Interview with Jack Daniel’s Master Distiller Jeff Arnett

Followers of this website know I’m a big fan of Jack Daniel’s whiskey.  It was my entry to the world of whiskey and holds a special place in my heart.  You can bet I was pretty excited to learn about a bottle signing at Dorignac’s, a New Orleans area supermarket, with Jack Daniel’s Master Distiller Jeff Arnett.  When I arrived, he was nice enough to spend a few minutes talking whiskey, New Orleans, and what we can expect from Jack Daniel’s in the coming year.

Jeff, how are you doing?

I’m doing well.

Is this your first time in New Orleans?

No.  Actually my first job out of college I made Folger’s coffee over in New Orleans East.  I lived in Slidell for about four and a half years.  I joined Jack Daniels in 2001, and worked there seven years before becoming their 7th Master Distiller.  So I’ve been with them for about 13 years now.  But I actually lived here in the area years ago and still have a lot of friends here, so it’s always great to come back.

You’ve got to like the food here.

I do.

What are some of your favorite restaurants?

We ate at Fausto’s here, right beside Dorignac’s.

The Italian restaurant?

Yeah.  As far as downtown New Orleans I was always a fan of Galatoire’s.  I think it’s a fantastic restaurant.  We do a lot with Dickie Brennan too.  We were at the Bourbon House last night, and it was fantastic.  I’ve never had a bad meal at these restaurants.

Your latest release in the US is Sinatra Select.  Can you tell me about it?

Sure.  A lot of people don’t know the story between Jack Daniel’s and Frank Sinatra, but back when Jack Daniel’s was a little known whiskey company – we were a small regional brand.  In 1955, Frank Sinatra held up a bottle of Jack Daniel’s on stage and he called it the “nectar of the gods.”  After that, Jack Daniel’s exploded.  Our sales doubled the next year.  We actually went on allocation.  We could not make enough Jack Daniel’s for the next 25 years.  We owe him a lot as far as Jack Daniel’s becoming a household name.  Today we’re the number one selling whiskey globally.  Frank was a life-long Jack drinker, and he actually had a bottle of it buried in his casket with him along with a pack of cigarettes and a roll of dimes.  So those were the three things included in his casket.  We’ve maintained a friendship with the Sinatra family, even though Frank is passed away, with Frank Jr., Nancy, Tina.  There’s a Sinatra foundation – they do a lot of philanthropic work.  I do a celebrity golf tournament.  We’ve always supported them because of the friendship we have with them.   Through those things we’ve done together over the years, we have long talked about doing something together that would honor their dad.  The friendship they have with our first salesperson, Angelo Lucchesi, who unfortunately just passed away in the past year.  To make this particular product is really different than any other Jack Daniel’s product you’ve had.  It’s not just fancy packaging.  The whiskey that’s in this utilizes a special grooved barrel.  Jack Daniel’s is the only whiskey company that manufactures it’s own barrels, and we have patents and proprietary processes that we do to them.  We go into a toasted and charred oak barrel and we groove it so that it literally doubles the inside surface area of the barrel.  All the material that’s removed from the barrel actually stays in the barrel so it’s like adding wood chips into the barrel too.  So if you know whiskey maturation, you know that would make a really really bold, very oaky expression of whiskey.  Actually so much so that I really wouldn’t want to make a batch just using that particular barrel.  We take stuff from our upper floors of our warehouses, very similar to single barrel, and we small batch that.  We then kind of craft in some of these grooved barrels.  We wanted to do something that we thought would be bold and smooth, because we thought that those words describe Frank Sinatra so well.  So the whiskey kind of speaks to the man that it honors.  It’s got a very long, very smooth oak finish.  If you’re somebody who says “I really don’t like anything Jack Daniel’s does,” if you’re somebody who tends towards the smokier scotches, I think the Sinatra Select would really speak to that person.  I think I’ve changed a lot of people’s minds about whether or not they would like a Jack Daniel’s product, just by giving them a chance to try the Sinatra.  It’s a really, really great product.

With the newest release, No. 27 Gold, being tested in the Asian market, you’re playing with finishing the whiskey.

We are.   We actually take our Old No. 7 whiskey that’s been in a toasted & charred oak barrel, fully matured… would have been ready to bottle as Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7 Black Label, but we take a toasted maple barrel and we put the whiskey back into that.  It stays in for 6 months to a year.  Literally, we can’t stay much longer than that because maple is no where near as sound a barrel as an oak one.  The thing’s bleeding whiskey.  The angel’s share even after about 6 months is about 20%.  That’s about a 10 year scotch as far as the angel’s share.  The maple has it’s own set of sweet end finishing notes.  I tell people I pride Old No 7 with being a nice balance of sweet note character, and having a lot on the tip of the tongue and also having a lot of the finish on the back of the throat.  Maple really kind of overlays that with its own set of character.  It’s very complex, but it’s also so drinkable at the same time.  People ask me what’s my favorite product that Jack Daniel’s has.  I hate to tell people it’s No. 27 Gold.  For a lot of people they haven’t seen it or haven’t had a chance to try it.  I think at some point it will be offered in the US, but right now it’s just in some exclusive duty-free airports in Asia.  I’m actually headed to Shanghai and to Hong Kong in a couple of weeks to do our big launch party in those markets.   Have you seen what it looks like?  The packaging?

I’ve seen the bottle, but not the packaging.

(looks through his iPhone) A lot of people, even here, have not seen it before.  It’s a nice looking package.  (finds the photo of No. 27 Gold in full packaging and shows me.  Below is the bottle & packaging.  Note, this is not the bottle shot from Jeff’s iPhone.)

Photo courtesy of Jack Daniel's.

Photo courtesy of Jack Daniel’s.

Wow!

It’s a similar bottle structure to the Sinatra Select.  It has the thick glass base.  Beautiful product that’s out there. (chuckles) I’m a fan.

I see why.  Jeff, what can we expect from Jack Daniel’s in the next few years?

You know, right now we’re in test market with a cinnamon whiskey.  The flavored whiskies are really hot in the United States, and I don’t think Jack Daniel’s is looking to become the Baskin-Robbins of whiskey with 31 wonderful flavors of Jack.  I do think that if you have a few flavors that really work well with what your brand tastes like, then it would be kind of foolish not to at least introduce those because the market is ripe for those types of opportunities.  Of course we’ve got a rested rye (whiskey).  We did an unaged product just to let people know we were going to do our first new grain-bill since Prohibition.  We’ve gotten to two years in the barrel and did another limited release on that.  This is a straight rye and it’s available here today [at Dorignac’s].

When do you expect the final release? At the four or six year mark?

Actually the unaged rye did not come out on the initial stuff that was barreled.  So, by next summer… in the latter part of next summer we’re actually going to be ready to release something that’s fully matured.  So expect something maybe in the late summer or fall of next year that would be an ongoing product.  I know we’re thinking about doing some special rye offerings for sure.  Before Prohibition, rye whiskey was the predominant type of whiskey consumed in the United States.  Bourbon kind of took over after Prohibition.  We’re seeing this resurgence of interest in rye whiskey.  We feel like we have a really unique and a really nice one, so we’re really proud to go ahead and put our name on that, even though I think it’s a departure of what people know of Jack Daniel’s from our existing grain bill.

This is your first new mash bill since Prohibition.

Yeah, we’ve done 80% corn, 12% malted barley and 8% rye on Gentleman Jack, Single Barrel, and our black label and green label.  All of those have that consistent grain bill.  So this is the first time that we departed from that.  We went with 70% rye, 18% corn and 12% malted barley.  That keeps the rye character really big, but leaving the corn in it is the source of sweetness.  I think for a lot of people, for Jack Daniel’s that’s sort of our signature.  We have a little bit of a vanilla/caramel entry.  We are able to maintain that and then get all the fruit spice notes from the rye on the back end of it.  To me  it’s sort of a unique spin on a rye whiskey.  We’re pretty proud of it.

Jeff, thanks for your time.

You’re very welcome.

 

Jeff Arnett was a great guy to talk to.  He is definitely passionate about Jack Daniel’s.  Interesting that we can expect their matured rye whiskey late next year.  Next up on AdventuresInWhiskey.com is Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7 Black Label, followed by Sinatra Select.  Stay tuned… (sorry, I work in television).

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