Sunday 15 April, 2012

Master of All He Purveys: Jack Daniel’s Jeff Norman

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Jeff Norman is like a rock star in the liquor business. And not just because he is the Master Taster of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey, one of the most popular brown liquors in the world, one of the best selling American liquors overall, and one of the best known American brands of any kind. No, […]




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Doesn't it look like we should be holding a gold record?

Doesn't it look like we should be holding a gold record?

Jeff Norman is like a rock star in the liquor business. And not just because he is the Master Taster of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey, one of the most popular brown liquors in the world, one of the best selling American liquors overall, and one of the best known American brands of any kind. No, Jeff Norman is like a rock star mainly because he’s like a rock star. I’m not exactly saying he’s Steven Tyler or Robert Plant, but the guy wouldn’t look out of place next to them, for sure.

From left, Gentleman, Black, Single Barrel and Honey

From left, Gentleman, Black, Single Barrel and Honey

Three years ago, Norman inherited his title from his father, putting a happy face on nepotism; so far, it seems like he’s holding up the brand quality well, though he also represents an era of Jack Daniel's branching out into new products more aggressively than it ever has. Of course, that’s relative–they only bottled one whiskey for well over 100 years. Now owned by Brown-Forman, the product line includes Gentleman Jack, Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel, and the new Tennessee Honey liqueur. There’s also Jack Daniel’s Green Label, which is lighter—in every sense–less mature, and only available in select markets. And there’s Jack Daniel’s Silver Select, a high-end single barrel product that’s 100 proof, and not even available in the US (check a duty-free store if you have a chance). They are also reintroducing Jack and cola pre-mixed in aluminum bottles, for easily confused bartenders, and some other “perfect mix” bevvys.

Still, the recipe for Jack remains steadfast: a mash of 80% corn, 12% barley and 8% corn, fermented with a proprietary yeast and distilled to 140 proof. Then the real magic begins, as they drip the white whiskey through ten feet of hard-packed sugar maple charcoal (the unique JD process) and “matured” (not “aged,” Norman points out) in toasted and charred American White Oak barrels. Every JD product starts out this way.

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Norman was running through his litany—with no shortage of passion—during a press gathering for the release of Tennessee Honey in Las Vegas in April. It began with a tasting of the product line (Black label, Gentleman, Single Barrel and Honey–not Green or Silver) in one of the MGM Grand’s sleek, sophisticated Skyloft suites; followed by a dinner at Tom Collichio’s Craftsteak, paired with Tennessee Honey cocktails.

JDMixologist2

The next day, MGM’s Tabu nightclub hosted a comparison tasting between Tennessee Honey and its competitors, Wild Turkey’s American Honey, and Jim Beam’s Red Stag. Tennessee Honey has a soft honeysuckle nose, with caramel, butterscotch and honey notes. American Honey is more cinnamon and orange, with thicker viscosity. Red Stag shows closer to a German herbal liqueur, with a sweet cherry nose, and a peppery-medicinal palate.

Eddie Perales crushing the competition with his Ice Castle

Eddie Perales crushing the competition with his Ice Castle

The proceedings continued with a Tennessee Honey mixology contest with 12 of Vegas’ best bartenders, that I reported upon in The Tasting Panel.

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

But Jeff also imparted a few other details about the process of making Jack Daniel’s products, that seemed worth sharing here. For instance, their warehouses are not temperature controlled—intentionally. While all JD Whiskeys are put in the same barrels, temperature variations in the warehouses affect the aging process. Gentleman Jack and Green label are stored closer to the ground, where maturation is slower—and Gent is put through the charcoal mellowing a second time after barrel maturing. Black label is stored higher, and actually matured longer than Gentleman Jack (though both are 80 proof) and Single Barrel, which was designed to appeal to the cigar smoking types, is matured closest to the roof, where the heat gives it an even richer color, viscosity and peppery finish. SB is 94 proof, too. For Tennessee Honey, they make a honey liqueur using a variety of American honeys (yes, some is actually from Tennesee) and blend it with black for a sippably smooth 70 proof.

Obviously those maturation differences also affect volume: according to Norman, one barrel will yield anywhere from 280 to 300 bottles (750 ml).

A few other interesting “didja knows:”

• Jack Daniel’s has a program whereby you can come to the distillery in Lynchburg and select your own barrel, which three Vegas resorts have done—Bellagio, Silverton Lodge and Aria (the barrel is delivered empty, with the product in special bottles).

• Jack Daniel purchased his first still at age 13—from the minister who raised him—and moved it to the distillery’s current location because it offered an iron-free water source.

• Jack Daniel’s square bottles were an innovation when he first started using them as a way to distinguish his product.

Want to geek out on Jack Daniel’s even more?

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED JULY 2011


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