Jasper Newton (Jack) Daniel was introduced to distilling at the tender age of seven, when he went to live with a lay preacher called Daniel Houston Call, who operated a whiskey still, store and farm. Originally, he was taken on as something of an errand boy but he was soon learning the art of making whiskey from Dan Call’s distiller, Nearest Green. In 1863 a temperance preaching woman known as Lady Love convinced Call to choose between his ministry and his whiskey, so Dan sold his still to Jack, then aged thirteen.
Jack’s actual birth date is not known but it is commonly accepted that he was born in September 1850, as one of thirteen children. The folk at Jack Daniel’s make the most of this uncertainty, celebrating his birthday for the whole month of September. And we think, why not?
In 1866, aged just 16 but already an established distiller, Jack moved to a new site; setting up a distillery about five miles down the road at the spot the present distillery sits, alongside the excellent Cave Spring water source. This is America’s oldest registered distillery.
Jack died on 8th October 1911, aged 61, from a gangrenous infection. In 1905 he had broken a toe, apparently from kicking his safe. His Nephew usually came early to open the offending safe but that fateful morning he hadn’t, so Jack tried to open himself and after numerous failures kicked it in a fit of temper. The resulting broken toe became infected, leading to his leg being amputated. Gangrene set in and ultimately killed him. “Temper, temper, temper. He should have soaked his foot in whiskey”, says Big Goose, the best known of the tour guides at Jack Daniel’s.
Jack never married or had children (although he is reputed to have been something of a ladies’ man) so left the distillery to his nephew, Lemuel Motlow and a cousin, Richard Daniel. Lem soon bought Richard’s share and took over the running of the distillery.
Lem ran Jack Daniels from 1911 until he died in 1947, a period of 36 years, although during 19 of those years Prohibition forced him to be a mule trader and shopkeeper rather than a distiller. During a difficult period that included Prohibition and two World Wars, Lem nurtured and developed what Jack had started. He not only built the Jack Daniel’s brand name to be internationally well-known, but also oversaw technical developments such as the introduction of column distillation.
Lem Motlow’s valuable contribution is celebrated on every bottle of Jack Daniels to this day where he is recognised as being the ‘proprietor’ on the foot of the whiskey’s label.
The township of Lynchburg, where Jack Daniel’s is based, is in Moore county, deep in the religious South. In 1910 the area voted to go ‘dry’, forcing Lem to mothball the distillery and set up operations in St. Louis and Birmingham. These two new distilleries were soon forced to close with the advent of national Prohibition in 1919, so Lem turned to mule trading instead and built a hardware store in the town square. The hardware store is where the money came from to reopen the distillery after Prohibition.
His mule barn can still be seen just outside Lynchburg on the road to Tullahoma and it is still possible to shop at the hardware store he built on Lynchburg’s town square in 1912. It is famous for the motto: ‘all goods worth price charged’.
Even when Prohibition was repealed in 1933, Moore County remained dry, as it does to this day. Lem was elected to the legislature and in 1938 a special state law was passed allowing whiskey to be made, though not sold, in Moore County. At the age of 69, a long 29 years after he had been forced to stop, Lem resumed whiskey production, with profits from the hardware store funding the resumption of distilling. To help generate revenue from distilling while he waited for his whiskey to reach sufficient age to sell, he made peach and apple brandy.
Lem Motlow had four sons who jointly took over the distillery after his death in 1947. The sons, who had no male children, sold their business to Brown-Forman, the huge distilling conglomerate in 1956, after receiving assurances that the whiskey would not be changed. We are assured that this remains the case to this day.
Lem Motlow's four sons
Jacks old white clapboard office was used until 1952 when a larger brick building replaced it. The old office stands next to the cave spring, a virtual museum with Jack’s original desk and that fateful safe.
A life-size bronze statue of Jack in front of Cave Spring was unveiled on his 150th birthday (or thereabouts), that illustrates just how short in stature he was. Standing only 5’ 2” tall and mounted on a chunk of local limestone, the statue is appropriately nicknamed, ‘Jack On The Rocks’. The original one - made of Italian marble - dates from 1941 and was moved inside the visitor centre to protect it. If you see this you may think Jack had large feet compared to his height, but in fact his feet had to be made disproportionately large to prevent the otherwise life-size statue toppling.
Chris Fletcher (Assistant Master Distiller) stands next to the statue of Jack Daniels in December 2016