack Daniel’s Old No 7 which I luckily found one day while I was cleaning out my Dad’s garage. Not prepared to go through life wondering what Jack Daniel’s tasted like around the time I was growing up, I cracked open that bottle and savoured the taste of that classic Old No 7 which was bottled when wide lapels and fat ties were still in vogue. It was great to compare that JD with the JD of today. I’ve even drank Jack Daniel’s Old No 7 after eating the taste bud tricking “miracle fruit” from a farm in the most northern parts of Australia in tropical far north Queensland – an experience I found pretty mind bending, and which you can read more about here: Jack Daniel’s and The Miracle Fruit

Jack Daniel’s produce Tennessee whiskey. You might be forgiven for thinking this is “just another bourbon”, but it isn’t. Like most bourbon, the Jack Daniel’s grain bill is made up of corn, barley and rye (the mix of grains used by Jack Daniel’s, though, is carefully measured at 80% corn, 12% barley and 8% rye). Like all bourbon, Jack Daniel’s distillate (that un-aged clear spirit directly from the still some call “white dog”) is aged in new charred oak barrels (the oak barrels then interact with the distillate, which over time develops colour, aroma and flavour that transform it into aged whiskey). That’s why in JD you might taste vanilla, charring, wood smoke, caramel, etc.  These flavours are thought to come from the wood, and they are very “bourbony”.

Unlike most bourbon, however, the liquid that becomes Jack Daniel’s is filtered in a special way. In a process that lasts 3-5 days, Jack Daniel’s filter their clear un-aged distillate drop by drop through 10 feet of hard sugar maple charcoal. This is known as the “Lincoln County Process”. By following this additional process when they make whiskey, Jack Daniel’s make Tennessee whiskey (not bourbon). While the process wasn’t started by Jack Daniel’s, but instead inherited from moonshiners and distillers, it makes a whiskey distinctly Tennessean.

I’ve wondered how the Jack Daniel’s distillate tastes before and after the “Lincoln County Process”, and what makes Jack Daniel’s one of my drinks of choice. To help put an end to my wondering, the Jack Daniel’s Master Distiller, Jeff Arnett, has kindly agreed to a Q&A with maltmileage.com.

Since it began producing Tennessee whiskey in 1866, Jack Daniel’s has only had six master distillers before Jeff Arnett became the seventh Master Distiller at Jack Daniel’s in 2008 (the first, of course, was the famous Jasper Newton “Jack” Daniel, the distillery’s founder).

As a huge Jack Daniel’s fan, it is a great privilege to be able to publish the below Q&A with Jack Daniel’s Master Distiller, Jeff Arnett.

Cheers!

1. Why did you become a distiller? Was this always what you wanted to do? How did you get a job as a distiller at Jack Daniel’s?

JA: Working at the distillery wasn’t my original career plan.  I studied engineering in college preparing to work in the automotive field.  I graduated from college at a terrible time in the automotive industry, so my first job after college was working as a production manager in a coffee plant in New Orleans.  I was educated in the sensory sciences while working in the coffee business; learning how to evaluate the characteristics of flavor, body, acidity in varying coffee beans.  I also worked in a juice drink plant and salted snacks plant before coming to work at the distillery.  I was a fan of Jack Daniel’s and was a member of the Tennessee Squires Association, a word of mouth fan club for Jack Daniel’s that has existed since the 1950’s.  I started working at the distillery in Lynchburg as the quality control manager in 2001.  I spent seven years working under the previous master distiller, and then was honored to be selected as his replacement when he retired in 2008.

2. What makes Jack Daniel’s “Jack Daniel’s” – is there a certain character you aim to achieve in your whiskey?

JA: There is no one thing that defines Jack Daniel’s as I think a whiskey will always be the sum of its parts and every piece and part of the process will matter.  For Jack Daniel’s, our unique character can be contributed to at least five things; 1. the Cave Spring water that is used to produce every drop of our whiskey, 2. a unique grain bill that is very low in rye as compared to most bourbon style whiskies, 3. a proprietary yeast culture that is only used to make Jack Daniel’s, 4. charcoal mellowing our new distillate through ten feet of hard sugar maple charcoal, and finally 5. being matured to taste in a new toasted and charred oak barrel that we have made for ourselves.  This results in a Tennessee Whiskey that ranges from sweet vanilla to toasted oak in character and that is distinctly “Jack Daniel’s”.

3. The Jack Daniel’s mash bill is 80% corn, 12% barley and 8% rye. What character does this composition of grain give whiskey and why do you stick with this mash bill?

JA: The Old No. 7 grain bill has been around a long time and was particularly unique for the era of time that it was introduced, largely due to its low rye content when rye whiskies were more the standard for American whiskey.  Being 80% corn on our grain bill contributes to Jack’s sweet notes, 12% malted barley provides for natural starch conversion and adds a light cereal character, and finally the 8% rye gives Jack a slight spice to balance the sweetness of the corn.  Even after 150 years, I believe the character of Jack Daniel’s is still as unique among whiskies as it was when it was first introduced.

4. How would you describe Jack Daniel’s distillate character? Before it goes into oak, what does the new make smell and taste like?

JA: Right after distillation, the new make spirit has a grainy aroma and a flavor dominated by corn.  The mouth feel is slightly oily.  It tends to cling to the palate and its flavors linger well after you swallow it.  After charcoal mellowing and before barreling, the distillate is sweet and clean on the palate.  Its oily mouth feel is greatly reduced by the mellowing process.  Charcoal mellowing acts like a sponge to absorb fatty acids and bitter flavors and therefore “sweetens” the distillate as it travels through the ten feet of hard sugar maple.

5. Your website says: ‘rather than double or triple-distillation, we vaporize and condense our whiskey only once’. How does this work? 

JA: All of our distillation columns are equipped with doublers, so although we make a single pass through our distillation system, the spirit will vaporize and condense twice as it travels through.  This type of distillation system design gives us excellent control of the distillate’s proof (ABV), and results in a very consistent product character over time.

6. The Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel Rye is your first new grain bill in 150 years. Why has this taken so long and what was the inspiration?

JA: Jack Daniel’s spent many years on allocation, meaning we couldn’t make enough of our Old No. 7 grain bill for almost 25 years.  As our capacity has caught up with demand, it has afforded us the opportunity to explore new whiskies and new grain bills.  We were interested in making a rye whiskey that would be different than those already in the market.  By choosing a 70 percent rye content and applying a charcoal mellowing process to the distillate, we feel that we have succeeded in doing so.  Even though our rye whiskey is less sweet and more spicy in character than the original Old No 7 grain bill, there is still something familiar about its flavor that tells you it is a Jack Daniel’s Whiskey.

7. What occurs in a typical day for a Master Distiller at Jack Daniel’s?

JA: One of the things I love about my job is that there is no “typical day”.  I spend 80% of my time in Lynchburg where I oversee all of the Jack Daniel’s whiskey making process, insuring the quality and consistency that our friends have come to expect from us.  In addition to this, I will travel the globe 50-60 days a year to meet with fans of Jack Daniel’s in their home market.  I’ve been able to visit 35 countries in the last nine years, and I hope to be able to visit many more countries that enjoy Jack Daniel’s before I retire. 

Thank you Jeff Arnett for taking the time to answer my questions. 

 

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