A Whiskey Pilgrimage: Visiting The Historic Jack Daniel’s Distillery In Lynchburg, TN
Lynchburg is a study in contrasts, a tiny town with a larger-than-life legacy. It’s here, in this one-stoplight town with only about 6,000 residents, that the biggest and most recognizable whiskey in the world is made. And it’s a must-visit for any whiskey lover. So today we’re headed down to rural Tennessee to tour the iconic Jack Daniel’s Distillery!
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Full disclosure, I work for Brown-Forman, who owns Jack Daniel’s, which is why I’ve had the opportunity to visit and do some cool stuff. However, there’s no relationship between the distillery and this blog, and they don’t endorse me or the blog in any way. All opinions are, as always, completely my own!
Jack Daniel’s was officially founded in 1866, when a 16-(ish)-year-old Mr. Jack registered his distillery with the government. He was the first to do so, which makes Jack Daniel’s the oldest registered distillery in the country.
Jack is such a huge brand that some people assume the distillery is just a showplace, and there’s a massive factory somewhere else…but the opposite is true. And more than 300,000 people a year make the trek out to this tiny town in the middle of nowhere to see where every drop of Jack Daniel’s comes from.
What’s even crazier is that Moore County (where the distillery and Lynchburg are located) has been a dry country since 1909, when the state went into its own Prohibition. While they got an exception in 1995 to taste a small amount on the tour, to sell at the bottle shop, and to gift to employees, you can’t buy alcohol anywhere else in the county to this day.
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Who was Jack Daniel?
Yes, Jack was a real dude! Jasper Newton Daniel was born somewhere around 1850 (give or take a year or two…record-keeping wasn’t the best). As a child he left home and was taken in by the Reverend Dan Call. Here, with the Call family, he learned to make whiskey from an enslaved man named Nearest Green.
He bought the whiskey distillery from Reverend Call around age 13, and registered it a few years later (the first in the nation to do so). He brought Nearest (now free) with him as effectively the company’s first master distiller, though that title didn’t really exist until much more recently.
When Jack moved the operation to the Cave Hollow (where it is today) in the 1880s, Nearest didn’t want to move, but his sons George and Eli went with Jack. To this day, the distillery’s workforce has multiple generations of various families working there, and has had a Green family member working at the distillery since the time of Nearest (you can learn more about it here if you’re interested).
Jack was quite a fascinating person himself…only 5’2″ tall and a dapper dresser, he had many female “friends” but never married (the distillery was passed on to his nephew, Lem Motlow). I’ve been reading “Blood and Whiskey: The Life and Times of Jack Daniel” and if you really want to know more about him, I highly suggest it!
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How to plan your visit to Jack Daniel’s & Lynchburg
Here are a few tips to make the most of your visit. It can definitely be done in a day trip from a city, but if you want a little more time to explore, you can spend a night in the area as well.
- Lynchburg really is in the boonies, but it’s still easily reachable from Nashville, Huntsville, and Chattanooga (60-90 minute drive from all three)
- Reservations are encouraged, though not required…however openings are first-come if you don’t have a reservation so during peak times you might have to wait a while. My take is, if you’re going all the way out to Lynchburg, wouldn’t be annoying not to be able to get on a tour??
- There is a parking lot you can use for free that’s a short walk to the Visitor Center (I think if you’re approaching the distillery on the left, the parking would be your next right). Some people take a guided tour from one of the nearby cities, to make things easier.
- Tours/experiences are partly outdoors and may involve walking and stairs. Decent walking shoes are recommended, and I’d encourage sunscreen and a water bottle.
- In addition to taking a tour, I’ve shared some of the other things you could do below, including exploring downtown Lynchburg, stuffing yourself silly at Miss Mary Bobo’s, visiting Jack’s gravesite, and more!
- Where to stay: We typically stay at the Holiday Inn Express or the Hampton Inn Express in Tullahoma (about 15-20 minutes from Lynchburg). You can also choose to stay in Shelbyville (I’d go with the adorable Belmont Inn).
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The Jack Daniel’s tour
First, we tour! You’ll arrive at the Visitor Center to check in for your tour. While you wait, there are tons of historical artifacts, exhibits, stories, and more around the room to soak up.
There are four different tour options (you can see them here). There are a lot of similarities, though one of the tours does not include a whiskey tasting at the end. I took the Angel’s Share tour, which takes a total of 90 minutes and has five higher-end whiskeys you taste at the end.
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This old time-y car is where you’ll meet your tour group at the appropriate time. I was met by Brandi, and we headed out to the waiting minibus (after a photo op for anyone who was interested).
The tour starts with a short bus ride up to the top of the hill, then the remainder of the tour is walking (note, you’ll need to be physically able to walk short distances and navigate stairs, or else call the distillery to ask about accessible options).
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The tour doesn’t fully go “in order” of the exact whiskey making steps (simply due to logistics of getting groups through and where very old buildings were originally placed). But you do start kind of at the beginning, with charcoal creation at the rickyard. This is probably my favorite thing to see, if you’re luck enough to catch the timing right.
Charcoal mellowing was a key part of Jack’s process back in the 1860s, and has stayed an integral part of the process to this day. The so-called “Lincoln County method” means that every drop of Jack is very slowly dripped through 10 feet of sugar maple charcoal before going into the barrel. This is what makes it a Tennessee Whiskey (as opposed to a bourbon, which it does meet the requirements for).
Contrary to popular belief, the charcoal mellowing doesn’t ADD anything to the whiskey…it removes, to smooth and soften it a bit (particularly some of the more harsh or oily notes you sometimes get in bourbons). Locals call it the “extra blessing”.
Where do you get the charcoal?? Well, you make it, of course! The tour will stop here and explain the process of seasoning the sugar maple and then burning it down to charcoal (which is much more exacting to do than you’d imagine).
If you’re REALLY lucky, you’ll get to see Darren and Tracy actually spray the towers of sugar maple with clear high-proof whiskey and burn them (they do it usually 3 to 4 times a week, typically in the morning).
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Next you’ll wander down to the Cave Spring Hollow, one of my favorite spots on the tour and the reason that Jack put his distillery here. Every drop of water that goes into Jack’s whiskey still comes from the cave spring on the distillery’s land. It’s truly the lifeblood of the distillery—you can’t make whiskey without a LOT of water!
There’s a reason Kentucky and Tennessee are hotbeds of whiskey making, and that’s because we have an abundance of limestone-filtered water. Why does that matter?? Well, first it helps impart minerals that give it the right character and helps it be as pure and clear as possible.
But more importantly, the limestone removes iron from the water, which is absolutely critical to whiskey making…iron will cause awful tastes in the end product (think sulfur…blech). That’s why the 800-ish gallons of water per minute that the distillery gets from the spring are so amazing (and they have a lot of water conservation efforts to ensure it stays that way).
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Make sure to snag a pic with Mr. Jack! This statue actually gifts him several extra inches in height above his real 5’2″ stature. He was quite a dapper dresser, which the statue captures nicely 🙂
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The next few stops on the tour include Jack’s office (the only original building that was still usable after Prohibition), then fermentation, and charcoal mellowing. In those latter two they ask you not to take photos for safety reasons, so make sure to pay attention to signage. Also, there’s a place to fill up a water bottle in fermentation area.
I particularly love fermentation…seeing how they grow the yeast (their own proprietary strain, which makes a massive difference in taste!), use the sour mash, and ferment the corn mash is so cool. You can watch it bubble merrily away.
And the SMELL! It’ll knock you back, that yeasty fermentation scent and C02 kickback packs a punch. I love it though.
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You are then able to see what the charcoal mellowing process looks like, with vats of charcoal packed 10 feet deep. The clear 140-proof liquor very slowly drips down, letting gravity do its job.
After the filtration process, the whiskey is still clear, and then it’s ready for barreling. The distinctive color of Jack Daniels comes from the brand-new charred, toasted oak barrels that will be the whiskey’s home for the next handful of years.
Barrels are so critical to the whiskey-making process, imparting about 50% of the taste and 100% of the color. That’s why Jack makes all their own barrels, to be able to control that part of the process from start to finish.
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And finally, it’s time to taste some whiskey! I was on the Angel’s Share tour, which includes five more special, high-end (high-proof) whiskies that are harder to find.
Brandi led us through the Red Dog Saloon, Sinatra Select (the singer was famously buried with a bottle of Jack), Single Barrel Select (one of the easier to find globally), Single Barrel Rye, and the current Tennessee Tasters (which brings notes of Jamaican spice from the finishing barrel they used).
The tour guide will talk about the steps to taste whiskey well (e.g. smelling it first without sloshing it around, then giving it a swirl to sniff, then the first tiny taste to shock your palate, etc.).
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After the tasting, your tour will wind up back at the Visitor Center at the White Rabbit Bottle Shop, basically the only place you can purchase Jack in (dry) Moore County. White Rabbit was the name of one of the two saloons Jack ran in Lynchburg back in his time (Red Dog was the other).
Their bottle selection rotates constantly, but this can be a great place to pick up some of those less-common products, and the only place to get the Tennessee Tasters series. One note, they can do bottle engraving here, which is a fun gift idea (or self-gift, to commemorate your visit)!
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Now let’s talk about some of the other things you can do in Lynchburg to really round out your Jack Daniel’s tour experience.
Devour the best Southern cooking at Miss Mary Bobo’s
Run, don’t walk! For me, Miss Mary Bobo’s is a must-do while you’re in Lynchburg. It began in the early 1900s as a boarding house run by the lady herself, and has carried on the tradition of Southern hospitality and cooking ever since.
Historically they’ve done everything family-style here, and you’d sit down with other people, big dishes of food magically appearing, and often one of the hosts would sit down and share history, stories, and recollections. COVID has kind of screwed that up and it’s more traditional ordering right now, but I know they’re hoping to get back to that soon.
Everything I’ve had here has been absolutely delicious, but a major shout-out to the fried okra—I think it’s the best I’ve ever had. I dream about that okra! I’d recommend a reservation, and you can see more at their website.
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Wander downtown Lynchburg
Historic downtown Lynchburg is just a 5-minute walk from the distillery, and worth a spin while you’re visiting. It’s very shopping-focused, particularly old fashioned candy and sweets, Moon Pies, antiques, and LOTS of Jack Daniel’s merchandise (including items made of old barrels).
Make sure to visit the Lynchburg Hardware & General Store, which (contrary to the name) is the biggest, best place to find Jack merch.
Oh look, I found a friend to hang with for a bit!
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Visit Jack’s gravesite
This one is a REAL deep-cut, and feels a bit odd to me personally. But for the passionate Jack Daniel’s fan, why come all the way to Lynchburg and not stop by Jack’s grave to say hi??
He’s buried at the Lynchburg City Cemetery, which was really beautiful and peaceful on the brisk spring day we visited. It’s fun spotting all the historic Jack Daniel’s-related names on the stones as you walk…Motlow, Tolley, Green, Daniels, and more. And his gravestone isn’t hard to find, as it’s flanked by two pretty white iron chairs if you want to sit for a spell.
Attend a special event on BBQ Hill
If you’re really lucky (and a good planner), you just might get to attend an event atop BBQ Hill. This separate area of the distillery grounds offers amazing views over the Hollow, including the best sunsets around.
There are occasionally events for bartenders, Squires (basically Jack Daniel’s super fans), and us regular Joes, and it’s worth asking around or keeping an eye out for these…I mean, look at that view!
I hope you’re able to plan your own adventure to visit the Jack Daniel’s Distillery soon…it’s one of those all-American experiences you have to do at least once!
Other whiskey adventures you’ll enjoy:
- Bourbon History…& Actual Bourbon At Louisville’s Old Forester Distilling Company
- Visiting Louisville’s Rabbit Hole Distillery
- What It’s Like Touring Jameson Distillery In Dublin, Ireland
- On The Scotch Whisky Trail: Glendronach, BenRiach, Glenglassaugh
- Whiskey, History, & Rock ‘N’ Roll At Ireland’s Slane Distillery & Castle
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