The story of ‘Jack’ Daniel

In the last one hundred years, one of Tennessee’s most famous trademarks has been Jack Daniel’s whiskey. The man, who go on to become one of the nation’s most recognizable distillers got his start as a young boy in the backwoods of middle Tennessee. Although his name is universally known around the world, the story of his life has been shrouded in mystery and legend. The industry, which he helped to found in Tennessee, is today one of the biggest such operations in the nation and one of the most popular American name brands of all time.

Jasper Newton Daniel was born on a Moore County farm in September 1850 to Calaway and Lucinda (Cook) Daniel. He was one of 12 children fathered by Calaway. There were many hardships endured by the family, including the loss of Jasper’s mother when he was seven years old. When the young man was around the age of 10, his father decided it was time for his son to learn a trade.
With only a scant, but well-grounded basic education, Jasper was hired out to the local Lutheran Minister, who also ran a dry goods store in Lynchburg, TN. In those days, the local store was more than a market. It provided families with everything they needed to run a farm, a business, or a home.
The store keeper had to often be an individual of many talents and skills – a person who had to know how to make many things wanted by his clientele. Like blacksmithing or any other trade, it had to be taught and learned through the age old apprenticeship methods. The young man received a sound education in the store keeper’s trade from Rev. Dan Call and soon proved himself to be a quick learner with a shrewd head for business. One of Rev. Call’s best known products, however, stemmed from a whiskey still he operated on the Louse River near his store.
Like most Tennesseans of his day, he employed the ancient Scots-Irish traditions of whiskey-making, but Call had been developing a system of distillation that was unique to his own brand.
In those days, most whiskey that was made and sold was clear in color or flavored with caramel, which gave it the amber look most associated with the drink. It was only aged a few days at most before being sold, which made most whiskeys taste the same.
Reverend Call used the traditional "sour mash" method of leaving a little of the mash from earlier brews in the storage vat to speed up the fermentation of subsequent mixes. In addition, he used a troublesome filtering system called the "Lincoln County process" to age his whiskey. Rev. Dan Call took hard sugar maple and burned it to charcoal, which the whiskey was then filtered through into barrels. While most distilleries in Tennessee used the process at the time, it cost them both time and money and led to many eventually abandoning the practice for quicker profits. Call, however, was a true believer in the "Lincoln County Process" and it was most notable to his customers, who preferred the Minister’s whiskey to the others available in the region.
He taught Jasper the system along with his other working theories gained by experimenting and years of experience. Jasper, who was becoming known by his nickname "Jack", soon proved he was an able brewmaster and capable of rivaling his teacher.
When war became imminent in the state in 1861, the Minister and his young associate kept the business going as best they could. Jack’s youth kept him out of service, his family was like most Tennesseans of the time and involved in the conflict. One of his relatives served with Confederate General N.B. Forrest and rode with him throughout the war. Jack Daniel and Rev. Call managed to scratch out a living from the store and Jack would often transport whiskey as far south as Huntsville, Al. In 1863 during a "Camp Meeting", a lady evangelist delivered a fiery sermon that inspired Call’s wife and congregation to demand the minister make some hard choices. They told him to get rid of his distillery operation or to resign his ministry. Rev. Call decided to sell the business to his young associate.
Jack, who was 13 at the time and mourning the recent death of his father, began to concentrate his time on the business and was a one-man show for a while. He eventually was able to hire a couple of people to help him and, eventually went looking for a better place to locate his business.
Jack Daniel found a tract of land in Lynchburg that included a limestone cave and spring. The pure spring water from the cave became the most important business tool Daniel ever purchased. With the War Between the States over in Tennessee and it starting to come to a close elsewhere, Jack Daniel rightly anticipated the Federal government would levy a tax on distillery operations and, at the age of 16, became the first to register his operation with the United States government. The taxes levied on his company’s product were something he always despised, but because of his quick business move and the growing popularity of a unique whiskey that produced much needed revenue for the government, Jack Daniel avoided the Reconstruction politics that claimed many businesses in Tennessee.
In spite of it all, the young man began to prosper quickly as a distiller and was able to increase his production as well as his profits. He was a consummate promoter of his brew and stayed on top of the industry and informed of the latest developments in the art of making whiskey, including an aging process that benefited the taste and character of the whiskey. When he finally turned 21, Jack Daniel decided to go to the city on a shopping spree. When he returned, the 5’2" distiller was sporting a formal knee length black frock coat and a broad-brimmed planter’s hat that would eventually become his trademark daily uniform. Jack Daniel was always described as a colorful character who gave the small town of Lynchburg a sense of spirit that couldn’t come from a bottle. He always maintained his home-spun appeal to those who knew him and, as late as 1880, the U.S. Census in Moore County listed his profession as "farmer".
Daniel was the first in Tennessee to use hot-air balloons as a promotional tool and often fascinated the locals with his advertising antics. Jack Daniel also started the practice of issuing commemorative bottles to celebrate certain events. He generally stayed with his trademark square bottle, which some say he did as a symbol of his being a "square shooter", which was a popular saying of his day.
Being a distiller, however, also had its downsides for Jack Daniel. The political machines of the day often saw his industry fall in and out of favor with the various attitudes that ran state government. Jack generally stayed in the middle of the road politically, but he supported those he felt guarded his interests and often participated in political campaigns – the most notable being the celebrated "War of the Roses" political campaign between Democrat Robert and Republican Alfred Taylor. The two East Tennessee brothers had been selected by their political parties to seek the Governor’s seat in Tennessee. It got its name from the fact that Democrats wore white roses and the Republicans red to show which brother they supported and the ensuing campaign garnered national attention. This was a point not lost on Jack Daniel, even though he supported the losing Republican candidate. During the campaign, Jack Daniel gathered some local musicians together to form a band for Alfred Taylor. The band livened up the often boring political rallies and became an integral part of the colorful campaign.
In 1892, Jack Daniel decided it was time the City of Lynchburg formed an official town band. Before radio or television, there wasn’t much to occupy the townspeople in small cities and the town band often provided the only means of entertainment. In fact, it is estimated that as many as 15,000 small town bands existed in the United States in those days and they were a source of pride for every citizen. With $227 and a Sears & Roebuck catalog, Jack Daniel purchased a full compliment of nickel plated instruments with cases. When they arrived three weeks later, Jack began helping to assemble the band. The Jack Daniel’s Original Silver Cornet Band, as they were called, began playing at every possible opportunity and were soon the most famous band in the region.
The first Lynchburg Band was made up of 13 people, including a number of Jack Daniel’s employees. Although the instruments were less than perfect, the band made up for it with enthusiasm – most playing in the white gazebo that stood in the courthouse square.
In 1903, the word spreading across the South was about the excitement expected at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. While Jack Daniel had many interests, he had never taken his interest away from the distillery and his reputation was expanding beyond the coasts of America. Like his former mentor Rev.Dan Call, Jack, who never married or had children, brought many of his family members into the company and was teaching his nephew Lem Motlow the Jack Daniel method of making whiskey. The young man shared his uncle’s enthusiastic interest in the family business and also had a head for promotion. With the World’s Fair coming to America, he and others persuaded Jack to enter his brew in an exhibition and tasting of fine whiskeys. The Tennessean was up against some of the world’s best distilleries in Europe and had never been put to that kind of test. In fact, the company had more to lose than gain if it failed, but the pride he and his employees had for their product wouldn’t be denied.
Of the 20 such whiskeys entered in the competition from around the world, Jack Daniel’s Whiskey was awarded the World’s Fair’s Gold Medal and honored as the world’s best whiskey. In those days, that meant something and soon Jack Daniel’s whiskey began picking up a notable amount of business from Europe. In 1905, Jack Daniel’s Whiskey won another Gold Medal in a similar competition in Liege, Belgium– adding to the beverage’s international appeal.
Sometime around 1906, Jack Daniel arrived at the office one morning and tried to open the safe in his office. He either couldn’t remember the combination or wasn’t getting it right on the dial. In a fit of anger, he kicked the safe and broke his toe. Daniel never had it attended to by a doctor and an infection soon set up in the toe. The gangrene eventually spread throughout his system and resulted in Daniel losing his leg to the disease. With the illness starting to wear on him, he began turning more and more of the company’s operations over to his nephew Lem and eventually deeded the business over to him.
Jack Daniel survived until Oct. 9, 1911 when he died of complications due to the gangrene infection. The Tennessee legend was laid to rest amid ceremony in the Lynchburg Cemetery. By his grave stone was placed two wrought iron chairs. While he was known to have no great love of his life, the chairs were often reportedly occupied by the ladies he had dated in his life.
Lem Motlow took on a job that he excelled at and, like his uncle, kept the business going through state and federal prohibitions. Following his uncle’s death, he issued the first black label whiskey in 1912 to go with the traditional green label Jack Daniel had used. The difference being the black label was aged longer than the green.
Motlow was once forced to move the operations to St. Louis, but soon returned to Tennessee as Prohibition swept across the nation. Motlow was forced to close down the distillery and started trading mules. Motlow’s head for business soon developed the mule trading into one of the region’s most lucrative enterprises. In fact, the company grew to be the biggest such operation in the southeast. Even though it seemed like the end for Jack Daniel’s Whiskey, the Tennessean took every opportunity to try and end Prohibition. The family never shirked their traditional responsibility to their community and were among Lynchburg’s most respected families. His son John Reagor Motlow, who was a veteran in World War I, served a term in the state senate where he became a staunch supporter of public education.
When Prohibition finally ended, Motlow reopened the distillery and went back to making and improving upon the whiskey. Like his uncle before him, Motlow continued the tradition of being a good corporate citizen to his city and state. The Jack Daniel’s name soon again became a household word. Although the unique taste of Jack Daniel’s had long been characterized as a Tennessee Whiskey, it had throughout its life been officially listed by the U.S. Treasury Department as a bourbon, which classed it with Kentucky’s noted whiskey. In 1944, Lem Motlow finally achieved the recognition sought for many years in Lynchburg. The United States Government issued a report to the company that stated:
"Your charcoal mellowing process produces characteristics unknown to bourbons, ryes, and other whiskeys and thus Jack Daniels is officially designated as a Tennessee Whiskey."
For the promotionally minded Motlow, it was one of the best official documents that had ever graced the Distillery’s doors. His second generation effort to save and perpetuate the company his uncle founded had become a resounding success. He had pulled it through a time when the nation’s best distillers had gone under and left behind a tradition that still continues to this day. Although it never bore his name, except in fine print, Lem Motlow had kept alive the company the City of Lynchburg so relied on for not only economic survival, but a source of character unequaled anywhere.
Motlow remained a vital part of the company until his death on Sept. 1, 1947. Like his uncle before him, he was laid to rest in the Lynchburg Cemetery.

The 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis marked the first time Jack Daniel’s Whiskey gained official world recognition. The fair had a lasting impact on America. A brewer named Pabst earned a blue ribbon for his beer, a waffle business that was losing money to the summer heat merged with an ice cream stand that introduced America to the ice cream cone, and Scotland Yard introduced the science of finger printing to American law enforcement in an effort to protect the crown jewels of England, which were on display at the fair.
The success of Jack Daniel’s Whiskey continued through the years. In addition to those mentioned in the story, the company went on to receive four more international Gold Medals through the years – the latest being awarded in 1981 in Amsterdam.
During the years prior to Prohibition in St. Louis, Motlow had sold an entire warehouse of whiskey to a businessman. When the buyer arrived, he found the barrels, but no whiskey. It turned out that a group of mobsters under the command of noted gangster Al Capone had drained the barrels from the bottom. Motlow managed to correct the deal, but Tennessee whiskey became one of the most sought after during the Prohibition years. So much so that Capone kept a home in Knoxville where many deals could be made with the numerous bootleggers that pervaded the region.
When World War II began, the Jack Daniel’s Distillery went into war-time operations as did most companies in the state. The alcohol produced by the company was used as fuel in torpedoes
In 1956, the Jack Daniel’s Distillery was sold to Brown Forman Beverage Worldwide, Inc. The company realized that the special formula of Jack Daniel’s included the people of Lynchburg as well as the product. The old adage "if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it" resembled the working philosophy of Jack Daniel himself and the company has prospered. They also own the Bluegrass Cooperage Company, which provides the oak barrels used to age the whiskey. In addition, they still buy their hard sugar maple used in the charcoal mellowing process from local suppliers in Tennessee.
The same year the company was purchased, they started a black and white advertising campaign featuring the people and town that have made Jack Daniel’s Whiskey a household word. The homespun images of Lynchburg began showing up in some of the nation’s classiest publications and was a remarkable success. It literally put the City of Lynchburg on the map of the world and continues today as the longest running advertising campaign in American history.
In November 1967 on a 187-acre-tract in Moore County, the State of Tennessee broke ground on Motlow State Community College – named in honor of Sen. John Reagor Motlow. The land along with a sizable donation from the Motlows helped seed the school into becoming one of the region’s most respected community colleges. Through the years, Jack Daniel’s Distillery and Brown Forman Beverage Worldwide, Inc. have helped to support the college. It continues to grow and be a vibrant part of the region. The company also contributes to the state’s quality of life with numerous contributions to various charities and was one of the first companies in Tennessee to help get the National Medal of Honor Museum off the ground in Chattanooga.
In addition, the Jack Daniel’s Distillery not only reigns in its own industry, but is also one of the most visited places in Tennessee. The Distillery offers tours every fifteen minutes and attracts over 250,000 a year to Lynchburg, Tenn. from around the world. Their travel brochure is now printed in seven languages and the company is always looking for employees with good foreign language skills. For more information on tours of the distillery, you can contact the office in Lynchburg.
Special thanks for this story has to go to Roger Brashears, who currently heads up the Distillery. The Roane County native started at the company in 1963 and continues the home-spun company tradition Jack Daniel started. The company remains a vital part of the industry today and continues to offer special blends and varieties of Jack Daniel’s Whiskey to stay competitive in the industry, but the original is still the most popular. An interesting note is that the company’s used barrels have sort of become a cottage industry on their own. They are still popular with plant nurseries and home gardeners as planters. In Europe, however, they are often sought by Scotch Whiskey Distillers, who use them to help age and flavor their own blends.
The Jack Daniel’s Original Silver Cornet Band mentioned in the story reformed in 1970s as a group. In 1978, they ordered exact replicas of the original instruments. Some were made in France, others special ordered, and some instruments acquired through collectors. The band still performs the "town band" numbers from 1905 and have performed as a professional group over the last few years. The company also still pays homage to their founder by supporting hot air balloon festivals and often enters their own balloon in the programs.
The Distillery location is the only place in Lynchburg where you can purchase Jack Daniel’s Whiskey, but only the commemorative bottles the company has issued. After 136 years of being home to the world’s most recognized distillery, the City of Lynchburg is still officially " dry". The hardest drink available at the lavish bar at the end of the tour is lemonade.