This spring I toured eight American whisky distilleries, including Jack Daniel's.
As you'd expect, Jack Daniel's is a huge operation with a very slick tour. You start with a video at the visitors' center, then take a shuttle up to the top of the hill. There, they burn sugar maple wood into charcoal for the Lincoln County Process, in which newly-distilled spirit is filtered through charcaol before barrel aging. They weren't burning wood on the day I visited, so no bonfire for me.
Then we visited the cave spring where they get the water to ferment the grains before distilling, and then into Jack's old office. We saw the safe that killed Jack Daniel - he kicked it out of frustration one day and the injury caught gangrene and it eventually killed him.
The mashbill for Jack Daniel's is 80% corn, 8% rye, and 12% malted barley. The corn is #1 yellow corn. They say with a higher corn amount, you need a higher malted barley amount to help ferment it. They have 56 fermentation vats on-site that hold 40,000 gallons apiece. Fermentation lasts for 6 days - quite a long time. It reaches 11-12 percent alcohol after fermentation.
There are four distillation columns, all made of copper, and needing to be replaced every 9 or 10 years. (The whisky is only distilled in one of them, not all four. They just have four because they make so much whiskey.) Unlike most bourbon, there is no second distillation in a "thumper" or "doubler." They distill the whisky up to 140 proof (160 is the legal limit).
Then the whiskey goes through the Lincoln County Process. There are 72 vats, each filled with a ten foot layer of sugar maple charcoal. The whiskey is sprayed on the top of the vats and it slowly drips down through the charcoal, taking about 4-6 days to get all the way through. The charcoal in each vat is replaced every 4-5 months.
This is in contrast to George Dickel, the other major Tennessee whiskey, where they fill the vats up with charcoal and spirit, let it sit a week, and then drain the whole thing.
They say the charcoal filtering removes 80 percent of hte oils and impurities from the distillate. Gentleman Jack is filtered through charcoal a second time at bottling, through a thinner layer of charcoal.
The whiskey is aged in their 81 warehouses spread throughout the region. Barrels are "quarter-sawn American oak" with a #4 char. It takes one 60 year-old tree to make one barrel. On the plus side, there is extra wood left over from the tree for other things, and many barrels are reused after aging American whiskey to age other spirits for more than 60 years apiece.
The barrels are first toasted and then charred at their own cooperage, the Brown-Forman Cooperage.
Last year they sold 10.23 million cases of Jack.
Master Distiller Jeff Arnett describes the taste of Jack as "Sweet and oakey," as opposed to the "bold and spicy" of other American whiskies. We tasted Jack before it goes through the Lincoln County Process - it was noticeably oilier and grainier than it is afterward. Arnett says that the Lincoln County Process "removes the bitterness associated with the grain bill."
The Jack Daniel's Single Barrel bottlings always come from the top (hottest, most wood-influenced) floors of the rickhouse, while the Green Label comes from the ground floor.
Visiting Jack Daniel's
Contrary to popular belief, there are some tours where you're allowed to taste whiskey at Jack Daniel's. Those cost $10.
Though they don't really sell whiskey at the gift shop, they do sell "commemorative bottles" full of whiskey.
Visitor information is on the website here.