I can think of no grander celebration calling for opening a new bottle of whiskey than a birthday. Especially if the birthday is none other than that of Jack Daniels.
No one knows for sure what day in September the now esteemed whiskey maker came into the world. It was one day this month for sure. Equally positive is the mark he left on the business of whiskey making.
I grew up in the shadow of some of the finest Kentucky bourbon distillers, but came to the heritage that Jack Daniels represents just barely in my 20s. Hardly a whiskey drinker alive hasn't owned at least one bottle of Old No. 7 Black label!
For those of you who are not whiskey drinkers, you need to know that there is a difference between Tennessee whiskey, which Jack Daniels is, and bourbon. In terms of the production process, where bourbon is distilled and then sent to barrel to age, Tennessee whiskey is distilled, then filtered, then aged in barrels. In the case of Old No. 7, the whiskey is run through 10 feet of charcoal made from hard sugar maple before being aged in charred white oak barrels, which are used just once.
Honestly, my palate finds Old No. 7 a bit too "hot" for my liking. It's a go-to whiskey for mixing, but, as I've now turned to more neat or lightly iced presentations, the filtering process, the so-called Lincoln County process, does not yield the sweet, smoky, caramel-laced tones of my beloved Kentucky bourbons.
I was appehensive when I gave two other JD products a try recently: Gentleman Jack and Jack Daniels Single Barrel.
What I found was a pair of uniquely crafted whiskeys that fall more to my tastes while retaining the legendary character of Lynchburg, Tennessee's, most well-known industry.
At a gentle 80 proof, Gentleman Jack adds one more step to the traditional Jack Daniels process: a second charcoal mellowing after it has been aged. The result? Where Old No. 7 is a fireball, Gentleman Jack offers smooth spiciness, a softer presence and exhibits the more organic influences of oak and charcoal - with hints of ripe dark fruits and hazelnut.
The 94-proof Jack Daniels Single Barrel looks as elegant in its tapered square bottle as it does sitting in a rocks glass. It pours a dark, mahogany color. Obviously, it's far darker than other JD whiskeys - and certainly stands and delivers a big whiskey experience.
Still, the caramel, charcoal and toasted oak flavors are beautifully balanced and a testament to the skills of Jack Daniels Master Distiller Jeff Arnett, who only finds about one of every 100 barrels tasted suitable for this luxurious whiskey.
Each whiskey stands alone in terms of flavors, obviously, but each has merits that set them apart from the JD Green and Black labels. As for me, after tasting these two whiskeys I'm convinced that there are east Tennessee whiskeys that I can embrace with my previously prejudiced palate.
Here's to you, Mr. Jack Daniels, on your birthday - and to the little Lynchburg distillery that has become a genuinely American icon.