Q: When I lived in Tennessee, I toured the Jack Daniel’s distillery. I was told that in order to taste-test the bourbon, employees had to go outside the county, because alcohol consumption in Moore County, where the distillery is located, is prohibited. I know that the South has some strange liquor laws, but that one struck me as a little silly. By the way, how would a person get a job like that?
Cathy Stoltz, of Belleville
A: Your query sounded pretty silly to Svend Jansen, too. As he quickly discovered, your guide was merely savoring a shot of humor at your expense.
“In talking to our folks in Lynchburg, it seems that’s simply an old tour guide joke which is told occasionally,” Jansen, the company’s global public relations manager, told me. “There’s no truth to it.”
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Not that there aren’t some grains of truth behind the gag, as you obviously well know. A decade before the ratification of the 18th Amendment in 1919, which banned the manufacture and sale of alcohol throughout the country, Tennessee passed its own prohibition legislation in 1909. It effectively shut down all state distilleries, including Jack Daniel’s, and forced them to move their operations out of state.
But after national prohibition was lifted a quarter-century later, not all state residents were ever allowed to fully join in the celebratory toast. Yes, in 1937, Lem Motlow, a state senator and nephew of the original Jack Daniel, led the successful fight to allow the manufacture of alcoholic beverages again. As a result, he soon reopened the Lynchburg distillery.
However, in 1939, the state passed another law that forced each county to vote on whether or not to allow the sale of booze in that county. If you didn’t pass such a referendum, you automatically remained a “dry” county by default. Moore County — including what some call the one-stoplight town of Lynchburg (population 6,400) — has yet to pass such a measure.
The law is so strict that for decades if you took a tour of Jack Daniel’s, they could not offer you a sample of their product. That would have been like me being given a glass of iced tea on my tour of Jameson’s in Ireland a few years ago. It was first in 2012 that the Tennessee Legislature passed HB3610 that allowed complimentary tastings to be offered. So if you go through Jack Daniel’s now, you will be able to enjoy the product that Jackie Gleason reportedly turned Frank Sinatra onto in 1947 — but not that much.
“You get three samples — just a sip,” a distillery spokesman said.
From this history, it’s easy to see how the joke of taste-testers being forced to work in adjoining counties or even states arose. Besides, while it sounds like one of those fairy tale jobs, you don’t exactly get to belly up to the bar and throw back doubles all day. In reality, you have to have an incredible knowledge of the product and hypersensitive taste buds — and, in the end, you don’t even get to swallow the stuff.
Take master taster Marianne Brown, for example. She told CNBC in 2015 that she boasts a degree in chemical engineering, which helps her take a scientific approach to her job. She probably needs it, because she has to recognize all the nuances of Brown-Forman’s brands (including Jack Daniel’s), identify the precise proofs coming out of each barrel and detect any defects.
Or how about Lynn Tolley? She’s the great-grandniece of Jack Daniel, but did that help her become a tester? Nope.
“I tried that card, and they turned me down because they put me through tests for a whole year,” she told Business Insider last year. “Then they finally said, ‘Yeah, you can taste.’ I must have great taste buds because I was selected to taste our premium single-barrel whiskey.”
Tolley says that each Friday she goes into a room where there may be 50 glasses on a table. First, they sniff a glass. If it smells a little “different,” they are allowed to taste it.
“I always look for caramel, vanilla and sort of a toasted oak,” she said. “There is this nuttiness. It’s like the smell if you were cooking with roasted pecans. I always look for vanilla. Did you know you can substitute vanilla for Jack Daniel’s when you’re cooking? I do that at Miss Mary Bobo’s (a restaurant that grew out of an old boarding house near the distillery).”
But unlike the standard humorous toast, the whiskey never makes it past her teeth and gums.
“After it sits on your pallet, you are supposed to spit it out and then you have to drink water and move to the next sample. We don’t mess around with eating Saltine crackers or anything like that.”
But their efforts don’t go unrewarded. Once a month, every Jack Daniel’s employee is given a bottle of Old No. 7 along with commemorative bottles on Christmas and July 4.
How is it rumored that Jasper Newton “Jack” Daniel died?
Answer to Wednesday’s trivia: Well, blow me down: The official world record for producing the strongest wind now belongs to Tropical Cyclone Olivia, which in 1996 delivered a 253-mph gust at Barrow Island, Australia. It finally topped the previous record of 231-mph gale recorded in 1934 during a winter storm on Mount Washington, New Hampshire. In 1999, Doppler radar indicated a tornado with 318-mph winds in Oklahoma City, but this mark is not certified by the World Meteorological Organization.