As most savvy drinkers are by now aware, Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7 is no longer with us.
It has been knifed in the back by the greedy corporate clowns at Brown-Forman, the conglomerate that bought the Jack Daniel distillery in 1956. Mr. Daniel’s once excellent whiskey began life as a 90 proof liquor, but about 17 years ago the proof was lowered to 86. Now it has been lowered again, to a timid 80 proof. America’s best bourbon is now a ghost.
The decision makers at Brown-Forman have not only rendered Jack’s whiskey less palatable, they have also managed to defile an important part of our national heritage.
Jack Daniel the man had little in common with the businessmen who presently profit from his from his good name and reputation. Jack was a man of sterling character and honor, a man willing to struggle through decades of danger and turmoil to bring his whiskey to a thirsty nation. Brown-Forman have forgotten that Jack Daniel was a real man. It’s high time to remind them that while they may own his name and fame, they Don’t Know Jack.
The Birth of a Legend
Jasper “Jack” Newton Daniel was born in 1849 in the small town of Lynchburg, TN, the youngest of ten children. He was also the smallest, only reaching a height of 5 feet 1 inch. Well into adulthood, people regularly mistook him for a teenager, prompting him to grow his trademark black goatee and long, drooping, mustache.
Jack’s mother died moments after giving birth to him, and his father quickly remarried, primarily because he needed another adult to raise his large brood. Jack’s new stepmother was an obnoxious shrew of a woman who kept the Daniel children on their toes with incessant squawking. She nagged Jack’s father into joining the ultra-strict (and ultra-dry) Primitive Baptist Church and forced the children to attend as well. Jack went along with it until he came of age, then abandoned organized religion entirely, living most of the rest of his life as a happy heathen.
The Daniels were poor, but managed to eke out a quiet if not entirely comfortable existence. A faraway storm of unprecedented destructiveness was brewing, however, and when it reached Tennessee it would devastate everything in its path, including the Daniels family.
More Civil War battles were fought on Tennessee soil than in any other state. Among them were some of the most violent clashes of the war: Stone River, Shiloh, and, bloodiest of all, Chickamauga. Lynchburg was a remote locale but the war eventually found its way there. The Daniel farm was overrun by troops from both sides of the conflict, and neither side was shy about looting the farm of food stores and livestock.
The two eldest Daniel boys enlisted with the Confederacy and were slain in distant battles, and if that wasn’t bad enough, Jack’s father, Calloway Daniel, contracted pneumonia in 1864 and died just days after the Civil War staggered to a close.
The war left the Daniel family financially and emotionally ruined, unable to even adequately feed themselves. Jack’s stepmother began sending her adopted children away, either to live with other families or to simply fend for themselves. Jack was the youngest, but he was also the first to go. He was 15.
For the next two years Jack bounced from one charitable neighbor to the next, doing menial chores to pay for his meals, but times were hard in the South at the beginning of the Reconstruction and no one could afford to aid the young man for long. Jack found that he had to rely on himself first, and knew that if he was going to have any sort of life at all he must learn a trade. He wasn’t cut out for farming, didn’t care for it at all, and the time he’d spent sweeping up around a general store had left him cold.
The last family he’d live with, however, the Calls, managed to teach Jack not only a valuable skill, but one he actually enjoyed. Down in the hollow of the aptly named Stillhouse Creek, Dan Call taught Jack Daniel how to make sour mash.
From the instant he and Call plugged the bunghole in their first barrel of liquor, Jack Daniel knew he had found his true calling. It didn’t matter that he was only 16 years old. He decided then and there that he would become a whiskeyman.
Learning the Ropes
Jack Daniel and Dan Call set up shop in the hollow of Stillhouse Creek, taking full advantage of its crisp, clean, spring water. In the beginning they only sold small quantities of their whiskey around Lynchburg; they were still refining their recipe, adjusting the proof to make the strongest, yet smoothest, bourbon available. They made very little money. Call had his farm to make ends meet, but he couldn’t afford to keep Jack in meals as well, so Jack started plotting the expansion of his tiny business, which meant exporting the liquor to neighboring communities.
The closest metropolitan to Lynchburg was Huntsville, Alabama. People with things to sell traveled to Huntsville and whiskeymen were no different. The field was crowded and Jack understood that if he wished to turn a profit from his whiskey, he’d have to make a name for himself, and fast. It helped that the city was one of the more decadent villes in the South, a known gathering point for those with vice on their minds.
The trip from Lynchburg to Hunstville was one of the more dangerous treks a gentleman could undertake in the 1860s. The road was little more than a pair of deep, weedy wagon ruts, which made for a slow and jarring trip riding in a wagon pulled by a team of recalcitrant mules. Additionally, Jack had to hassle with Union revenue collectors. President Ulysses S. Grant had decided to fund the South’s reconstruction by levying taxes on liquor and cotton. As such, the South crawled with an army of tax collectors whose fundamental goal in life was to find, then tax, then destroy, illegal stills. Jack began bribing such officials at the ripe old age of 17. And when he wasn’t dodging revenue men, Jack had to fend off predatory mobs of leftover Confederate soldiers, men unwilling to accept the demise of the CSA. These guys went around armed to the teeth, robbing banks, travelers, and generally annoying the hell out of the countryside. They were bribable, as Jack quickly discovered, but were much more likely to exact their “tolls” in jugs of Jack’s whiskey. These guerrillas were bellicose and bloody-minded, but couldn’t hold a candle to yet another group skittering around the backwaters of the South in those days—the Ku Klux Klan. This gaggle of buffoons wanted to control all of the liquor in the South because they had gotten it into their heads that liquor made black men chase white women. On more than one occasion, Jack was forced at rifle-point to hand over his entire shipment to placate a Klansmen.
Jack Daniel would not be put off. Even in the face of all these obstacles, he made the trip to Huntsville with a wagon-load of whiskey three times each week for almost ten years.
Sour Mash Empire
Slowly, very slowly, demand for Jack’s still-nameless sour mash increased, as did the coin in his pocket, until, finally, he was able to purchase a 140-acre plot of farmland near Cave Spring, outside Lynchburg. The Cave Spring was a constant source of wonderful springwater, and the land was rich and dark, perfect for growing corn. In time, this place would become known simply as the Hollow. Jack opened the Daniel and Call Whiskey Distillery on this site, where it still stands today. Jack was 25.
By the late 1870s the stage was set for a radical expansion of Jack’s whiskey business. Demand was increasing, with steady customers as far away as St. Louis, but harassment was on the rise as well. First among Jack’s annoyances was the Federal Government, in the person of retired Union general Green B. Raum. Raum went after collecting excise taxes on liquor with the zeal of a circus geek pouncing on a chicken. He was incorruptible, single-minded and stoic. It’s no exaggeration to say that by 1885 Raum was the single most hated man south of the Mason/Dixon Line. Several attempts were made on the general’s life before he relocated his offices to the relative safety of Washington D.C., leaving day-to-day operations up to his cabal of stubborn and self-righteous revenue collectors.
The excise taxes kept going up but Jack was able to keep pace by cranking up production. There was always a danger of injuring the quality of the whiskey in playing this game but Jack was able to walk that thin line. He had a much harder time dealing with the attacks on his business and person by the growing prohibitionist movement. Led in Tennessee by the Anti-Saloon League, the prohibitionists had been forced to retreat into their burrows during the Civil War, but now that the hostilities were over they emerged once again into the light of day to campaign in earnest to rid America of that dreadful booze.
They attacked on all fronts, hectoring politicians on the local, state, and federal levels, enlisting clergymen (especially Methodists and Baptists), and indoctrinating children against liquor in their very schoolrooms. They made outrageous links between hooch and an array of social ailments, and indulged in race-baiting to a truly reprehensible degree (like the Klan, they felt that allowing liquor anywhere near blacks posed a danger to virtuous white women everywhere). Far too many Americans were willing to give up the basic right of intoxication, but others, Jack and his fellow Southern distillers included, knew they had to fight back.
In the pre-War days, whiskeymen protected their interests by the most direct route: they went out and purchased a politician or two. When the new brand of prohibitionist oozed onto the national landscape they did so with a moral indignation that bordered on the sociopathic, and the distillers found it harder to buy a lawmaker of their very own. They decided they had to take the fight to the people and make Americans understand how much it would cost to give up their freedom to drink, lest the liquor business face a thorough — and dry —financial ruin. So, they left off buying pols and instead set about showing the public how great liquor was for the community. They stressed alcohol-based camaraderie, and pointed out that the distilleries provided good jobs for the ravaged South.
History proves that their tactics worked, as is evidenced by the fact that the prohibitionists didn’t succeed in drying out the nation for several more decades. Sadly, however, Jack’s partner, Dan Call, succumbed to the siren song of the Dries. Around 1884 Call declared that his faith now precluded his interest in whiskey making. A staunchly religious man, with an even stauncher wife, Call was unable to reconcile his job with his god (or his wife). He backed out of his partnership with Jack, but there seems to have been few hard feelings between the two men, even though Call’s killjoy wife refused to allow Jack into her house. Call’s departure also gave Jack the opportunity to rename the business, and the Jack Daniel Distillery was born.
Jack and other like-minded distillers made headway against the prohibitionist stormtroopers, and the late 1800s and early 1900s were banner years for Jack and Old No. 7. One of the methods the distillers used was to get organized among themselves. They formed regional and even national associations of brewers, distillers, and vintners. The only goal of these groups was to promote the beneficial aspects of alcohol. One of the first such meetings was held in Nashville. It included, in addition to Jack Daniel, James “Jim” Beauregard Beam, who was busily pushing his great-great grandfather Jacob’s whiskey, Old Tub, and a fellow from Deatsville, Kentucky, named T.W. Samuels, who, since the 1840s, had been selling the brand of whiskey that would eventually become Maker’s Mark. Jack plotted strategy with these men and many others, working out new and novel ways to promote and distribute America’s gift to the craft of distilling all across the land. Their plans eventually lead to the formation of the Personal Liberty League, an anti-prohibitionist group, who lobbied elected officials against the Dries, whom one distiller characterized as “ugly women, henpecked husbands, and three-dollar preachers.”
By 1900 the Jack Daniel’s Distillery was the largest in Tennessee and the third largest in the world. Around Lynchburg, citizens began referring to Jack as “Captain.” As if to go along with his new moniker, Jack cultivated the style we have come to recognize as quintessentially Jack: the long goatee, the black string tie, the Prince Albert coat opened to the waist. He started carrying a silver-tipped walking stick, which he used with a jaunty swagger, and often touched its tip to his wide white plantation hat in greeting his friends. Even though rancorous Dries hurled insults at him in the streets, and made fun of his expanding girth, Jack was easily the most famous and respected man in Tennessee, and when Old No. 7 won the bourbon competition at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, his fame became national.
It was about this time that Jack retired. His health was failing and he no longer had the energy to personally taste each barrel of Old No. 7 before shipping. Jack turned operations over to his nephew, Lem Motlow. In a few short years, Jack suffered from the onset of severe diabetes. First his left foot, then his entire left leg were amputated. This didn’t stop him, when the Stock Market almost crashed in 1907, from going to both of his saloons in Lynchburg, every day, and buying rounds of whiskey for everyone in the house, all the while assuring them that the banks would hold.
Jack Daniel died in his bed on October 9 th, 1911.
Prohibitionists had, by this time, such a stranglehold on the national press, that Jack’s obituaries stated only that he was a farmer and horse-breeder. Not one mentioned his work as a whiskeyman. The Tennessee Democrat, however, had this to say about him: “A warmer heart never beat in a human breast than the one that supplied life current to Jack Daniel.”
Life After Jack
Lemuel Motlow, now the owner of the Jack Daniel Distillery, had always pined for Jack’s level of respect, but his quarrelsome personality made that impossible. He fought hard against the ever-growing temperance movement, but had a hard time winning popular support. When the Volstead Act became law, Lem moved operations to St. Louis and soldiered on, illegally selling Old No. 7 to bootleggers like George Remus and gangsters like Al Capone, who had a special fondness for bourbon.
In 1932, FDR and the Democrats ran on a Wet platform, vowing an end to prohibition. They succeeded in killing the foul law in 1933, and Lem Motlow moved back to Lynchburg, but the fires of fame had dimmed beneath Old No. 7. No one had heard of it, it seems, and Lem lacked his uncle Jack’s marketing skills. The brand foundered.
Lem Motlow died of a stroke in 1947, willing the distillery to his four sons. These men were even farther removed from Jack’s savvy, and couldn’t make a go of things. In 1956, on the verge of bankruptcy, the four Motlow brothers sold the distillery to the Brown-Forman company. Brown-Forman already owned the Old Forester brand of whiskey, and would go on to own Canadian Mist, Southern Comfort, Korbel champagne, and Fetzer wine. They rode the cocktail craze, and reinvented Jack Daniel’s for the bop and beatnik set, a revitalizing act that saved Old No. 7 from total oblivion.
Today, more than 200,000 people visit the Jack Daniel Distillery each year, and it is now on the National Register of Historic Places. In one of the great ironies of our age, you get a glass of lemonade at the end of the tour. Moore County, Tennessee is, you see, a dry county.
The Brown-Forman company has betrayed Jack Daniel’s legacy. All the prohibitionists in Tennessee couldn’t force Jack to compromise his whiskey, but all Brown-Forman needed to start watering it down was the possibility of a larger profit.
Brown-Forman has stated that their customers prefer the less potent mix. Bullshit. What does that even mean? People like less alcohol in their alcohol? If they wanted more water in their whiskey, they’d add it themselves.
Company spokesman Roger Brashears says that he “can’t tell the difference. Our quality control is very scientific. It comes down to how it tastes. We haven’t done anything to affect the quality that has made us so many friends over the years.”
I’m not sure where to begin with this. Yes, there is a difference in taste. There’s less alcohol in it, you corporate wussy. And, yes, you have affected the quality. People have enjoyed Jack’s recipe for over a hundred years. What are you saying, that we’ve finally wised-up and discovered that we didn’t really like it all this time?
Another spokesman for Brown-Forman, Phil Lynch, has been quoted as saying that “We don’t think it’s appropriate to have a magazine called Modern Drunkard dictate how we make our whiskey.”
Well, Mr. Lynch, I got some news for you—whether you like it or not drunks are your best your customers. They drink the most and know the most about your products. And since Jack isn’t around to whip your ass for diluting his whiskey, it falls into our hands. The comments are akin to a spokesmen for Ford or Chevrolet saying they don’t think it’s appropriate for Car & Driver to opine on the worth and utility of their vehicles because, well, those guys drive too much.
Let’s put it on its face: Brown-Forman killed Jack Daniel’s. Plain as that. And they shouldn’t get away with it.
Stop drinking Jack Daniel’s. I have. So has everyone I know. Switch to Maker’s or Beam, show this soulless corporation that when they mess around with what works, especially for suspect or utterly bogus reasons, their customers take it personally.