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Turning Water Into Whiskey at Jack Daniel's

By Stephen Ornes

In Moore County, Tennessee, water flows from a fissure in a rock. You'd never stumble across it, because the rock is deep underground. From the fissure, the water runs about a mile through an underground channel and joins two other arteries. Now it's really moving. By the time the water from these three tunnels reaches the surface in a cave spring at the end of a shady hollow, it is flowing at a rate of about 800 gallons per minute, with a constant temperature of 56 degrees. And because it has been filtered by limestone and minerals, the water has almost no iron.


That water, some would argue, is made for whiskey. "You can't make good whiskey without good water,"

That water, some would argue, is made for whiskey. "You can't make good whiskey without good water," says Jeff Arnett. He should know. Since 2008, Arnett has been the Master Distiller at the Jack Daniel's distillery in Lynchburg, Tennessee. He's only the seventh person in the company's 144-year history to hold that title.

There's no question that Jack Daniel's is now a global operation. Its Tennessee whiskey populates liquor-store shelves and barroom counters in 135 countries, and half of their total sales are outside the United States. From Iceland to India, Seychelles to Spain, patrons can belly up to a bar and order a taste of Tennessee.

But in Lynchburg, the home of the whiskey-maker's only distillery, Jack Daniel's is nothing if not local. Every dram of Jack Daniel's whiskey, no matter where in the world it is found, begins in the cave spring that is a stone's throw from Lynchburg's town square. But Arnett is quick to point out that water alone doesn't make the whiskey. "The people flavor the whiskey as much as the grains and water do," he says. "Most of our employees are second- or third-generation [workers] who learned whiskey-making from their parents or grandparents."

Historical accounts differ on the exact details of the life of the world's most famous distiller, but most stories go something like this. Jack Daniel learned whiskey-making from Dan Call, a preacher and veteran of the Civil War. Jack's mother died when Jack was a child, and his overworked father died of pneumonia during the Civil War. The Call family agreed to take in the teenage orphan. At the time, Jack was "disillusioned, angry and quite capable of self-destructing at everyone around him," writes Peter Krass in Blood and Whiskey, his biography of Jack Daniel.

The adoption of Jack Daniel by the Calls was serendipitous, at least to whiskey-lovers, as well as to Jack. In addition to preaching, Dan Call was a distiller, and Jack begged to learn how to make whiskey. He took to it quickly. Krass reports: "Jack was in love. He was in love with Dan Call's still, a great companion to an orphaned young man."

Jack Daniel made whiskey, bought the cave spring, set up his own distillery and found a way to sell it to the world. He never moved away from the town of Lynchburg, even though his namesake whiskey shows up in the most remote corners of the world.

Today's Lynchburg is still a small town, nestled in verdant hills 65 miles southeast of Nashville, and home to about 6,000 people. It's also the county seat of Moore County, the smallest county in Tennessee. In the middle of the charming town square sits a 100-year-old courthouse. About half of all distillery employees call Lynchburg home, and Jack Daniel's is probably the largest private employer in town, according to Steve May, a marketing director for the company. "Most communities have a civic center," he says. "Lynchburg has Jack Daniel's."

There is one big surprise about Lynchburg, home to the oldest registered distillery in the country: It's a "dry" town. Visitors to the distillery can learn about Jack Daniel the man, see pictures of him in his trademark wide-brimmed plantation hat, and hear stories about his colorful management style. They can follow the whiskey-making process step by step, from cave spring to charred oak barrel. They can buy merchandise in the gift shop. They can learn about the history of the area, hike in the hills, and sleep at quaint bed and breakfasts.

But they can't take a sip of the local firewater anywhere near the place it's made. Moore County has remained a dry county since before national prohibition, when Tennessee passed laws banning the sale and production of alcohol in 1909 and 1910. Even with the repeal of national prohibition in 1933, Moore County chose to remain dry. In Blood and Whiskey, Krass writes that the old Jack Daniel distillery burned down in 1927, so there was no apparent conflict with Jack Daniel's—because Jack Daniel's wasn't making whiskey. All that changed with Lem Motlow in 1937.

In 1907, several years before he died, Jack Daniel had turned the distillery over to his nephews Lem and Dick Motlow, though Lem bought his brother's shares in 1908. Lem Motlow, who became a state representative in 1933, was successful in getting a bill passed in 1937 allowing the sale of Tennessee-made liquor to other states. The bill was later changed again, allowing the sale of Tennessee-made liquor to dry areas within the state. Motlow then took his case to the people of Moore County, who vehemently opposed the reconstruction of the distillery. Nonetheless, under fire from the local press and religious groups, Motlow convinced a county court to let him rebuild the distillery in 1938. The citizenry was not supportive, but despite strong local disapproval, whiskey-making, but not (legal) whiskey-drinking, resumed in Lynchburg.

In 1956, Motlow's sons sold the company to Brown-Forman, a Louisville-based liquor company that now owns more than 20 different brands, including Southern Comfort, Finlandia vodkas, and Fetzer wines. Although owned by a larger company, Jack Daniel's production is still local, ensuring that the original recipe remains largely unchanged. Master Distiller Jeff Arnett lives about a half mile from the site of the family farm of Jack Daniel. He says Jack Daniel's couldn't be made anywhere but Lynchburg, which he calls a "whiskey-making town."

It's not a hard case to make. Jack Daniel himself never moved away from Lynchburg, even though his namesake whiskey shows up in the most remote corners of the world. Since his death in 1911, generations of whiskey-makers have been making his signature whiskey, always starting with that cave spring. What makes the folks of Lynchburg better whiskey-makers? Maybe there really is something in the water.