Last week I sat down with Jeff Norman, Master Taster of Jack Daniel’s. A chemist by trade, consider Jeff to be quality control for America’s best-selling whiskey.
First, some background –
Each Jack Daniel’s expression begins with the same formula – 80% corn, 12% malted barley and 8% rye. After distillation, the clear spirit goes through a step called charcoal mellowing, which strips the liquid of impurities (this step also differentiates it from bourbon). From there, the filtered whiskey is matured in toasted and charred American oak barrels. That’s where the whiskey gets the majority of its flavors and aromas.
The whiskeys carry no age statement, and are instead bottled when Jeff and his tasting panel say they’re ready. The ubiquitous Black Label and the milder Gentleman Jack hit maturity between four and five years, while the Single Barrel is typically ready between years six and seven. In addition to the longer aging process, Single Barrel is bottled at 94 proof – the others clock in at 80 – and it’s stored at the top of the warehouses, which see more extreme temperature fluctuations.
As part of the meeting, Jeff brought three samples of Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel, picture above. While barrels of Black Label and Gentleman Jack are each blended before bottling to achieve consistency, a bottle of Single Barrel contains whiskey straight from one barrel. Given the variables in aging, bottles of Single Barrel differ from one to another.
Sample #1 was sweet, round and very smooth, and included an interesting hint of anis. #2 was dry and oaky, while #3 was somewhere in the middle. All were distinctly Jack Daniel’s, but the differences between the samples were noticeable. Jeff noted that most people lean toward barrels similar to sample #1, as they prefer a sweeter style over a dryer one.
As part of Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel program, customers – whether thirsty individuals, bars or other organizations – can taste and purchase an entire barrel. Visiting the distillery to sample barrels is the most intensive, hands-on option, but interested parties can also receive samples in the mail or leave the choice up to the distillery. When you purchase a barrel, the barrel comes empty, with the whiskey distributed into about 240 bottles.
That’s a nice addition to one’s liquor cabinet.