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My Handcrafted Opinions on Whiskies, Distilleries and Other Related Stuff

The Jack Daniel Distillery, Tennessee, USA

My birthday treat in 2013 was two distilleries in one day. This was number two, with George Dickel being number one. I did not expect to learn a lot on this tour and Tennessee whiskey has by and large passed me by, but I felt that any self respecting “distillophile” has to see the home of the world's biggest selling whiskey at least once. The basic free tour I took (there is a $10 tasting tour as well) was, as you might expect, slick and well done. It starts with a video, a tour group photo (40+ distillery tours and this was a first for me!) and then a bus ride to the area where they burn the sugar maple ricks for their charcoal and then a walk back to visitors center taking in the cave springs, Jack’s old office, the production areas, including a bottling hall, and finally a warehouse. Well structured and informative this was good way to spend an hour. The tour was focused on Jack Daniel and skipped quite quickly through the technical side of things, but no real surprise there; the tour group was made of people who will probably only see one distillery in their lifetime and the themes and stories played well to the audience. We got to see the safe that Jack kicked in fit of frustration one morning and the subsequent broken toe led to gangrene, infection, less legs than he started life with and eventually death. The tour guide even made the “happy cows around here” joke I hear in about 1 in 3 distilleries. The thing that of course separates JD and Tennessee whiskey from bourbon is the charcoal mellowing (or Lincoln County process) and we spent some time on the tour’s “money shot” ie the charcoaling mellowing room. At end of tour you do get a chance to buy “commemorative bottles that happen to contain whiskey” as Lynchburg is famously a dry county and you can't buy liquor… and I walked away with two expressions I have never seen anywhere else, the Master Distiller and an unaged Tennessee Rye. One thing I had never realized was that the man’s name (and in fact the distillery name) is Jack Daniel. No “s”.   As in The Jack Daniel Distillery. I also did not know that is oldest registered distillery in USA, being registered in 1866 two years before distilling was formally legalized and taxed in 1868.  Do they have a gift shop?  No.  Really they don't have a gift shop at the distillery.  What they have is the town of Lynchburg a short walk away that can best be described as a Jack Daniel's Gift Town.  And if you show your tour ticket when you buy anything over $10 in any of the shops in town... you get a JD shot glass.

I also learned some more about the “Green Label” Old No 7 expression on the tour, which I occasionally see in stores but does not appear in any marketing or websites. Apparently it is a product that is “only available in certain states in USA” and is taken from barrels at the bottom of their barrel houses and has the least interaction with wood due to relatively less temperature fluctuations. The traditional “Black Label” and Gentleman Jack are taken from the middle levels and the Single Barrel comes only from barrels stored at the top level of the barrel house. A quick bout of mental arithmetic suggests this is at best an “approximation” as the relative volumes of the Black label in the market compared to Green Label and Single Barrel suggest that some barrels from bottom and top have to make their way into the blend as well.

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Mount Gay Rum, Barbados

Mount Gay Rum, Barbados

OK so it’s not a whisky distillery (in fact the visitors center wasn’t even in the actual distillery) but there were plenty of similarities with whisky production. Tammy and I visited Mount Gay in Bridgetown, Barbados in October 2011. Mount Gay claims to be the oldest rum distillery in the world with deeds going back to 1703. The visitors center is in the bottling and blending plant near the harbour (handy for export). In a process similar to Scotch whisky production, the spirit is produced at their distillery in the north of the island near the sugar cane production. The by product of sugar production, molasses, is fermented and then distilled into rum. Interestingly some of the distillation is done in a continuous Coffey still, the same way that grain whisky is distilled, and some goes through a double distillation process in pot stills, ie the same as malt whisky. The different distillates are then matured in ex-bourbon casks from Kentucky (another similarity with scotch and other whisky) and then, when the maturation process is deemed complete, the two different distillates are finally blended and bottled. At the end of the short tour and video we were given samples of their three main products, Mount Gay Eclipse (43% ABV), Mount Gay Eclipse Black (50% ABV) and Mount Gay Extra Old (43% ABV – I think). While not quite what I expected (no actual distilling etc) it was still worth the visit, very generous samples at end of tour and a party atmosphere throughout, I think even the people working in the gift shop has been sampling the goods, perhaps the tradition of dramming is alive and well in Barbados. This tour was all about drinking and buying rum and we obliged on both counts and left with a bottle of Eclipse Black.

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