Interview with Jeff Arnett, Jack Daniels Master Distiller

Jack Daniel’s.  America has associated Tennessee whiskey with that name since 1866.  Andrew Johnson was President of the United States at that time. While the country has seen 28 Presidents since then, Jack Daniel’s has only seen 7 Master Distillers.

I had the incredible opportunity to meet, interview and whiskey-taste with Jeff Arnett, the current Master Distiller for Jack Daniel’s.  He was in Seattle for the Jack Daniel’s 150th Anniversary tour at the Hard Rock Cafe.

View from the Hard Rock Cafe Seattle's Rooftop. (Photo Credit: Lesley Haenny)
View from the Hard Rock Cafe Seattle’s Rooftop. (Photo Credit: Lesley Haenny)

I cannot recall a time I have met someone who was more passionate about their job then when I met him. The man loves his job, he loves his employees and he loves the art of creating whiskey.  I could see why those who have been the Master Distillers prior to Jeff have stayed.  The man made me want to move to Lynchburg and have the honor to work for Jack Daniel’s too.

Jeff, a native of Jackson, Tennessee, received a degree in industrial engineering from the University of Alabama and worked in the food and beverage industry right after graduation, where he learned you can be great but one dimensional at the same time.  Working at Folgers, his job was to decaf the coffee. He also worked in making Hawaiian Punch and Citrus Punch, and even made Pringles before Proctor & Gamble eventually sold off their food brands.

Lesley Haenny and Jack Daniels Master Distiller, Jeff Arnett (Photo Credit: Lesley Haenny)
Lesley Haenny and Jack Daniels Master Distiller, Jeff Arnett. (Photo Credit: Lesley Haenny)

He arrived at Jack Daniel’s in 2001 with no connections to the company and only giving them his resume.  Having such an immense food and beverage background, he began to learn the art of whiskey-making.  His first job at the distillery was in quality control and overseeing Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel. Working his way up the ranks, he was eventually named the Master Distiller in 2008.  He credits his coffee background in learning how to properly taste whiskey.

Jeff argues that when it comes to whiskey, it’s not what you are tasting, but where you are tasting it.  Whiskey is meant to be a full palette experience from start to finish.

Some interesting facts about Jack Daniel’s that I learned in speaking with Jeff:

  • The proprietary yeast culture that Jack Daniel’s uses dates back to the prohibition era and is kept in cryogenic freezers. Jeff said that he is often asked if there ever was a fire in the distilleries or the warehouses, everything could be replaced except the yeast culture.
  • Speaking of fires, Jack Daniel’s has 500 production employees, 32 of them are trained in firefighting.
  • Old No. 7 is Jack Daniel’s biggest seller, sold in over 160 countries across the world. Jeff strives to mimic every barrel in each of their 80 warehouses.
  • Gentleman Jack was introduced in 1988 after putting Old No. 7 through the charcoal mellowing process a second time, giving it 10% of it’s color.  Gentleman Jack quickly became Jack Daniel’s fastest growing brand.
  • In 1997, the Single Barrel Select was introduced.  Only using barrels from the top of the warehouses, one out of every 100 barrels becomes Single Barrel, with each having its own unique signature. This is Jeff’s favorite.
  • Single Barrel Barrel Proof is one of Jeff’s new favorites as it goes straight from barrel to the bottle. Since each barrel is left to its own whims, a bottle can be anywhere from 125 to 140 proof alcohol.
Jeff Arnett speaking to VIP ticketholders at the Jack Daniels 150th Anniversary tour at the Hard Rock Cafe Seattle. (Photo Credit: Lesley Haenny)
Jeff Arnett speaking to VIP ticketholders at the Jack Daniels 150th Anniversary tour at the Hard Rock Cafe Seattle. (Photo Credit: Lesley Haenny)

Questions from What’s Up Northwest Readers:

Gentleman Jack vs Old Number 7
I asked Jeff what the difference was between Gentleman Jack and Old Number 7.  This is where charcoal mellowing comes into play and where Jack Daniel’s deviates from most other distillers.  Every drop of whiskey drips through ten feet of hard sugar maple charcoal before it goes into a barrel. Gentleman Jack goes through a second pass of charcoal mellowing after the barrel, working off that bitter edge flavor. Charcoal mellowing is required by law, however many consumers do not like the oak aftertaste it leaves.  The second pass in Gentleman Jack solves that flavor issue.

Flavored Whiskeys
Over the past few years, it seems that other distillers are introducing flavored whiskey to the public.  Jack Daniel’s released Tennessee Honey in 2011 and Tennessee Fire whiskeys in 2014.  I asked Jeff if they will be releasing more flavors in the future.  He said that whiskeys like the honey and fire were created for those who were not prior whiskey drinkers and act as a sort of gateway drink for newbies looking to expand their taste palette. However, flavored whiskey is not the main strategy for Jack Daniel’s at this time.  They are focusing more on barrel technology and the craft elements of whiskey.

Taste testing with Jeff Arnett. (Photo Credit: Lesley Haenny)
Taste testing with Jeff Arnett. (Photo Credit: Lesley Haenny)

Men vs Women
It is sometimes inferred that whiskey is considered a “man’s drink.”  I asked Jeff about this concept and he said contrary to popular belief, women order harder drinks and drink Jack Daniel’s more then men do. Adding the Tennessee Honey has helped expand more whiskey horizons for both sexes, but in the end, whiskey quality is most important and everyone is a friend to Jack Daniel’s.

Rye Whiskey
This year, Jack Daniel’s released the third offering within the Single Barrel Collection, the Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel Rye. The Rye is 94-proof, made with 70% rye, 18% corn and 12% malted barley grain.  We tasted the Rye together, and as Jeff pointed out, it should have a clean, sweet tone at the tip of the tongue and a shorter finish than other Single Barrel tastes. Rye cannot be over-barreled, but at the same time, there needs to be the right balance to give the rye it’s character.  I asked Jeff about this release and why rye seems to be popular right now. He said that historically, rye whiskey existed long before bourbon, as it has not been made since the prohibition era.  Today it is the next evolution in bourbon. Rye brings something unique to the palate for those who already love Jack Daniel’s or something new to those who are expanding their whiskey horizons. Jeff says that Jack Daniel’s is about a year away from making this a “drinking man’s” rye.

(Photo Credit: Lesley Haenny)
(Photo Credit: Lesley Haenny)

Ice Ball or Stones
For all the whiskey connoisseurs out there, Jeff says that whiskey stones are the way to go.  Unless you have high quality ice, water dilutes the alcohol content and often the pollution in the water affects the overall taste.

Whiskey Storage
I asked Jeff about the best way to store whiskey.  While whiskey doesn’t necessarily get better as it ages, if you keep a good seal on it, keep it at room temperature with minimal fluctuations and out of direct sunlight, it can last up to five years.

Bourbon vs Whiskey
I asked Jeff about being able to call Jack Daniel’s a bourbon, as recently bourbon has been distilled outside of Bourbon County, Kentucky. Jeff said that at the core, Jack Daniels is a bourbon first, the difference is the charcoal mellowing process, making Jack Daniel’s a true Tennessee whiskey.

As Jeff so eloquently said, “what comes out of the barrel is who you are.”  As the ambassador for Jack Daniel’s and proponent for whiskey-drinkers everywhere, he personifies the true meaning of Jack’s motto: “Every day we make it, we’ll make it the best we can.”

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