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Interview – Jeff Arnett: Master Distiller at Jack Daniel’s Distillery

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By Mike Raven

For 7 years, Jeff Arnett has been the 7th master distiller of Old No. 7. In the nearly 150-year history of the Jack Daniel Distillery, there have been only seven master distillers.

He follows a fascinating first six, including Jack himself (1866-1911). While Jack had been both owner and master distiller, he would be the last person to hold both titles. Lem Motlow took over ownership of the distillery upon Jack’s death and his name is now infamous in Jack Daniel’s history. However, he never actually held the title of master distiller. Those having that title, following Jack, were Jess Motlow (1911-1941), Lem Tolly (1941-1964), Jess Gamble (1964-1966), Frank Bobo (1966-1988) and Jimmy Bedford (1988-2008).

Jeff grew up not too far from Lynchburg in Jackson, Tennessee. He received a degree in industrial engineering from the University of Alabama and worked in the food and beverage manufacturing business for 11 years before coming to Lynchburg in 2001 as a quality control engineer. Now he’s trusted with the worldwide stock of Jack Daniel’s. Jeff and his wife, Lori, live right outside of Lynchburg with their two children. When he’s not working at the distillery, or traveling the world touting the world’s number one selling whiskey, you might find him tinkering around in his garage.

We met in the historical Revenuer’s Office on the property of the distillery for the interview. It was a rainy July day, and here’s how it went.

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MR.  As the master distiller of Jack Daniel’s, you seem to actually work in the distillery more than most. I’m not talking about the classics like the Jimmy Russells of the world, but nowadays there are a lot of brands being made that are really just labels with marketing behind them. That’s not really the case with you.

JA.  It’s not. I realize that’s a very important part of what I do because I think you need something that makes a brand tangible to people; you need a face and a voice to kind of bring life to it. But at my core, I was a production guy. Before I got to Jack Daniel’s, I had already worked in food and beverage – I was an engineer and a manufacturing manager. When I came to Jack Daniel’s, I was the quality control manager and I really enjoyed the job. It’s not that I don’t really enjoy talking about it too, but I would much rather be here giving a hand in making the whiskey rather than just talking about it all the time. So for me, it just needs to be the right balance. For me, that’s about 20 percent of my time being spent out on the road, which allows me to cover more ground than you might think. In about 50 to 60 days a year, for the last seven years, I’ve been able to hit almost 30 countries and visit literally with thousands of people. But I do think it’s important that I’m here doing what my role and title implies I’m doing. And really, that’s the way I’m wired. It’s one of the things I really enjoy and that helps get me fired up and energized to go back out and talk about it again.

MR.  I’m sure it keeps you grounded and what not. Plus, I’m sure you have a lot of long-term employees you trust immensely while you do travel.

JA.  Definitely. That goes for even when I’m here. I trust in those same people. I don’t have to be in the stillhouse 24/7. The people we have are trained and educated in how to do it. Many of the people learned from their parents or grandparents. I don’t really have to be in there even to serve as their conscience – they care as much as I do about the product. They make it with a sense of pride, not only of being a Jack Daniel’s employee but even more so, of being a whiskey maker here and being entrusted with that role. We have a handful of about 20 people that I would put up against anyone in the industry with their knowledge of fermentation and distillation and how to make a great product. And I get credit for all their hard work (laughing). But I get the blame, too, so they understand you have to take the good with the bad.

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MR.  Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Fire is the latest whiskey to come out of the shed. It’s obviously a popular flavor and category. Does it penetrate GenX and Baby Boomer drinkers, or is it mostly Millennials drinking it?

JA.  Clearly I think we were trying to attract people who were not necessarily whiskey drinkers before. Whether that was someone my age who was a wine, vodka or rum drinker, or never found a whiskey they liked, or it was a Millennial who has a brand new right to go out and try different products and decide which ones they like. I think what we’ve seen is you can’t lump those flavors together and say they are going to have similar trajectories or attract the same people necessarily.

With Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey, when we launched it, we were hoping to get into the shot occasion – something universal for men, women, young and old. Something like when everyone first gathers at the bar, they would do cheers with Honey and then maybe go off and drink what they normally would drink. We were hoping it would be attractive there, but what we found was that a lot of people buying it said it was an after-dinner cordial for them, so it didn’t necessarily show up in that shot occasion. What we saw was that people who previously drank whiskey see it in a different occasion, so they would buy their normal whiskey bottle plus this one and do different things with it. I put it in coffee. It’s the only product from JD that I put in coffee, but I like to sweeten coffee and it gives me a slightly nutty flavor.

Now, with the Jack Fire, it is much more in that shot occasion; it is more of a trendy young group of people (drinking it). We would class them (Fire and Honey) the same as being whiskey-based liqueurs, flavored whiskies. Honey seems to be attracting a different group than Fire. Maybe that is ultimately the benefit – being able to have different flavors that stay current and allow you to go after very specifically targeted people and meet them where they are, and give them a version of JD that suits them. We would love to be attractive to everyone.

We say we want to be bikers to bankers, LDA (legal drinking age) to DND (damn near dead) (laughing). People’s palates change over their lifetime and even people of the same age would describe what they want in different ways, and that’s why it’s important for us to offer different extensions out there. I stand behind the quality of all of these. People ask which is best, so I ask, what do you normally drink? Then I’ll point them in the direction I think is best. We’re trying to figure out what someone wants and try to offer something that rings their bell.

MR.  The first “extension” after Old No. 7 was Gentleman Jack, correct?

JA.  Correct.

MR.  How long ago was that?

JA.  It was 1988. We were doing Green Label and Black Label. Green Label was always pretty much a regional brand, never as widely distributed as Black Label. To me, Gentleman Jack was largely about answering the one criticism of Black Label, even though Old No. 7 Black Label is the number one selling whiskey in the world, globally as a single label, 160 countries, top-seller. If there was something about Black Label people would describe as possibly being a deal-breaker or the reason why they wouldn’t drink it, it would typically be the finish. There are different ways of describing it: the wood, the oak, the charcoal. It was typically the bitterness of the finish, but a lot of it is resonant of being in a brand new, charred-oak barrel and it is hard to avoid. We mastered charcoal over the years, we didn’t invent it, but clearly we’re pretty good with it, after all these years. So taking Black Label through the charcoal for a second time, after it had matured in the barrel, really allows us to take the whiskey in a direction that answers that one potential preference for people who want a softer finish. It is a little lighter in color; when you go back through the charcoal, you do lose a little of that. But more importantly, you are softening that finish, which is the one element people will potentially say they prefer.

MR.  How do you keep the Single Barrel consistent? Is it a blend of upper and lower barrels?

JA.  No. Old No. 7 and Gentleman Jack are products of 200-barrel batches or so. We take barrels from different floors and different warehouses because we want the consistency level of those two brands to be the same, year to year, batch to batch. Single Barrel is the only one we let move around. So there is no absolute standard of identity. It’s the same grain bill, aged in the same toasted and charred-oak barrel we’ve manufactured. We have 87 warehouses but we concentrate on only a couple of dozen for Single Barrel – ones that have historically shown that they have some fairly aggressive environmental conditions. To get a whiskey this mature, you need the help of hot summers and cold winters. You really want to vacillate the whiskey in and out of the barrel, you want to deepen that soak line – we really want to drive it into the barrel with the seasons. It almost doubles the angels’ share and that adds more color and character. We don’t add anything.

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MR. It has a rich color (referring to the Single Barrel).

JA.  It does – this is one of our prettiest products. It’s almost a brownish red when it comes to Single Barrel; you know you’re adding barrel character.

People always ask me what I’m looking for when I look in the glass. All whiskies are going to be brown, unless it’s just brand new in the barrel. It’s always the under-shading that tells you how the barrel is progressing. Is this a barrel that’s going to be something like Gentleman Jack? Or more like Black Label? Or more on the lines of Single Barrel – you look at the color as a good indicator. We wouldn’t be able to use the color to tell us much at all if we were getting barrels from different manufacturers. We would have more variety because they would be made in different locations. But because we make all our barrels for ourselves, we can actually use color to be much more predictive of character than it would be otherwise. Our integration as a company cannot be just a great whiskey maker but also a great barrel maker. When a barrel is all of your color and half of your flavor, to me that is one of the best investments we ever make because it allows us to control a huge part of what ultimately we are going to become. We know where the wood came from and how long it was seasoned – these are things we know to make sure that no corners were cut.
(We went into a discussion about the barrel program at Jack Daniel’s. He went on to explain that every barrel is toasted first and then charred. He described it as like roasting a marshmallow over a flame to brown it and then putting it into the fire to char it. I thought that was a good analogy.)

MR. I always wondered, how often do you change the charcoal all the Jack Daniel’s whiskey goes through? Every time I come here, you’re burning sugar maple. What’s the lifespan of that charcoal?

JA.  We have 72 vats and we don’t need all of them to be in service at one time, so that allows us to take vats out of service and change the charcoal. We taste every vat, every week that it flows. We have 100 employees who serve as official whiskey tasters. Fifty of them work primarily in the new whiskey realm. So they are just working in the before-and-after charcoal mellowing to make sure each vat is working the way it should. At the end of six months, even if we haven’t had any problems with it, we are going to go ahead and take them out of service, empty the charcoal out of them and replace it. The charcoal is very similar to a sponge – it’s absorbing things into itself and it’s only useful as long as it’s not saturated. So at some point you know you are going to risk that the whiskey going in the top is going to be the same as the whiskey coming out the bottom. We want to make sure we change it prior to that happening. We don’t let any of that (charcoal) go to waste. We repurpose the wood: We have a company that pelletizes it and people ultimately end up burning it in their grills at home. We have less than 1 percent landfill rate; with all the stuff coming onto the property, we had to be very deliberate to get there. We run a pretty green operation, especially when it comes to wood. We are finding new homes for everything as far as natural resources go.

MR. I imagine your barrels are highly prized when you are done with them?

JA.  They are. They go primarily to the Scotch industry and some are used for reposado tequila as well as Canadian whisky. Our standard joke is that there’s three gallons of Jack Daniel’s soaked into every barrel, so we always tell people, if there’s a Scotch you like, it’s because of all the Jack Daniel’s left in the barrel (laughing). It is a very synergistic relationship. We only use our barrels once but we are able to find other homes for them, whether that be a local craftsperson who turns it into a piece of furniture or giving it to another industry that doesn’t derive of lot of their character from the barrel. They can use it up to 60 years in the Scotch industry, so it has a very long life. You can regrow the tree that built the barrel in the time that barrel is done holding whiskey.

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MR. On the subject of burning things, you burn a lot of things here. It came to mind that you have to be concerned with something catching on fire. Fire and whiskey operations are bad bedfellows. What do you do if something does go wrong (knock-on-wood)? Give our readers some insight as to how you prepare for such an incident.

JA. We are in a very small community here, so we would not be able to rely on a municipal fire department to put out a fire if we had one here, and we’ve been very fortunate to never have had a fire. But we’ve also invested heavily in proactive things to insure that, too. All of our warehouses are equipped not just with sprinklers but also with smoke detection. So even if something was even smoldering, such as a lightning strike, we would see a change in the air quality and get a notification to get out there before we even lost the first drop of whiskey.

Because we’re in a small town, we have 30 employees who have held up their hands and said, “I will be a firefighter if needed.” They are all state-certified firefighters. We actually built a facility here on-site where they train each week in the classroom and with live firefighting. Alcohol has different properties when it’s on fire and it can be completely invisible if there is no other combustible material involved. So you have to train people not to just trust their eyes. If there’s an alarm going off, you could have a fire without seeing smoke or an obvious blaze.

MR. Kind of like a racecar driver, when you see him jump out of the car but can’t see the flames?

JA.  Sure. They jump around trying to pat the fire out and all you can only see are clear heat ripples, if that. There are no real schools to train people specifically for alcohol fires; that’s something we have done here to protect our assets and our greatest asset, our people. They have state-of-the-art equipment: trucks, foam supplies, and personal protective gear that they wear.

MR. It is a big investment, really.

JA.  Absolutely. We have a fire chief here, and every one of the 87 warehouses has its own individual plan. So when they arrive, they know where the fireplug is, they know the perimeter and what the risk of fire spreading is, an approach angle and a tactic they are going to take with every scenario. We also have the largest foam supply east of the Mississippi River here. The foam will control the temperature. Alcohol actually has a pretty low burn point; it’s the wood of the structure that would drive the temperature up. If we had a warehouse catch fire, our plan is to lose only that one and no others. That is to say, we won’t go into a building to save whiskey but to contain the fire, control it from the outside, do the smart thing and keep it from spreading. That would be the unexpected fire. Now, if you look at the fires we actually start ourselves . . . (laughing).

When we’re burning ricks, we actually do it a pretty long distance away from where we have other combustion sources. They have an EPA-designed pad that has an afterburner that’s refractory – we can take 140 proof from our own still and put it on four ricks and control that burn. The two gentlemen who burn all of the charcoal are both state-certified firefighters and part of our brigade.

MR. That’s how you start the ricks fires, with your own full-proof whiskey?

JA.  Yes, we take our own “white dog” that’s been held as a quality retain for some length of time. When it is time to push those through (use them), we just dump them in a container and transfer it up to them and they’ll destroy it literally by lighting it on fire to start the ricks. We can burn four ricks at a time; we need 16 ricks to change a vat and we’ll change two to three a week. So they burn quite a bit. We’ll go through 30 to 50 ricks in a given week. We usually have about 1,000 on site. It’s a big investment but it’s the one thing that truly separates Tennessee whiskey from Kentucky bourbon. Otherwise, we would be very similar. I always tell people that bourbon is our first cousin. Of all the whiskies out there, it is clearly the one most akin to who we are. But charcoal mellowing makes a huge step change in our character, which we can taste if you like.

(We went on to taste the “white dog” whiskey that would go into the barrel – one that was charcoal mellowed and one that was not. In all the times I have been to Jack Daniel’s, I have never done this tasting. I didn’t think it would be that big of a difference, but it is! Much smoother.

We discussed Jack Daniel’s grain bill, which is 80 percent corn, 12 percent malted barley and 8 percent rye, and which has never changed. Jeff pointed out that they use the same three grains that bourbon does, but old Jack made the choice of going low in rye content. Jeff feels it really separates them; they use 8 percent, half to a third of most Kentucky bourbons. He tells people that a whiskey higher in rye content may be described as bold, peppery and spicy. He doesn’t think these are very good descriptors for Jack Daniel’s. He describes JD as being sweet to oaky in character, and a lot of it has to do with the low rye content.)

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MR. With an expansion on its way, what do you do to insure the water will remain available and pristine for generations to come? After all, the water from Jack Daniel’s Hollow is the main reason you’re here.

JA.  After having a study done, we were able to purchase the land above it because we do know there are some sinkholes and wet weather affects it. The water is underground for a quite a while because it gets down to ground temperature, 56 degrees. We know the limestone is going to impart a heavy mineral content to it and it’s going to serve as a natural filter for iron, so it’s going to have certain properties. We went ahead and bought 250 acres that sit over the top of it back in 1982, and that’s allowed us to preserve the quality of it. Even though the distillery sits right at the outlet of it, our uptake of the water is actually at the cave. We elevate it into a 10 million gallon tank. So we’re always holding more than you see right here. The expansion facility is actually closer to the water source than the facility we are in. We located it on the highest hill above the distillery, right behind us here. It will have the same water, grain and yeast as this facility. The still design, the charcoal mellowing vats, all that is common to both facilities.

(In our continued discussion about water, Jeff said they would have to quadruple the output of whiskey before they would have to worry about water supply. So unless something happens, he is not concerned. “I think you can take great water and make bad whiskey. It’s just hard to start with bad water and make great whiskey.” – Jeff Arnett)

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MR.  You must go through a shipload of grains (that got a laugh). Where do you keep it all?

JA.  If we were on a river, we probably would be shipping it in (laughing)!

MR.  And I assume you’re pretty picky about it. Where do you get it?

JA.  Well, the concrete silos you see here that are part of the distillery, they were built back in 1938 when they rebuilt after Prohibition. Back then, those would have held a month’s supply of grain or more. Today, that’s less than 24 hours’ supply. So we’re truly just in time when you look at how much grain we have on site. We do have a rail spur up in Tullahoma, which is the closest location we have to rail, where we keep a lot of malt and rye and we’ll keep typically maybe a week or so of corn. So we can direct-truck from there; it’s only 20 minutes away. We also have one grower’s contract, which is a family farm in north Alabama, and his entire crop is ours. We insist on #1 yellow corn, so we can’t just buy it anywhere. We like high starch varieties and we need people who have cleaners and dryers, because we don’t want the dust plume coming off of it and we don’t want a lot of water in the grain. We don’t want shucks and cobs and nut and bolts, and everything that will come in a #2 grade corn. So southern Kentucky, southern Illinois and north Alabama are our primary sources of corn. We can also direct-truck for these sources, although our main storage is in Tullahoma.

(The discussion about grains got quite deep about how the growing areas have changed and the rigors of moving it in from locations around the country. He also noted that they are actually using ships to import rye from Scandinavia, which is some of the best, because it is too difficult to procure rye from Canada.)

MR.  Let’s talk about the expansion a little bit, seeing as how it’s about to start making whiskey next month. It’s unbelievable that you make all this whiskey right here. Are the new stills still all copper?

JA.  Yep, all copper, just the same as the ones here. Literally everything is designed as a mimic of here. We hired an engineering firm to take all of our knowledge and help us put together a design package. But we are truly the experts on how Jack Daniel’s is made, so they made the documents so people could go in and structurally build it.  We spent a long time with a company to get that done. Everything was deliberately done not to make just whiskey, but Jack Daniel’s whiskey, specifically. It is on site and a replication of the process here. (He went on to talk about having everything in one spot is a bit risky should something like a natural disaster happen, but the new facility is up the hill and separate.) We will be splitting trucks from the same suppliers, yeast from the same lab, same water source, the fermenter and its design – everything you need to make Jack Daniel’s is replicated.
We’re feeling pretty bullish; we’re all excited. We don’t want to rest on our laurels and think it will be easy, but within the next couple of weeks we’ll have confirmation back that not only are we making a great product but also it’s a perfect match for the product we have here. One of the things we know, especially when you have all new copper in your system, is it’s going to create a very, very clean distillate. Most of our stills maybe last ten years but when they first go in, you notice super-clean properties that come from them and that will change over time. I’ve told people I believe the product that will come from there will be just like new still product when we replace old stills here, because we have to from time to time.

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MR.  You say you replace stills every 10 years or so?

JA.  Yes, every 10 to 13 years on the high end. It’s an investment on our part because it’s an expensive metal and it’s also a soft metal, so it’s not quite as durable. It’s not an inert metal; it actually has chemical properties and they provide a lot of benefits. Copper actually gives itself in the process and allows you to take some things from the distillate that you don’t want in it. It cleans up things that don’t have a pleasant nose and it takes away chemicals in a high enough concentration that could be seen as potentially a carcinogen. So I always say it’s an investment but well worth the return that you get. We are constantly having to go back and look at them because we flow water, grains, everything through our stills and that’s fairly abrasive on a soft metal. Jack started out in copper and that’s the only thing we’ve ever made our stills out of in all these years, and ever will.

MR. What kind of JD cocktails do you like?

JA.  When I’m home, I’m a Single Barrel rocks guy. I’m fairly simple; I enjoy the whiskey for what it is. But at the same time, I’m interested in knowing what people are doing with it and how it is getting served out there because there’s a huge education in it. With people who take the whole mixology craft seriously, there’s as much art to it as I’m doing here. Choosing ingredients wisely, insisting on only fresh ingredients – there are a lot of common philosophies that support mixology.

When I’m traveling, I get to meet some of the best cocktail masters out there. I’ll typically ask them for their best Jack Daniel’s cocktail, whichever one they think that is (no pressure there). Traveling 30 countries in the last six or seven years has exposed me to a lot of it.

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