You've seen the ads. They show a couple of good ole boys standing next to a bunch of barrels or in a cavernous room full of fermentation vats, swapping tales about the secrets of good whisky. These are the men who make Jack Daniel's -- or at least help sell it -- and their rustic approach has helped "Jack" through some perilous times.
In recent years, hard-liquor sales have plummeted, but Jack Daniel's has managed to maintain its sales and even pick up a percentage point or two, if the management is to be believed -- which can be a bit of a problem. That is not to say that the good ole boys would commit a falsehood -- it's just that getting solid information about Jack isn't always easy.
"They never tell me anything," says Roger Brashears, manager of promotions in Lynchburg, Tenn., where Jack Daniel's is made. Brashears has worked for the company for 25 years and probably knows as much about the management of the distillery and the pushing of the product as any man, woman or dog alive. His office in one of the old corrugated iron barrelhouses is lined with old bottles of Jack, and his two desks -- one a genuine roll-top -- support truly awesome piles of correspondence.
Asked how much Jack Daniel's is sold a year, Brashears scratches his head and drawls, "I don't really know. Somebody said about 3.6 million cases."
That is a lot of whisky. Jack Daniel's comes in two versions -- the black label and the green. I'll get to them, but first a word about the promotion of Jack Daniel's -- an exceedingly important part of the business.
Billboards on the highways around south-central Tennessee beckon the faithful to Lynchburg to tour the Jack Daniel's facility, and the parking lot was full the day I arrived -- despite the 100-degree temperature with humidity to match. Tourists gathered in the big hall downstairs from Brashears' office, where they were given poker chips of different colors, according to the time of their tour, and then shown around by one of several twangy-voiced men who explained the hallowed difference between Jack and plain ole bourbon.
Brashears lives on the property, less than 100 yards from his office, but he still drives his pickup to work every morning. "You can't keep a shine on your cowboy boots, walking through all that grass." Asked how much the company spends on promotion a year, he says, "Again, I'm guessing. Somebody said about $1 million."
Folksiness is as much a part of Jack Daniel's as its taste -- slightly sweet, powerfully aromatic, uncommonly smooth. Bourbon, supposedly invented by the Rev. Elijah Craig of Bourbon County, Ky., at the end of the 18th century, is by tradition a strong whisky made from fermented corn. But the tour guides are quick to point out that Jack Daniel's is not strictly a bourbon, but a "Tennessee whisky," a fine but real distinction. Tennessee whisky, a legal designation that appears on the label, means that it has been filtered through maple charcoal, a process that takes out some of the impurities and lends it the smoothness. The tour guides like to fan the lids on the charcoal vats and bring tears to the eyes of the tourists.
Jack Daniel's is aged in oak barrels that have been charred on the inside to make the wood less permeable, thereby cutting down on the rate of evaporation. The whisky remains in the barrels for about four years. Black label Jack Daniel's -- the more expensive version -- emerges at about 90 proof and is slightly more concentrated than the green label. The latter is only 80 proof and not quite as sweet. I prefer it, and like to think of green label as Tennessee's answer to physical fitness and low alcohol trends.
Water is important to good bourbon. The water used in Jack Daniel's emerges from a cave on the company property and flows past a statue of the founder, Jack Daniel -- a lifelong bachelor who, according to my tour guide, stood only 5-foot-2 and wore a Size 4 shoe. He died in 1911, 45 years after founding the distillery, from complications arising from a foot injury -- apparently received when he kicked the company safe in a fit of rage. The offending object has been carefully preserved.
There are also plenty of family pictures for tourists to look at, but in fact, Daniel's family has had nothing to do with the distillery for years. Although the literature doesn't mention this, Jack Daniel's is owned by the gigantic Brown Foreman Co., of Louisville, owners also of Canadian Mist and Southern Comfort. The aura of familial concern at the Lynchburg distillery is evidently something the corporation has taken pains not to disturb.
As Brashears puts it, in good Tennessee style, "They know better than to kick a pulling mule." ::