I admit that before yesterday Tennessee was, for me, no more than a curtain raiser for the real business up in Kentucky. But wow, what a first day!
Tennessee is stunning. Forestry imposes itself on you like no other place I know, the tall trees lining the roads with an intensity that is almost overwhelming, every hill and valley packed tight with foliage. Rivers cut through the landscape, their banks lined with fishermen, the waters flowing in to lakes so that you feel you are lost in the heart of Southern America. Everywhere you look nature is in control, and man exists in its grasp, little wooden shacks hugging nature so that even the pick up trucks are dwarfed by the enormity of the woodland. It’s breath taking.
And in the middle of it all is the George Dickel distillery, arguably whisky’s best kept secret. In fact it’s criminal that Diageo hasn’t done more with this brand.
It’s a small distillery – or relatively anyway – and it makes Tennessee whiskey, which is distinct to bourbon, the difference being that the new spirit is dribbled through ten feet of maplewood charcoal, taking seven days to pass though before being collected. And it’s every bit as pretty here as Maker’s or Woodford Reserve is in Kentucky.
Our lunch is superb – deep fried chicken, corn on the cob, green beans. Traditional Southern food served in an ideal Tennessee setting while wild turkeys strut around the estate.
The whole distillery tour’s a treat but the highlight comes when we discuss security of the maturation warehouses high up on the hill.
“We have 24 hour security but anyway you wouldn’t want to go up there off the path once it gets warm,” explains master distiller John Lunn. “We have a real issue with rattlesnakes.”
I’ve been to Jack Daniel’s three times now but this is the first time I’ve been when it’s producing and it’s the first time I’ve had the delightfully named Chambliss Fewell as a guide. Mr Jack would have been proud. Chambliss and the distillery puts on a metaphorical firestorm for us, and the afternoon and evening turn out to be up there with my best American whiskey experiences.
The tour starts conventionally enough but Chambliss turns out to be in playful mood and boy does he deliver a tour. At Jack they spray the maplewood they burn to make the charcoal for filtering with 140 proof new make Jack ‘white dog’ – so Chambliss takes the cylinder containing the spirit and sprays it on our hands so we can taste it. We’re in money can’t buy territory.
More than 250 bags of charcoal fill each 10 feet deep container and the new spirit is dribbled drop by drop on to it. It’s an incredibly slow drip process and while there may be more than 70 containers doing the job, it defies belief that 100 million litres pass through charcoal this way each year.
And if you want statistics here’s one for you – Jack can produce 120 gallons of spirit a minute. That’s 540 litres. More than 30,000 litres an hour. Which means that in three hours – the time of an average American Football match – Jack produces more than Edradour does in a year.
If that appals you then it shouldn’t. American whiskey has even more exacting standards than Scotland does, and Jack is produced to the exact standards that everyone else in Tennessee and Kentucky does. The fact that they manage to produce, cask and mature 100 million litres a year of spirit should be admired and respected.
Chambliss is as good a tour guide as you’ll find anywhere, but master distiller Jeff Arnett raises the game again with a superb dissection of his distillery’s whiskeys. Single Barrel Jack is great whiskey, by anyone’s standards. The surprise of the night, though, is the new Jack honey liqueur – not my cup of tea at all, but a beautifully crafted product bursting with honey, pecan and hazelnut and not over-cloying at all.
Our evening ends with a meal of catfish and pulled pork and music by the excellent Kacey Smith. Years ago I used to watch acts in Northern working men’s clubs and was constantly astounded by the standard there, often unrecognised. Kacey Smith reminded me of those places. I don’t know how she fits in to the Nashville country picture but she sings like an angel, has her own CD and, accompanied by just one very talented musician who plays guitar and mandolin, performed with aplomb in the most difficult of circumstances. Listening to her while drinking Single Barrel after a totally satisfying day is as good as it gets. Check out her website or her Android app.
Great, great day. Next stop, Kentucky. Yee, and verily ha!