A Chat with Jeff Arnett, Master Distiller at Jack Daniel's

Jack and Coke. Love it or hate it, it's a staple in Houston bars, and not having Old No. 7 on hand might get you a dirty look or two. Jack Daniel's, however, is much more than a mix-in. It's made in the oldest licensed distillery in the United States, and is the subject of more than one country song.

I had hoped to meet Jeff Arnett, the current Master Distiller, while he was in town for the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo World Championship Bar-B-Que Contest this past Friday. Unfortunately, Jeff had to leave early, and we couldn't make our schedules match up. However, we did get to have a great phone interview, and I learned some new things about what they're up to these days there in Lynchburg, Tennessee.

You were recently here in Houston. Have you been traveling around the country?

I was in Connecticut before I visited Houston, but I only travel about 50 days a year. This was the first time I'd been to the Houston cook-off. We have one here as well, but it's much smaller, like 75 or 80 teams instead of the hundreds the one in Houston has.

What's new in the world of Jack Daniel's?

Less than a year ago, we introduced Tennessee Honey. Every year, we have the Annual Jack Daniel's World Championship Invitational Barbeque, and there's an event called "I Know Jack About Grilling." Teams are assigned ingredients, and this past year, we selected the Tennessee Honey for them to use. I think it worked really, really well.

One thing people notice about Jack Daniel's is the prominent, clean vanilla character. In fact, you can use it to replace vanilla in just about any recipe and liven it up. Lynn Tolley of Mrs. Mary Bobo's Boarding House recommends a 3 to 1 ratio since the alcohol is going to burn off during cooking.

How did you get started with Jack Daniel's?

I'm a Tennessee native. I grew up about two hours west of Lynchburg. I graduated from college with an engineering degree. I thought I was going to make cars, but it didn't work out. I ended up interviewing with Proctor and Gamble and worked for them over a decade. I was shopping the job market, and got really lucky when my headhunter found an opening for the Quality Control Manager at Jack Daniel's. I started there in 2001.

Long before this, I was a Tennessee Squire [a private group of loyal Jack Daniel's consumers]. You have to be nominated to be one. So, I was a Jack Daniel's fan before I started working here.

I worked under the previous Master Distiller [Jimmy Bedford, who retired in 2008] for seven years and as Quality Control Manager, I was one of the few people who saw the entire process from start to finish. I'd check the cave spring water, the incoming grains... I was involved with every step of the process.

What's the difference between Jack Daniel's whiskey and bourbon?

We add a step; we filter it through sugar maple charcoal before it goes into the barrel, which changes its character. If it were analyzed with a machine, it would detect no chemical differences.

Bourbon must be at least 51 percent corn, 160 proof or less and aged in new, charred, oak barrels. Other than the filtering through sugar maple charcoal, we actually meet this standard.

We not only char our barrels; we "toast" them too, which is a proprietary process. It brings out complexities: vanilla, caramel and butterscotch.

What would you recommend to someone who likes bourbon?

Sometime bourbon drinkers try Old No. 7 and love it. However, bourbon drinkers would probably prefer Gentleman Jack, which is charcoal-filtered twice, which mellows it. It has a softer finish. It's clean, sweet and approachable.

We also have Jack Daniel's Single Barrel, which is my favorite because each barrel is different. I never get tired of it. It's both a blessing and a curse, though. There is no standard since each barrel is unique. It can be crispy, creamy, tannic, buttery, sweet or complex.

Some people want absolute consistency, in which case we have the "Buy the Barrel" program. They can sample a variety of barrels, pick the one they want and purchase it. A barrel produces about 250 bottles, and we put a bronze medallion on each one with the name of the purchaser. It's great for stores, and sometimes a barrel will be purchased and the individual bottles sold for fundraising.

What's a "day at the office" like for you?

The distillery runs around the clock. After I turn on the lights and have my morning coffee, I check the production reports and plan my day around them. I work on personnel development, go to budget meetings... all the things related to running a business.

I'm surprised! I thought you'd be in the distillery most of the day.

Well, actually, we have a taste panel every morning. There's less nose fatigue in the morning. We cut it to 40 proof to reduce nose fatigue. Tasting isn't drinking though; we basically rinse and spit.

So, it's like wine tasting.

Yes, it is. If you were actually drinking it, after about three thimbles full, you'd be done. The first thing you try affects what you taste next. With the rinse and spit method, you can try about 60 samples and still be discerning.

Anything else you'd like people to know about Jack Daniel's?

I encourage everyone to visit us and take a tour of the distillery. We have tours 360 days a year, and it's just beautiful in the spring and the fall. I feel very lucky and proud to be here.

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Phaedra Cook
Contact: Phaedra Cook