September 14, 2010 / 10:13 AM / 8 years ago

Jack Daniel's distiller evolves into 21st century

PARIS (Reuters Life!) - When Jack Daniel one day in 1911 lost his temper, kicked a safe and died from blood poisoning, it would not have been a surprise to see the whiskey he had created gradually pass away with him.

Jeff Arnett, master distiller at the Jack Daniel’s distillery, looks at a glass of whiskey as he poses during an interview with Reuters in Paris September 9, 2010. REUTERS/Charles Platiau

But about 150 years since the distillery was created in Lynchburg, Tennesse, the secret recipe has been nurtured by just seven master distillers who have turned the brand into one of the world’s best-selling liquors.

The latest man at the helm Jeff Arnett took over in 2008 after starting out as an engineer, joining the food and beverage industry before entering the whiskey firm as a quality manager.

The native Tennessean adopted the square bottle and black label early on. Living just a few hours away, he was a Tennessee squire - an invitation-only club for Jack Daniel’s connoisseurs.

In seven years, he learnt everything from the cave spring water that embodies its flavor to flaming the oak barrels that give it color and the maple charcoal mellowing process that crafts it.

“From an engineer’s standpoint I enjoyed the science, but the one thing that fascinates me is the art that comes along with it,” Arnett told Reuters in an interview. “You don’t sit down and read a book about how to make Jack Daniel’s, you have to learn the nuances that separate us.”

The company, now owned by Nasdaq heavyweight Brown-Forman Corp, still retains some of its original quirkiness.

Lynchburg, a town of just under 6,000 people about 650 km (404 miles) south of New York and deep in America’s bible belt, has been “dry” since the days of prohibition, a paradox given its global appeal.

“There aren’t enough voters to overturn it,” said Arnett on a trip to France, the world’s largest whiskey market.

Despite its roots, foreign consumers now drink more Jack Daniel’s than Americans partly due to a fall in the dollar, but also as the purchasing power increases in emerging markets.

This has also meant the job of the master distiller has evolved beyond ensuring its quality at home.

For 50 days of the year, Arnett travels to some of the key markets, including top importers Britain and Germany, to educate how to taste and spot the differences in the firm’s three brands.

“If you were going to taste tap water in five cities, you wouldn’t taste a difference, but put a charcoal filter and taste the water and they would be distinguishable,” said Arnett.

Developing the palette takes time. Arnett, who favors the more intense Single Barrel label with ice, spent almost five years as one of two tasters trying out every Single Barrel offering before it went to the market.

“It’s like it became my baby,” he said, adding he receives just 2 complaints in every million bottles shipped each year.

While the original recipe hasn’t changed, Arnett believes today’s consumer has become much more discerning. Globalization means customers now expect every bottle to taste and look the same, while mass market products are the norm.

“There was more acceptance of variability back then than there is today,” Arnett said. “But Jack was a businessman. When he first sold whiskey it was straight from the barrel and when it moved to bottles he picked a square bottle to be unique.

“He understood that the product has to be presentable and palatable.”

Slideshow (2 Images)

With so many firms adapting labels to market conditions by creating fancy alternatives, is there a temptation for a master distiller to leave his own touch on the Jack Daniel’s brand?

Arnett admits that there is always interest in creating something new under its name especially with its strong flavors, but ultimately it could distort its heritage.

“I’m like a steward, (and the motto is) ‘it’s Jack’s whiskey, so don’t mess it up!,” said Arnett.

Reporting by John Irish; editing by Paul Casciato

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