Though the South is home to our fair share of corn liquors and hooch, brewed out back or in steel vats, there is one eponymous label which stands alone, wholly recognizable worldwide: Jack Daniel. As one of the oldest registered distilleries in the United States, our old friend Jack has been brewing his signature Tennessee whiskey for longer than our grandpappys can remember, the man himself lending a touch of larger-than-life legend to his liquor.
Jasper “Jack” Newton Daniel was born sometime around the middle of the nineteenth century in the dry town of Lynchburg, Tennessee, to a bevy of siblings and a procreative father. Soon after Jack’s birth his mother died, opening his father to his newest venture and wife: in the vein of most fairy tales, Jack’s stepmother was of the storybook “evil” variety, leaving the young tot vulnerable to an upbringing in an unhappy home with his twelve brothers and sisters. The story varies as to whether it was Jack’s choice, an assigned apprenticeship by his father, or a necessity following his father’s death in the Civil War, but regardless of the reason, Jack found himself under the roof of local minister and merchant Daniel Call fairly early on in his childhood.
In addition to shepherding his flock, Dan Call had another passion: Tennessee whiskey. The minister possessed a small whiskey distillery near his home and, in addition to educating young Jack on the principles of retail and godliness, also began teaching him the recipes and methods for distilling fine Tennessee whiskey. Like a fish to water, Jack quickly learned the art of making pure, smokey bourbon. When Jack was still young (legends say about thirteen), Dan Call gave into pressures from his congregation, abandoned his whiskeying ways and willed (or sold) the entire enterprise to his youthful apprentice. Even without the guidance of his mentor, and despite the constraints of his youth and size (he never grew past five-foot-two), Jack Daniel quickly established himself as the name in whiskey—both within his dry county and without.
What began as a small business venture alongside a fatherly figure quickly and steadily grew into a profitable enterprise, in large part thanks to sound financial and business decisions made by Jack himself. In truth, the man was an advertising and marketing genius. He was, for example, the first in the area to use hot air balloons for advertising, leaving locals staring gape-mouthed into the sky as his logo floated, miraculously, against a crystal-blue Southern sky. In 1897 Jack began using his now-signature square bottles. The shape, he claimed, was a testament to his honesty and integrity, validated by his reputation as a “square shooter” (the blatant symbolism not lost on even the simplest souls of Southern Tennessee). Even today, Jack Daniel’s employs that mysterious number 7 in its advertising: Was it his lucky number? A nod to his 7 girlfriends? An ode to the number 7 train which carried his cargo? (His biographer points out that the number is likely a reference to the government registration number assigned to the distillery, but that makes for a far less intriguing and cryptic story and advertising hook).
But perhaps his greatest marketing strategy was also his largest. In 1884 Jack purchased a big piece of land, home to a limestone cave and pure water spring. His investment would become his greatest claim to fame, the “proof” to the superiority of his whiskey: the clear water that bubbles from those springs, he claimed, was the purest and best ingredient for his liquor, making it the finest Tennessee whiskey in production. The spring, the limestone cave, the natural, untouched beauty, is still at the heart of Jack Daniel’s messages today.
Beyond his sagacity in manners of business and excellent whiskey, Jack Daniel was known for his hospitality and charm, making him an icon of Tennessee and Moore County. He became an easily recognizable figure, cultivating his look and demeanor into his own style of celebrity. His signature handlebar mustache and wide-brimmed planter’s hat endued him with a sense of self much larger than his actual stature. He gave to the poor, provided for his community, and even established the town band. The Jack Daniel’s Original Silver Cornet Band, built from a Sears & Roebuck catalogue and the idle, restless mind of Jack, would grow to become one of the best town bands this side of the Mississippi.
Daniel could not even die without dramatics. According to legend, Jack, frustrated with his forgetfulness and unable to remember the combination to his safe, angrily kicked at the hulking, metal box and broke his toe. With notorious stubbornness, Jack refused medical treatment until the break became gangrene and the infected toe became an infected leg, at which point it was too late. Jack Daniel’s biography contradicts this engrossing death story, asserting a more simple case of blood poisoning, but the tale endures. And so he passed away, the tale of his death, like most tales about Jack, growing to exceed factual limitations. But his whiskey lives on, famous the world ’round, a testament to the legend that was—and is—Jack Daniel.