Distilling the best of Jack Daniel's town

December 23, 1990|By Carol Fitzpatrickand Vince Fitzpatrick

LYNCHBURG, Tenn. -- Leaving their shady spots by owners stores, friendly town dogs lope across the square to greet a visitor. In front of the Farmers' Co-op sits an old boy in work boots and a blue cap with a booming bass laugh that turns all corners and fills up the square -- a laugh that shows, far more than words or possessions could, the man's delight with his place in the sun. You feel good here. Lynchburg, Tenn., best known as the home of the Jack Daniel Distillery, needs no official welcome center.

With its population of about 400, Lynchburg serves as the seat of Middle Tennessee's Moore County, the state's smallest. The working courthouse dominates the square, where a Mercedes might park next to pickup trucks selling local produce. Yankee accents contrast with the broad Southern drawl. With their fashionably casual clothes, tourists pass the time with farmers in overalls. The town's essential character has changed little despite the influx of nearly 300,000 visitors a year, residents say.

The motto "All Goods Worth Price Charged" dominates thred-brick front of the Lynchburg Hardware & General Store. Through its clever advertising, the store has become known nationally, but most sales still occur there rather than through the mail.

Founded in 1912 by Lem Motlow, nephew and heir of Jack Daniel, the store is owned by the distillery. "We try to carry unique items," explains proprietor Tommy Sullenger, "things you won't find at shopping centers."

Walking past the single cash register on the first floor, shoppers are enticed by walking sticks, slab bacon, a variety of preserves, even by a sundial. Above these dangle branding irons, bellows, and country hams. Comfortable rocking chairs beckon, and a checkers board, its pieces made of soda-bottle caps, awaits players.

Worn pine planks lead to a slightly elevated area in the rear, dominated by a cast-iron stove. During cold weather, locals gather there. Household items -- brooms, baskets and cast-iron cookware -- mingle with antiques: cuspidors, buggy whips and a buckboard seat. Here lies the red cedar coffin crafted for Lem Motlow, who was buried by other means. (It is not for sale.)

The name Jack Daniel dominates the second floor. The distillery's logo marks glasses, mugs, caps, shirts, watches and belt buckles. American folk toys delight young visitors.

Those familiar with the store's extensive catalog (discontinued in 1986) may well recall the pups of Etta the coon hound. They still are available, Mr. Sullenger explains, from a breeder nearby. Visitors are neither hurried through the store nor pressured to purchase anything. "We are not," Mr. Sullenger says, "against sitting and jawing."

This same hospitality permeates the distillery, nestled in a hollow about a quarter-mile from the square. Opened during the 1860s, America's oldest registered distillery was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1972.

Decades ago, seeing a visitor on the grounds, Lem Motlow left his office to conduct an impromptu tour. Nowadays, beginning at 8 a.m., 18 guides lead tours about every 15 minutes. These are designed, explains Roger Brashears, Lynchburg promotions manager, "to show how we make the best whiskey in the world."

A brief slide show explains the importance of the hollow's iron-free water -- this is why Jack Daniel located here -- the careful mix of grains, and the charcoal-mellowing process that -- distinguishes Tennessee whiskey from bourbon. A small bus takes visitors to a bonded storage warehouse above the hollow. Each of these 40 buildings holds more than 20,000 white-oak barrels, where the whiskey ages four to five years and receives its color. Used only once, many of these barrels are recycled as furniture.

Down the hill lie the sawmill and furnace, where sugar maple is BTC cut, put in ricks, then burned to produce charcoal. Visitors pass the cave opening of the spring, sending over 700 gallons per minute to the pump house. Lest we need reminding, a drink from the fountain proves how unpalatable household tap water can be.

Nearby stands the statue of Jack Daniel, constructed to his exact height of 5 feet 2 inches. (The feet had to be enlarged to support the statue's weight.) A bachelor, Daniel was reputed to be a ladies' man -- local legend claims that two chairs were placed next to his grave to accommodate women in mourning.

Toward the end of the tour, visitors encounter the yeasty smell of the fermenting room with its bubbling vats of grain. "If you have sinus problems," the guide explains, "you won't have them no more." A floor below, clear whiskey is distilled at the rate of over 1,000 gallons an hour. Pumps carry this whiskey to the charcoal-mellowing vats, where it remains for two months.

After a journey of 60 minutes and a little over a mile, visitors are offered complimentary coffee and lemonade. (Long dry, Moore County prohibits the sale of alcohol.)

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