A Conversation with Jack Daniels’ Master Distiller

Jeff Arnett discusses his all-American life…

Jeff Arnett is the master distiller of Jack Daniel’s, overseeing all whiskey production. He’s only the seventh master distiller in the brand’s 140-year history… and he’s also a genuinely nice guy. We recently got the chance to chat with him about Jack Daniel’s Sinatra Century release, produced in honor of what would be Frank Sinatra’s 100th birthday, and while we had him in our offices, we decided to ask for his Thoughts on Taste.   

How’d you become the master distiller at Jack Daniel’s? What was your path?

I would have never told you I was going to be the next master distiller when I came there. I wasn’t born in Lynchburg, and I thought that would’ve been a prerequisite. I’m a native Tennesseean; I grew up about two and a half hours away from Lynchburg. I went to work in the food and beverage field; I made coffee, juice drinks, and chips, but I was a Tennessee Squire, so I was a huge fan of Jack Daniel’s.

Wait, what’s a Tennessee Squire?

You know, when Frank Sinatra gave his ‘nectar of the gods’ comment, when we went on allocation in 1956, we literally we had more people out there asking for Jack Daniel’s than we could get bottles of Jack Daniel’s out. So we started a fan club and we began to write letters to people we knew were Jack Daniel’s fans, just telling them what was going on at the distillery and when we would catch up, and we were trying to maintain some loyalty from them when we couldn’t give them a bottle of whiskey. This club formed in 1956 and it’s still going even today. I’m the first master distiller at JD who was a Squire first.

So I was a Squire; I came to Jack Daniel’s as the quality control manager, and studied whiskey-making under the previous master distiller for seven years, and that role eventually took over all of warehousing and processing there as well as quality control, and then when my predecessor was retiring after 40 years with the company, I was the lucky guy in the right place at the right time. I tell people I was the seventh master distiller for Old Number Seven, and I’d only worked at the distillery for seven years the day that I was appointed. Which is, in distillery years, not many.

So what was the learning process for learning how to taste whiskey?

My approach to whiskey tasting is probably a little bit different, and that’s simply because my first exposure to the sensory sciences started with coffee. When I first came out of college I lived in New Orleans; I worked for a coffee company. The coffees were coming into the Port of New Orleans, and we would bring in bags of coffee, small bags, from different countries, and we would go through a process where we’d roast them and grind them and brew them and class them and grade them. Coffee doesn’t have a very long life; you’re constantly having to reevaluate new crops. So from the old coffee masters, I learned how to classify and grade coffee, looking for combinations of flavors and acidity and body, and then putting them together in the right percentages, so that they’re better together than they are apart. That’s what you’re trying to accomplish by blending coffee.

I had done a lot of coffee classing and grading, so when I came to Jack Daniel’s as the quality control manager, I began to train our tasters to evaluate Jack Daniel’s. And I always told them, it’s not just what you’re tasting, but it’s where you’re tasting it that you’ve got to pay attention to. Gentleman Jack should be very forward in the mouth; it should be the middle part of the tongue and to the tip. It shouldn’t have much flavor beyond the middle part of your tongue. But the Single Barrel, even though every barrel’s different, we would expect it to have more finish; it’s going to have a creamier mouthfeel. It should have some weight, some heaviness to it. Don’t just think about what it’s tasting like, but what other attributes you would assign to it: Where is it in the mouth, what is its weight, how long does it linger? So I began to train our tasters to look at it that way. So that’s how I began to evaluate whiskey. And coffee and whiskey are very similar—they’re more similar than you would imagine.

Which of Jack Daniel’s offerings is your personal favorite?

You know, I think the Sinatra is great, but I also recognize that it won’t be around forever. So of the things that we’re doing today that will be around for a long time, I think Single Barrel is a really good call. The one that we’re most recently coming out with is called Barrel Proof. I think it’s truly the ultimate pure experience for someone who may never get the opportunity to climb up in a warehouse with me and drill a barrel and just let the whiskey flow out the side of a barrel and catch it in a glass and try it; that’s exactly what that product is. So that would be the one I would tell people, if you’re really a whiskey geek, if you’re somebody who loves brown spirits for the sake of brown spirits, Barrel Proof is where you’ll want to go.

How many bottles of Sinatra Century are you setting aside for yourself to drink?

You know, a lot of the time I don’t have any trouble getting a bottle. But I feared that I would never see these, so I actually ordered a three-bottle case, and that’s all I’ll ever get. I’ll get three bottles, and trust me, I’ll be pretty particular about whoever gets a chance to try that.

When you’re not drinking whiskey, what are you drinking?

When I go on the road—I travel about 50 days a year—I’ll typically go for local beers. I’ve had some good ones and some bad ones along the way; I can’t even remember the names of ‘em. When it comes to whiskey I’m pretty much a Jack Daniel’s purist; that’s my favorite. But if I’m not going to drink whiskey, I’m probably going to order a local craft beer and just see what the local flavor is.

So when you’re settling in with a really nice glass of Jack Daniel’s, do you have a favorite situation in which to enjoy it?

I lived in Lynchburg for 10 years, and it’s a dry town, so there were no bars or things like that. I always tell people, it’s not as oppressive as that might sound, because I had a fully stocked bar in my house, and I had just the good stuff, of course. My ideal way is just to have friends over, home entertain, sit out on the back porch, swap stories, see what’s going on with everyone. I would much rather have a close knit group of people I really care about with a great whiskey, and share it between us. To me, that’s ideal.

But I’ll go one better than that. Even though we’re in a dry county, we have a facility on the Jack Daniel’s property; we call it Barbecue Hill. We bring up barbecue teams, the fourth Saturday in October we’ll have probably 1000 people who come up and are our private guests for a party we throw. We serve food, we have an open bar, we have live music. You’re getting the bird’s-eye view over the top of Lynchburg, you can look over the tops of the warehouse roofs, you can see the one red light that we have in downtown. I’ve been there for almost 15 years, and some of my best memories at Jack Daniel’s have happened at that facility. It’s an opportunity for me to meet people who are big fans of Jack Daniel’s in a social setting, and also share one of the best views of town. I can look across the highway and see the cemetery where Jack’s grave is. It’s a pretty special place. Everyone leaves there saying, That was a memory.

We’ve had some great music performed up there, we’ve had some very interesting pitmasters and people like Guy Fieri, who’s come to town, brought his son, and made it a memory for himself, too. He’s actually part of a barbecue team that’s called the Motley Cue, this eclectic group of people who went to the same barbecue class in Houston years ago. They’ve won the Royal, they’ve won Houston, they’ve won all these really big barbecue competitions and they’re considered to be one of the better teams on the circuit. But they said, ‘The one we’ve always wanted to win is the Jack, and we’ve never won it.’ Winning it means a lot, and it’s sort of an elite thing to say that you’ve won there. But yeah, Guy usually comes to try to get them to win, but they’ve never been able to win it. I’ve got quite a few memories with him up there. (Laughs)

You gonna share any specific ones?

No. What happens on the hill stays on the hill.  (Laughs again)

Like Vegas.

Yeah. We promised each other we’d never rat one another out.

Okay. Maybe that’s a good lead-in to the next question: What would someone be surprised to learn about you?

You know, I think because of our brand and because of the title that I have, I think a lot of people see me as almost like a little bit of a rock star, especially when I’m among collectors and fans, but I’m pretty normal. I think that the fact that I’m just an average guy with a really cool job, I think would stun people.

Any unusual hobbies or interests?

Old cars. Like muscle cars. And I don’t have one right now! I’ve had a couple of ’67 Camaros; I’ve had ’65 Mustangs. I’ll find something that’s slightly rough, or needs a little TLC, and I’ll go in and kind of make it my own. And I’ll drive it around a while, and then I’ll say, Ok, I’m kind of done with it; I can’t think of another thing I need to do to it—it’s nice, and I’m going to let somebody else enjoy it. And then I’ll go look for something else. So it’s kind of a rolling hobby.

But I don’t have one right now. I’m looking. And I’ve reached that point in my life where it’s like, this next round, I’m not looking for a fixer-upper; I want something done, because I just don’t have the time I used to have. But I know very specifically what I want and how I want it done. I was born in 1967 and that was the first year of the Camaro; that’s why I’ve had two ’67 Camaros. So I’m on a search right now for a ’67 convertible resto-mod Camaro.

What would you say is your greatest indulgence?

You know, I don’t know that I have one. I don’t splurge for a lot of things. But my kids are 13 and 11, and we wanted to make some memories with them; we ended up buying a lake house and a boat, and that’s probably my biggest indulgence right now. It’s not a place I had to have, but it’s a place that we thought was important for the kids at this time. It’s a retreat for my wife and me, but more importantly for the kids; they both love the water and love watersports. Almost every weekend I’m in town, we’re on the boat, and I’ve got my son and some of his buddies, or my daughter and some of her girlfriends, dragging them with a tube or a kneeboard somewhere.

What’s your definition of the good life… and how would you say you’re living it?

I do something that I love doing. I feel like I’ve gotten comfortable in my own skin. I have a job that I really enjoy and people that I enjoy doing it with, and I’m representing a brand from my home state that’s literally iconic, that people love all over the world. I’m sort of a homebody, and I’m glad that I get to spend 80 percent of my time in Lynchburg doing the job that my title says I do. But I’ve been blessed to also be able to travel the world, and a lot of the time my wife goes with me, so it’s memories we’ve been able to share. Jack Daniel’s has opened doors for me, given me invitations to see and do things that I would’ve never seen. So to me, I think doing something you believe in, and being able to work with people who you have confidence in, as I do right now, and being able to make new experiences—very few people get to do that, so I don’t take it lightly. I try to be grateful for the opportunities I’ve been given. 

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