Jack Daniel’s Distillery – Adventures During Covid

When I started my recent road trip I had no plans to do touristy things. Partly because I didn’t expect any to be open and partly because I didn’t know if I would feel safe doing them. There have been some pleasant surprises along the way that have allowed me to get out and do some things while feeling safe. The first thing I found was the Jack Daniel’s distillery in Lynchburg Tennessee.

I didn’t really plan to go to the distillery.  The night before I passed it, I had stayed in a Cracker Barrel parking lot and got an early start heading to my stay in Kentucky.  I had plenty of time before I could check in, so when I saw the sign on the highway I figured I would just drive and see the place, not expecting them to be open to the public. When I got there it looked like they were open but there weren’t a lot of cars, so I decided to at least go to welcome center to say I had been. I was greeted by a partitioned line along the sidewalk and a man stopping everyone to tell them their Covid protocols and conditions for entering the property. This included wearing a mask, including during outdoor tours, having your temperature taken before entering the welcome center and being required to wear a sticker to confirm you had done this at all times on the property. They were only conducting tours of the grounds and mostly outdoor areas and strictly adhering to having no more than 10 people in a room at any time, including employees, so you must wait to be allowed to enter the few inside places that were open. The tours were limited to 9 people, so with the tour guide there would only be 10 people in a room. There would be stickers on the floor at any place you would be waiting and you must stand on the stickers and use the hand sanitizer provided before entering any building. With all of those protocols and the fact they clearly had a no tolerance policy for not following them I felt good about doing a tour.

When I say they had a no tolerance policy for not following the rules, let me explain what I mean because I truly believe they are a great example of how businesses need to conduct themselves during Covid to keep everyone safe. They did not yell at anyone or threaten them or make a drama out of being required by the government. In fact their presentation of what was required was very careful to leave out all politics or opinions on what was required. The man at the door and the guides just said “We want to have people here. We love guests and we need the work, so this is what’s required for us to be open right now. We need your cooperation for us all to be able to do this. So please follow the rules so we can all have a good day.” Similarly, the tour guide led by example. Any time we went into building, which was really just passing through, there was hand sanitizer at the entrance and exit and he always used it and was like “Ok, ya’ll get some sanitizer when you come by.” One person skipped it in the beginning and he very nicely told him “I need you to use it. I know I’m saying it like a suggestions because we’re all adults, but it’s actually required.” And with that attitude, there were no issues. Yes, there were people who expressed their opinions amongst themselves during the walking on the tour, but they followed all the protocols and did not have to be asked to again. I think this is the best way to go. Leave the emotions out of explaining it and lead by example.

Even if I hadn’t done the tour, the welcome center is worth stopping at. It has a lot of history on the company, education on the distilling process and what makes a Tennessee whiskey, as well as some amazing memorabilia that tells the story of Jack and the town of Lynchburg. If you want to learn more I definitely recommend their website. It has an amazing write up the history as well as their distilling process. https://www.jackdaniels.com/en-us/our-story

If you are not familiar with this part of Tennessee, it is quite hilly and you start your tour “at the top of the hill” of the property. I think partly so the hardest walk is out of the way first, then it’s downhill from there. (Note that this may have just been a Covid route because they did say that their normal tours involve a bus but they couldn’t use them with social distancing guidelines.) By starting this way you start with the first of the things that they pride themselves on doing themselves to maintain control over their processes, making their own charcoal. The pallets are lined up ready to burn under a controlled burner. Of course the fuel to burn them is whiskey.

Next to the place where you intentionally set things on fire, of course you need a fire house. This one is not the one they depend on now, but it’s an original building on the site as well as the antique fire trucks that were once used. Notice they are REO Speed Wagons made exclusively for Jack Daniels with the trademark “7” hood ornament.

Just past the fire station is the most important site on the tour. The natural spring that all Jack Daniels gets it’s start from. It is the original spring Jack began using and located the distillery around. This is one of the ways they ensure their consistency and quality control. Every bottle of Jack Daniels ever bottled was made with water from this spring. It has an ideal mineral balance and temperature that Jack recognized. The day I attended the tour it was quite warm and had been raining on and off. The hazy or blurred look in the picture is the fog coming off the cool water and mixing with the heat and humidity in the air.

The spring is located in a cave on the property and after Jack’s death, one of the master distillers who took his place, put a life sized statue of Jack at it’s entrance to commemorate and mark the historic location. The spring actually runs into a little stream that runs throughout the property.

Right outside the spring is the original headquarter offices. Nothing fancy, just what you needed to conduct business. Due to Covid you could only pass through the outside entry way of the building and could not go into the two offices.

The Still House and Grain Mill could not be toured at the time, but we did get a good explanation of what goes on in each building. Notice the entrance to the Still House was built with a bridge going over the stream, as not to disturb it’s natural path.

We did get one inside tour spot with a video of how their barrels are made, or should I say raised. This is another example of how they ensure their quality by doing things them selves. They employee master barrel raiser to handcraft every barrel used for distilling.

The last stop on the tour was the Barrel House, where the tasting took place. The building was a marvel of barrels with an amazing smell when you entered. Another point to note about their distilling process is that they do not bottle the whiskey based on date. Since the temperature and humidity in the Barrel House can change based on weather patterns and whether the barrel is stored higher up or closer to the ground , they believe the only way to judge whether it’s ready is by taste. They have people who do nothing but taste the barrels to determine when it’s ready to bottle. Yes, I asked, no you can’t get that job. They are still a “family” business at heart and most people who work their are family or close friends of the original group who worked for Jack. Many of the jobs are passed down from generation to generation.

The tasting was another place where they took extreme precautions. They had a table for every person set up that was well over 6 feet apart. There was no sharing tables, even with people you came with. If you were tasting you sat alone, well away from everyone else.

As for the actual tasting, I may be a Jack Daniels convert. To be honest, I don’t know that I had ever drank Jack straight, only with coke, which is the “classic” way. I had also never tried the honey or fire flavored liquors. The Rye was ok, but the others were exceptional. They are all very smooth and high quality enough to drink straight, which I honestly only associated with scotches and bourbons. What I like about the Fire is that it does not burn when you drink it. I was leery of trying it because my experience with cinnamon liquors was like drinking fire, that burned all the way down, and consequently back up as acid reflux. Theirs does not burn, it just tastes like cinnamon, or as the tour guide pointed out, it tastes like Christmas.

Overall I’m very glad I made this little detour and I recommend that you check it out too. Now, for the abbreviated tour, or in the future when they can resume regular tours.

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