Donald Trump may be a teetotaller, but Americans are drinking more under his presidency. That’s not fake news for Jeff Arnett, master distiller of whiskey brand Jack Daniel’s. “The business has been good. The spirits industry looks to be having a great year and Jack Daniel’s has benefitted from the economy,” he beams. When the economy is doing well, it’s certainly time to expand. Arnett did exactly that earlier this month by boarding a flight to India. “There’s a good chance that we can make them fans of Jack Daniel’s,” he says about giving Indians a varied choice of products from his distillery in Lynchburg, Tennessee. Last year, the spirits industry in the US grew by 4% to a new high of $26.2 billion, bringing a smile on the faces of distillers like Jeff Arnett. “India is a very attractive market,” said Arnett, talking to Financial Express on Sunday after a masterclass in New Delhi recently. The master distiller, who was on his first visit to the country, is banking on his company’s rich history to draw Indians to a bottle of Jack Daniel’s. The 152-year-old company, which produces two million barrels of whiskey every year, is present in over 160 countries. Around 40% of its sales are in the US and, in the UK, it’s the number one whiskey brand.
Taste of history
The history of Jack Daniel’s is as impressive as its range of products, which made Frank Sinatra comment that Jack Daniel’s is the “nectar of the gods”. It was the year 1955, eight years after the famous American actor-singer had been introduced to Jack Daniel’s by his friend and comedian Jackie Gleason. “That comment made us a household name,” says Arnett, who became the master distiller at Jack Daniel’s 10 years ago. “Wherever he was shooting or performing, we sent him bottles of Jack Daniel’s,” Arnett says about the lifelong relationship between Sinatra and the distillery. “We never paid him any money for promoting us,” says Arnett. When Sinatra died in 1998, he was buried with a bottle of Jack Daniel’s (also a packet of cigarettes and a dollar’s worth of coins to call his friends on phone). The bond between Jack Daniel’s and Sinatra is so strong that in 2012, the distillery even came out with a bottle of whiskey named after the famous American. “It was the ultimate gift,” says Arnett about Sinatra Select, which was made in “Sinatra barrels”.
All Jack Daniel’s whiskies (including brands like Gentleman Jack, which is double-mellowed for smoothness, and the charcoal-mellowed Old No 7) are made in Lynchburg—interestingly, a county of 6,000 people with no bars. “Lynchburg is a dry county since 1909,” explains Arnett. Tennessee, which enacted America’s first prohibition law in the 19th century, waited for four more years to allow alcohol after prohibition was lifted in 1933. Though Lynchburg voted to reopen its distillery, it voted not to have bars in the county. “Visitors to our distillery can purchase a souvenir bottle from our shop, but they can open it only after crossing the county’s boundary 20 km away,” says Arnett.
Rich in diversity
When the Black History Month was celebrated in the US in February to remember important achievements and contributions of African-Americans to the country, Jack Daniel’s stood out. New facts available today about the history of the distillery show that it was a black slave who taught Jack Daniel, the founder of the company, how to make whiskey more than 150 years ago. As per Arnett, Daniel met Nathan Green (called Nearest) in the farm of Dan Call, a preacher who owned a distillery in Lynchburg. “Nearest had a reputation of being the best whiskey-maker in the area,” says Arnett.
The story of Nearest as a mentor and teacher of Daniel became widely known after Fawn Weaver, an American researcher, bought Call’s farm and brought out a whiskey called ‘Uncle Nearest 1856’. “The story hasn’t changed, but it added more colour,” says Arnett about Weaver’s research. “Jack never owned a slave and Nearest became his business associate,” he adds. Nearest’s children, too, joined their father in Daniel’s distillery. “We still have the Green family, which works with us today,” says Arnett. With Jack Daniel’s pushing boundaries for further success, it seems the Indian spirits industry is ready to raise a glass to the famous American whiskey maker.
Faizal Khan is a freelancer