The enormity of the situation dawned on me as I entered the tasting room at the Jack Daniel’s distillery. Laid out in neat squares at each seat were 24 Glencairn glasses, each filled with an ounce or so of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey in varying shades of brown, each representative of a single barrel specially selected for the occasion. Seated at the front of the room were master distiller Jeff Arnett and assistant master distiller Chris Fletcher, each providing an informative and convivial presence presiding over the proceedings. Shit, I thought, that’s a lot of whiskey to taste before noon. But that was the job I signed up for – well, the job I was invited to tag along for – tasting barrels of Jack Daniels with a state liquor commission—so taste I must, taste I would, bring on the day-drunk.
I arrived at the distillery that morning with representatives from Brown-Forman, the parent company that owns Jack, and the New Hampshire Liquor Commission, to select 16 single barrels that will be bottled and sold at New Hampshire liquor stores starting in early June. New Hampshire, along with 16 other states, is a “control state.” This means that the state controls the marketing and sale of all wine and spirits. This also means that the guys who run the Commission get to travel to various distilleries and hand select barrels to buy and sell in New Hampshire. This year would add one barrel to last year’s record purchase of 15 barrels, and the mission this morning was to taste through 24 samples and select the 16 most worthy of single barrel bottling. “I think if you just taste single barrel occasionally, you don’t get it,” Arnett told us. “But when you go back-to-back like this, you’re like, I just cannot believe how much difference there is between barrels.”
The Hew Hampshire Liquor Commission operates almost 80 retail locations throughout the state, offering low prices that draw in customers from around New England looking for bargains on spirits and wine. The profits from liquor sales in New Hampshire go to a state General Fund, which then disperses money into programs for education, social services, and transportation. For those that don’t live in control states, the system can appear to be a little mysterious and antiquated, but it seems to work pretty well in New Hampshire, which is recognized as being one of the more progressive control states.
Looking back at my tasting notes, I see words like “fruity,” “oak,” “full,” “balanced,” “long finish,” and “apricot burn.” The truth is that after the first 10 samples or so, my palate began to get just a little bit burned out. But as I continued to taste, it started to come back, and it seemed that with each new taste, the differences became sharper, the flavors more pronounced, the singular characteristics of each barrel exploding in my mouth. Clearly, the guys from the Commission were the experts here, though, picking up nuances and marking their favorites like seasoned pros. Jeff and Chris, clearly the most informed of the bunch, guided us through the process as well, offering their thoughts and advice on how “sessionable” one barrel was over another, reminding us that most people will add ice or water to their whiskey, and to pay attention to where we tasted in our mouths, as some barrels were sweeter or more oaky than others and play on different parts of your tongue.
Chris and Jeff tasted along with us, their enthusiasm never waning as they sipped (and spit, more often than not – hey, they were on the clock), and explained what they see as the benefits of participating in a barrel selection program. “That’s really the great thing about what the state of New Hampshire has done,” said Fletcher. “We’re able to sit down… and experience all of these flavors… and we’re able to take this back for the people of New Hampshire. People drink on a lot of occasions for discovery. If you pick [barrel] 2231, you’re gonna get a whole new discovery than if you pick [barrel] 2074. With this many barrels, I don’t know of anywhere else in the world where people get to experience this type of variation and complexity in these whiskeys.”
Ultimately, tasting notes will be assembled for each barrel that’s bottled, and surely some whiskey fanatics will seek out each of the 16 bottles to compare and contrast the sometimes subtle, sometimes pronounced differences. A regular bottle of Jack is a blend of around 150 barrels, so these single barrel bottlings are truly unique and special. “If you like Jack Daniel’s, it’s hard to dislike Single Barrel,” said Arnett. “It’s sort of like Jack Daniel’s on steroids. It’s gonna be bigger, more aromatic, more flavorful.”
As the tasting wrapped up and we started to think about soaking up all that whiskey with some fine Southern cooking, Arnett philosophized about the meaning of whiskey, and how Jack Daniel’s, certainly an iconic brand in the category, fits into today’s whiskey-loving world. “Whiskey is a journey,” he said. “What we would love to be able to do is carry people through their journey. We say, as a brand, our target demographic is hard to figure out. It’s bikers and bankers, but from an age standpoint it’s LDA to DND. That’s ‘legal drinking age’ to ‘damn near dead.’”