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All photos courtesy Jack Daniel’s

Unless you’ve lived underwater your entire life, the chance is good that you’ve either heard of, tasted, had a long night with, or lived through a tough morning of regret thanks to a bottle of Jack Daniel’s.

The ubiquitous liquid is so flooded into our worldwide bloodstream of Big Time Brands (it’s currently available in 170 countries, makes $3 billion a year in revenue, and is in its first year as an official marketing partner with the National Basketball Association), that it’s hard to imagine an era when it wasn’t around.

But there was a time, not too long ago really, when Jack Daniel’s wasn’t much more than an obscure potion known mainly to those living within Lynchburg city limits. A time when a bottle gathering dust somewhere on a New York City bar shelf was all but waiting to be sipped for the first time by a young Frank Sinatra.

WHAT IS A “TENNESSEE” WHISKEY?

Back home in present-day Lynchburg, Tennessee, the Jack Daniel’s process is still a single-site operation, and they throw around the phrase “every drop made here,” quite often: it’s a source of pride for both the company and the city of Lynchburg. Everything but the bottles and the barrels is indeed made on the 10-acre distillery site nestled in the hills at the center of town.

It all started with a little guy and a big mustache: Jasper “Jack” Newton Daniel, ever a high achiever, ran away from home before he was 10 years old—his mother died when he was an infant, possibly due to complications related to his birth, and he never really took to his father’s new wife, nor she to him.

As a result, Daniel was a sort of self-made man, a sprightly fellow a little over 5 feet tall and with size 4 shoe, which made for some compensation on his part: His was the first car in Lynchburg, and he loved music so much that he opened two bars across the street from each other in a town that only supported about 300 people. And he learned early on how to distill whiskey the Tennessee way from the black slave of a local farmer.

Before we get to all that, first, some generic whiskey 101. Jack Daniel’s is a “Tennessee whiskey,” spelled with a total of five Es. Now some whisk(e) y drinkers will have you spell without that E, and there are just as many who seem like their lives depend on keeping the E. But the truth is, there really is no method here. Some American whiskey makers just choose to spell whiskey with an E and some don’t. Maker’s Mark, for example—a bourbon—forgoes the E. Some advertisements from the 1800s call it “whiskey” and “whisky” in the same breath and Congress has had a history of spelling it both ways in the same paragraph.

But for actual legal rules (among others), to legally call yourself a bourbon, you must be made in the United States, your mash bill—the recipe of your grains—must contain at least 51 percent corn, and you have to be aged in brand-new containers made out of oak.

And to call yourself a Tennessee whiskey, now that takes some doing. Chris Fletcher, the assistant master distiller at Jack Daniel’s, explains that you need to meet all of the bourbon requirements, with the additional step of adding charcoal to the mix in what’s called the Lincoln County Process (LCP).

While nobody is certain about who invented the process, or why—one theory is that it was invented as a quality control step—Nearest Green (the previously mentioned farmer’s slave who befriended and mentored a young Jack Daniel and later became the distillery’s first head distiller) bestowed this method to Daniel in the mid-1800s. The LCP is primarily what distinguishes a bonafide “bourbon” from an honest-to-goodness “Tennessee whiskey,” and Tennessee distillers and drinkers both take pride in its existence.

Jack Daniel’s uses a proprietary method of slow-dripping its whiskey via gravity down through a 10-foot column filled with little charcoal pieces, whereas George Dickel (probably the only other Tennessee whiskey brand familiar to anybody outside of the state) lets its whiskey sit in a vat of the charcoal for about a week while the charcoal does its thing.

And what thing is that, you ask? Charcoal acts as a stripper of sorts to the unaged whiskey, Fletcher explains. “The charcoal doesn’t add to the whiskey—it takes, and it’s very selective about what it takes. It doesn’t take the sweet notes; it takes (or neutralizes) the bitter components.”

It’s a mellowing step, in other words, that lends a smoother flavor to the final product. Fletcher also believes that mellowing the whiskey through 10 feet of charcoal “cleans the whiskey up so it can absorb more of the barrel. […] The whiskey goes in clear, 140-proof bourbon, trickles down through charcoal that has been all ground up, and comes out clear, 140-proof Tennessee whiskey.”

But charcoal isn’t the only thing that affects the whiskey’s flavor. Here are but a few: the mash bill, the grains, the way it’s filtered, the quality and pH balance of the water that goes into making the whiskey, the climate of the area and the fluctuating temperature within the warehouse throughout the seasons, whether the warehouses are situated atop hillsides or in ravines, whether the finished whiskey is blended with any other whiskeys—all of this can affect the way a single bottle of whiskey tastes. But there are two things that affect the taste more than any other factors: the yeast the distillers use in the fermentation of the grains, and the barrel the whiskey sits in while it ages—“Four-to-seven years is a good window for us,” explains Jeff Arnett, the master distiller at Jack Daniel’s. “Anything longer than that and it becomes like over-brewing tea. It’s too dark, too bitter.”

On a tour of the distillery, Fletcher likes to tell a story: “We had a group of bartenders from Los Angeles come in just last week,” he says, with half a grin. “I told them everything: our mash bill is 80 percent corn, 12 percent malted barley, and 8 percent rye. Why? We have no secrets. Master distillers with ‘secret proprietary mashbills’? That’s laughable. You don’t have our water. You don’t have our barrels. Now you know our mash bill is 8 percent rye. Great. Now go try and make Jack Daniel’s whiskey.”

Arnett will tell you they actually do protect one recipe, that of the yeast: “It’s our ‘Coke secret,’ if you want to call it that. […] Yeast is the primary driver of our character.” Arnett’s team includes a full-time microbiologist who’s job is to monitor the growth and maintain a steady supply of yeast for their sour-mash process.

And they are using that “Coke secret” to stay competitive in an ever-growing and -changing whiskey industry: To compete with Fireball whiskey in the flavored whiskey market, for example, Arnett oversaw the development of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Fire whiskey in 2015, a 70-proof whiskey made with a Ceylon cinnamon liqueur, and last year (to fuel consumers’ growing interest in rye whiskey) he launched Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel Rye, the first new mash-bill from the Jack Daniel’s distillery since Prohibition.

And for those who want an entire barrel of Jack just for themselves, the distillery offers a Single Barrel Personal Collection program that allows you to visit the distillery, taste from a choice selection of their best barrels, and have it sent to you in bottles (sorry—you can’t legally take the barrel of whiskey home with you). Prices for this treatment start at $10,000 and have attracted liquor stores, steakhouses, Ritz-Carlton hotels, and very fortunate individuals. There’s a Jack for everybody. jackdaniels.com