13 Burning Questions on Whiskey with Jack Daniel’s Master Distiller

Courtesy of Jack Daniel's

Jeff Arnett is Jack Daniel’s master distiller, and he’s only the 7th in the whole 150-year history of the brand. So when JD asked if we wanted to talk to him, we said "Oh hell yeah son!" (We actually just said "Yes, thank you"). For two hours we peppered Arnett with questions about his beverage of choice: Jack Daniel's Tennessee Whiskey. So grab a finger or two and tuck in for the (mostly) unabridged interview below.

Courtesy of Jack Daniel's

What is the single most important trait for being a master distiller?

You have to have patience. I don’t think any great whiskey can be done quickly. You have to be willing to let the whiskey to come to you, and understand that Mother Nature is largely going to control the process.

Do weather and geographic location do anything to whiskey distillation?

Being in the middle part of the US, we have a truly four-season environment. When whiskey heats up, it expands, and when it cools down, it contracts. On the top floor of the warehouse, temperatures can range 100 degrees from summer to winter. And it’s these changes that really make the whiskey vacillate in and out of the barrel, which helps the flavor. In TN, the higher temperature extremes cause our whiskey to actually go up in proof -- which is the opposite of the more moderate-climate Scotch aging process. So climate in the southern U.S. definitely makes a whiskey different than if it was, say, distilled in Michigan.

What’s your favorite type of non-American whiskey? 

Well my whiskey palate was largely framed by American whiskey, and while I’ve learned over the years to appreciate Scotch -- it’s the grandfather of whiskey -- it’s still not my favorite. I don’t really like that oilier mouthfeel, the smoke, the peat. Those sort of medicinal notes that Scotches are known for. By default, I’d probably end up in Irish whisky. A little cleaner mouthfeel, a little sweeter.

Courtesy of Jack Daniel's

Why do you think JD has such a close tie with music?

Jack Daniel never married and never had kids. He had two passions: whiskey and music. He started a group called the Silver Cornet Band, and they would sit out on the square and play music. He had two bars right on the square, and he’d draw people in with those performances. We have a philosophy that good whiskey and good music make good friends.

Courtesy of Jack Daniel's

What’re the key distinctions between Kentucky straight bourbon and Tennessee whiskey?

There’s just one. TN whiskey has actually been written at a state level. The code says what can qualify as a TN whiskey has to first satisfy all the qualifications of a bourbon on the federal level (made in the U.S., at least 51% corn, distilled below 160, etc.). Kentucky has further defined Kentucky Straight at a state level, and that’s what we did in TN. We reaffirmed the federal rule, and added in the charcoal filtering. It has to be maple charcoal, sugar maple charcoal mellowing.
There was pressure put on JD back in 1941 by the alcohol bureau in Washington D.C. They wanted us to call ourselves bourbon because they didn’t see a distinction. So we actually sent samples to Washington, and they ended up deciding we were right and they didn’t contest the label anymore.

Courtesy of Jack Daniel's

So what’s so important about charcoal mellowing?

It actually brings out the sweetness in the corn. The distillate in a finished whiskey will actually cancel out the sweetness of the corn, and that has to be addressed in some way. You can either do it in the barrel, but that takes years. The charcoal can do it in days. Our flavor is a combination of going low on rye (taking out the peppery-ness), and then sweetening the corn at the mellowing step.

What would happen if you tried to do a mashbill of 100% corn?

You would have to use some type of synthetic enzymes to let it ferment. Corn as a sugar source is starch, and yeast has a hard time converting that into alcohol. It needs simpler sugars, and that’s what our malted barley does. From a science standpoint, we put the malted barley in at 12%, and it’s sturdy and perfect. Our grainbill is somewhat like a tank… it’s hard to mess it up.

Courtesy of Jack Daniel's

What’s the one point in the distilling process that’s most important?

There’s no other one thing, in terms of flavor and color, that’s as important as the barrel. I sleep better at night, because I know where our wood comes from, and how it’s made. When you make a barrel for yourself, you aren’t compromising it. No insect-damaged wood, no sub-par materials. We’re our barrels’ first user, and it shows in our product.

Is now the most exciting time for whiskey lovers? 

We’re seeing popularity of whiskey and whiskey cocktails rising. For one, the female population is not necessarily limiting its drink choices to wine and vodka and some of the things that you’d traditionally assume women prefer. I do think the craft movement is creating some interest among people. And in this case it really does seem like the rising tide is raising all ships. It’s good for every brand. And even for Jack Daniel’s, a brand that was growing even when whiskey wasn’t that popular, we see a lot of upside to this “Whiskey Renaissance.”

Courtesy of Jack Daniel's

Rocks or neat?

Rocks. Fewer, larger cubes is the way to go. Or a single ice sphere. You’ll get the chilling effect without dilution.

Cocktails or straight?

That depends on the whiskey. If I’m drinking Gentleman Jack, I like a cocktail. If I’m drinking something more like a Single Barrel or a Sinatra blend, I’ll go straight. I do what the whiskey tells me.

So what’s a good whiskey for cocktails?

In the Jack Daniel’s range, I call Gentleman Jack our “cocktail whiskey,” because it’s gone through mellowing a second time. Your classic whiskey cocktails contain some form of bitters, so if your whiskey has a lot of oak, it’ll compete with that (because they hit the same tastebuds on your tongue). Gentleman Jack lets you keep the bitters light, but keep them prevalent. All of the worst whiskey cocktails I’ve had have the same thing in common: people had overdone the bitters in them.

What’s the best whiskey cocktail you’ve ever had?

I was in Berlin years ago for the bartender’s convention, and someone made me a single barrel old fashioned, and they kept it real simple. It was a brown sugar cube, an orange peel, they zested the glass a bit, and they bruised the orange peel and the brown sugar cube together. And then they just dropped single barrel and ice on top of it. I had to go up and shake the guy’s hand.