"My worst day at Jack Daniel's is still a pretty good day"
Jeff Arnett is the master distiller at Jack Daniel's. That makes him a member of a very exclusive club: since Jack himself launched the famous black-labelled Old No 7 in 1866, there have only been seven master distillers. It also, by our reckoning, means he has one of the best jobs in the world.
The best job in the world?
"It's close," agrees Jeff with a grin. "My worst day at Jack Daniel's is still a pretty good day. When I'm in Lynchburg - which is 80% of the time - the first thing I'll do is turn on the lights in the office, make a pot of coffee, and pull up production reports. My day is 8-10 hours there, but we're 24/7, making whiskey around the clock, so I'm usually interested in what's happened since I left. People are analysing, tasting, making notes on the quality so I'm going to review what has happened, and usually plan my day by that.
"I have to do all the things that anyone who works for a company has to do: meetings, coaching - I train all the tasters - paperwork... Most days my job isn't that different from almost anybody else's."
A long way from Lynchburg
Other days, though, see Jeff travelling the world, talking all things whiskey - particularly in September when, famously, it's 'Mr Jack's' birthday. Later this week he's off to Russia, but right now he's sitting - very appropriately - in the Savoy's famous American Bar, surrounded by bottles, bits of charred barrel and jars of charcoal and grain. It's a long way from Lynchburg, the Tennessee home of Jack Daniel's which, according to Jeff, is exactly as it's portrayed in the adverts.
"People think the black and white ads must be cast and feature movie props, but it's all the natural backdrop, there's never been an actor: the people in the ads are townspeople and employees. It really is what life is like in Lynchburg.
"We're a very small county - we bounce between being the smallest county or the second smallest county in the state - with about 500 residents downtown. The whole county is 5,000, 6,000 people, and we employ about 450, so we are the town."
We give every employee a bottle of whiskey on the first Friday of the month. It's called Good Friday..."
Ironically, for a county pretty much built on Tennessee whiskey, Lynchburg is a 'dry' county. "Yep, restaurants can't serve alcohol," explains Jeff, "And there are no bars! The dry status prohibits liquor by the drink but we can sell full and sealed bottles. It doesn't stop us making it or distributing it. We can do educational tastings as long as we don't accept money.
"And it doesn't prohibit what you can do in your homes. Most people, including myself, have a stocked bar, and we give every employee a bottle of whiskey on the first Friday of the month." Jeff smiles. "It's called Good Friday..."
Whiskey v bourbon
An obvious question to ask Jeff is what constitutes a Tennessee whiskey and how it differs from bourbon.
"According to the law, a whiskey is 'a distilled spirit, produced from grains, distilled under 190 proof and matured in a barrel.' That's all that's true about whiskey and it's a very, very broad statement: there are a lot of things you can do differently and have it still be called a whiskey.
Legally, you can only use brand new barrels when making bourbon and they have to be charred oak".
"For bourbon, you can't just use any grains. It has to be at least 51% corn. It has to be distilled under 160: basically, the lower your distillation proof, the more character - the more flavour - you'll have.
"We distil at 140 proof, and we use 80% corn, so those elements of bourbon are satisfied. The biggest thing about bourbon that really imposes its character is the wood, and legally you can only use brand new barrels and they have to be charred oak."
The mellowing difference
"There are natural sugars in the wood. We caramelise those on the inner surface, then we char it to open those flavours up. The first step brings out the sweet character, the vanilla and butterscotch flavours that are in Jack Daniel's. The charring gives the colour and oak finish.
"As a Tennessee whiskey, we are a narrowly defined form of bourbon, our only difference is the charcoal mellowing."
This is a process of passing every drop of Jack Daniel's through some 10 feet of hard sugar maple charcoal. As Jeff describes - and demonstrates with 'before' and 'after' samples of the spirit: "The process doesn't add flavour, it changes flavour on what it removes: we've learned it tends to let sweet flavours pass."
Jack Daniel's launched its famous Old No 7 in 1866 in Lynchburg, Tennessee.
While Jack Daniel's still sells at remarkable levels - some 120m bottles/90m litres in 2011 - in recent years, it's been adding to the range.
"For 100 years all we made was Old No 7," explains Jeff, "But if one whiskey served all there would be only one. So, in the 80s we recognised that some people just don't care for it and began to focus on what people didn't like about it and it was the oak finish. There's no way to get rid of that but you can reduce it with the power of charcoal, so we mellowed it twice. The result was Gentleman Jack. It's very approachable, it's not too heavy, it's a good starter whiskey.
The angel's share
"Then people wanted something more aromatic, so we do the Single Barrel, which comes exclusively from the Angels' Roost, the top floors of the warehouse. That's where it's hottest, and that leads to the most interaction between the barrel and the whiskey.
Single Barrel is what I drink, over high quality rocks. Don't just use ice made with tap water, use distilled water. And the bigger, the better".
"On Old No 7, our Angel's Share [the amount of whiskey lost to evaporation during the maturing process] is about 16%. On the Single Barrel it's closer to 30%. The results have more barrel character, they're more aromatic. The best thing about Single Barrel is that every barrel is different." Jeff laughs. "And the worst thing about Single Barrel is that every barrel is different.
"But I've not picked up one I dislike. It's what I drink, over high quality rocks: don't just use ice made with tap water, use distilled water, and the bigger the better. I like the dilution effect, as you notice different things as the proof changes."
Last year, Jack Daniel's put out Tennessee Honey, its first flavoured whiskey. "We weren't sure at first this was the right thing for us to do," says Jeff. "We don't chase fads but after it looked like flavoured whiskies would be around a while we thought okay, let's take a look...
"For a lot of people, even though Jack is at the sweet end, no whiskey can be sweet enough to meet their preferences. So we liked the thought of honey: it's natural, it has health benefits, there's no shelf life. But we wanted complexity, not just to make it sweet. So we found four different styles of honey, different pollens and nectars that come together."
The southern connection already means that Jack Daniels is typically the ingredient of choice for BBQs and marinades".
The results - think maple syrup, a hint of praline but still recognisably Jack Daniel's - are surprisingly good. Even if you're one of the people who complain that it's too sweet - small clue on the bottle chaps - Jeff reckons this will become the one that people cook with. The southern connection already means that Jack Daniel's is typically the ingredient of choice for BBQ sauces and marinades, a connection they already play up to with the Annual Jack Daniel's World Championship Invitational Barbecue, now in its 24th year.
As a good southern gentleman, Jeff is also something of a dab hand at BBQ and a fan of the marinades on their website. "With beef, he advises, "Marinate overnight. With the pork, not more than an hour. That's what I do and I've never had a complaint..."
Although there is obvious rivalry in the US whiskey industry, Jeff still describes it as "a gentleman's industry" with a lot of inter-connection between distilleries. "We compete in the same marketplace but we all agree that our fight is with vodka and rum, not each other," he reveals. "The world of whiskey drinkers is still relatively small." Jeff smiles. "We want to grow the pie, not fight over who gets the biggest slice..."