I have been known to imbibe in the alcoholic spirits on a pretty frequent basis. For a while, I was into wine. Red. Not white. Then, one day before I met my friends Kelly and Stevey at a reading at a local bar I googled, ‘What is a sophisticated drink?’ The result? Gin and tonic. So that was my go-to drink order for a few months until I reacted to the quinine in the drink. (I am apparently very sensitive to anti-malaria medication, but I’d like to think I’ll never have malaria based off how much tonic I consumed for bit.) So, I switched it up. We bought a kegerator with 4 taps, one of which was nitro, and enlisted our buddy, Ian, to brew us some fun ales. If it’s a cold day, I love a dark stout from a nitro pour. On a warm day, give me anything blond or light with a citrus twist… except for grapefruit because that’s gross. We meddled with concoctions of whiskey sours (seriously, I can make a better egg-white foamy whiskey sour than most bartenders) and Moscow mules, played around with a mulled wine (gross) and infused vodkas with berry compotes, sipped on bellinis and mojitos, squeezed too many limes with my friend Risa for fancy margaritas. But the one constant in my drinking career is sipping whiskey.
Now, don’t get your panties in a bunch about this next story. If you want, you can pretend it’s not even true. (But it is.) My dad and I would sit out on the porch some nights when I was about 14 and drink whiskey on the rocks together. I would have just one, a couple ounces, because, you know, I was 14. We’d just hang out, watching the birds, petting our black lab, Sage, looking at the garden. It’s one of those memories I have that makes me think we did it often – but I’m also fairly sure we only sat outside together sipping on whiskey a handful of times when I was in Junior high.
Now, when I go home to Bend, Jeremiah and my dad and I all sip on a whiskey – my mom would probably rather barf than taste it. Over the years the level of whiskey in my parent’s house has evolved. I faintly recall even spying some wild turkey in our liquor cabinet as a kid, but more frequently see Blantons in my parents piano-bar now.(They took apart our old piano and made it a bar. Literally.) But the staple has always been Jack Daniels: the Lynchburg, Tennessee distilled spirit.
So, when we realized that Lyncburg Teneesee was just a little off the beaten path between Chattanooga and Nashville, we had to make a pitstop.
And we’re so glad we did. That black label liquor still sits on a pedestal for me, even after all it’s trade secrets were divulged by our tour guide, Ron.
It so happened that we rolled into Lynchburg on Father’s Day this year – so I texted my dad that I’d call him in the afternoon, but that I was doing something to commemorate him in the meantime.
A hot afternoon
When we got there, the visitor center was packed. In 85 degree weather, I thought people would be relaxing inside, but the large porch was covered with people rocking back and forth in the humid afternoon. (I should clarify they were in rocking chairs.) We escaped to the cool indoors, bought tickets for a tour starting in about thirty minutes, and were warned that ¾ of the tour was outside.
We meandered between the old bottles and condensed explanation of how Jack Daniel learned to distill whiskey, his strange affiliation for a 3 piece suit every day of his life after his 21st birthday, and some of the aspects that set Jack Daniel’s sipping whiskey apart from some of the other whiskeys.
Daniel learned how to distill whiskey from an enslaved man – yep. Southern history is tentative to disclose this, but the visitor center and tour was were open about this fact. Nearis Green, an enslaved man by a neighbor preacher, taught Jack the ins-and-outs of distilling a good whiskey before Jack was much more than 14 years old. Maybe that’s why I have an affinity for the whiskey: we were both sipping it when we were youngsters. To this day, family members of the man who taught Jack what he knows continue to work at the distillery – seven generations later!
Our tour guide, a fat man in overalls with a beard to be coveted, poured through stories and facts as we walked. We walked through a tour of places: where the sugar maple charcoal is created for the whiskey to drop through-called Mellowing, to where the water is used to this day – a natural spring, to the office of Daniel where he happened to kick a safe, break his toe, and eventually allow gangrene to set in which he died from later on.
We spent time in the distillery itself which was hot from a recent cleaning, and watched as corn mash bubbled. If you’re curious what mash smells like, just imagine a bakery on steroids. Stand too close to this bubbling mash and there’s a chance of fainting, especially when the yeast is active – there’s just so much carbon dioxide from it! From there, we watched as drop-by-drop the whiskey dripped through the sugar maple charcoal, and walked through the first barrel house that had been constructed after prohibition was repealed.
It’s a petite three stories compared to the 92 other barrel houses that are seven stories high. When whiskey barrels are rolled into these barrel houses, the doors are locked, and aren’t opened again for four years. Here, there’s no heating or cooling; whiskey expands and contracts with fluctuating temperatures, forcing the liquid into the surrounding charred barrels. The barrels themselves are also made by the Jack Daniel’s company, and they sell the empty ones to consumers like me, as well as the Tabasco company, and about a million other places. (If you’re a dark rum drinker, you likely are having it from a Jack Daniel’s barrel.)
A taste of sipping whiskey
Finally, we ended up at a tasting room, where 5 little cups sat in front of us, and between yelling “Cheers” and “Whiskey” whenever prompted by our tour guide, we learned some of the basics of color and flavors. The room itself was gorgeous. Our group was flanked on all sides by stacked barrels, and the thick beams and concrete floor made for an inviting rustic feel. As Jeremiah put it, it was “The most beautiful room,” he had ever been in. The golden whiskey in the cups was the final touch to a wonderful experience.
On the rocks
We each received a free glass with our Jack Daniel’s tour. Next time we’re sitting around the table with my dad (or potentially in Yellowstone in September) we’ll raise these glasses, 3 fingers of Jack, and toast to the memories of all the times we’ve had a glass of whiskey.
Earlier this month
I should probably mention now that we tried “moonshine” or rot gut, as I will now refer to it, in Gatlingburg about 2 weeks ago, and tasted some good ole bourbon in Chattanooga, both of which were super fun and informative. The Chattanooga Whiskey Company is one of the major players that were able to change whiskey distilling laws in Tennessee less than a decade ago. After prohibition, only five counties in Tennessee were able to legally distill whiskey – so when the law was changed, there was an influx in Tennessee distilling companies. And, contrary to popular belief, bourbon doesn’t have to be made in Kentucky – not since the 60’s, anyway.
Moonshine is the simplest of whiskeys. Known as white lightening, white dog, Shine, and a handful of other names, the clear liquid cuts out all the aging process that a typical whiskey undergoes, and jumps right over the barrelling process to be poured into jars and sold. The cost is substantially less for a few reasons, but the main reason being that there just isn’t the wait that is associated with a typical whiskey. When it’s distilled, it’s done! It also tastes pretty much like liquid corn that was poured out of a copper still. If you like corn without salt or butter, rot gut is for you.
Is Kentucky in our future?
So, will we be making our way through a Kentucky whiskey tour any time soon? I think I’ll have to wait a bit; I don’t want to mingle the memories of this tour and what it means to me with other places just quite yet.
Tips and Notes: Go in the morning when it’s cooler if you’re visiting. Also, nothing goes to waste after it’s used at the distillery from the used charcoal, to the spent grains, to the old barrels. Everything gets reused in another form.