As we continue our exploration of American whiskey in our 'Heart & Soul' Auction, we were very excited to dive behind the label of America's most emblematic and top-selling whiskey brand. We also got in touch with their UK Brand Ambassador, Cam Dawson, and here's what he had to say...
Could you please introduce yourself explaining your role at Jack Daniel’s including a brief overview of how you got involved in the whiskey industry?
I’m Cam Dawson, UK Brand Ambassador for Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey. I was born and raised in Scotland before moving to the south of England in the mid 00’s where I became a cocktail bartender. I spent 10 years slinging drinks in a variety of venues on the south coast and working prestigious events in London before I was invited to share my love of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey to the drinks trade. I became the UK’s first Brand Ambassador for Jack Daniel’s whiskey in 2014.
Day to day, I’m the “Go-to” contact in the UK for any questions on the whiskey in the bottle and offer some expertise on the brand’s 154 year heritage too. I develop and host training programs for the drinks trade throughout the UK and help with drink/cocktail menu creation for their venues.
I also get to host some great events for people that aren’t working in the drinks industry; whiskey fans and connoisseurs that will come and learn about the history of Jack Daniel, his award winning whiskey and of course; how to drink it.
To kick things off, we want to ask about the difference between bourbon and Tennessee whiskey. Lots of people would describe Jack Daniel’s as a bourbon, can you set this straight?
Jack Daniel’s is a ‘Tennessee Whiskey’ but I do love how this sparks friendly debate in whiskey circles around the world.
We have been proudly making our Tennessee Whiskey in Lynchburg since 1866 making us the oldest registered distillery in America and far older than the category of bourbon becoming the official whiskey of America (1964).
To be named a Tennessee Whiskey (which is recognised by the North American Free Trade Agreement, NAFTA), it HAS to be made in the state of Tennessee. The governor of Tennessee also passed a new house bill in 2013 confirming that a Tennessee Whiskey must pass through charcoal prior to aging. The rules are a bit spread out from national to state but if you want to call it a Tennessee Whiskey, these are the rules you have to follow.
The way that I see it, if a Scottish whiskey can be split up into regions and categories (highlands and lowlands etc), why not American whiskey too? It’s a useful thing! It tells us exactly what's inside the bottle before we buy it or order it over the bar.
Could you tell us a bit more about the charcoal mellowing process at the Jack Daniel’s distillery?
We have a team of two men; Darryn and Tracey who have been our in house fire starters for many years now. They will take hard sugar maple wood and burn it down for about 2-3 hours. As the whiskey is to be coming into contact with the charcoal, they don’t want to taint the flavour in any way so they use ‘Whiskey For Destruction’ which is unaged, Jack Daniel’s straight off the still at 70% (140 Proof) to start these ‘rick fires’. After it’s cooled, it is ground down to small pea sized nuggets then hand pack it into our mellowing vats. There is no law to say how much charcoal is needed for the Lincoln County Process, but in his day, Jack used 10ft and that’s exactly what we do today. The new whiskey falls onto the beds of charcoal drop by drop (like a leaky tap), it takes around a week for one drop to reach the bottom and when it comes out, the flavour has been mellowed. The charcoal clings onto the fatty corn acids and volatile alcohols that all new-make whiskey has in it. In Tennessee, we traditionally remove this with the sugar maple charcoal to offer a smoother sippin’ whiskey.
It’s worth saying that we are very conscious of what we take from nature so we work with the University of Tennessee on a tree planting scheme to ensure we give back more than we take.
Aside from this process, what sets Jack Daniel’s apart from American whiskey?
Jack Daniel’s is proudly an American whiskey as well as a Tennessee Whiskey. We follow every rule to make a Bourbon but go through additional regulations to be classified as a Tennessee Whiskey.
Something that I’m truly proud of is the consistency of Jack Daniel’s. From Lynchburg to London, every single drop of the whiskey comes from our distillery in Lynchburg, Tennessee. We use the same water source as Jack and his master distiller, Nearest Green back in the 1860’s. It’s an historic brand.
There is no denying that we’re one of the major players in the whiskey game in our 154th year but this allows us to make our whiskey to the highest standard possible. We are the only whiskey company in America to make our own barrels. The barrel gives over half of the flavour to the finished whiskey so we want to ensure the quality is the best it can possibly be.
Can you tell us a bit more about how you create Jack Daniel’s in the still room? Mash bill/ distillation/ fermentation?
I like to say that we make our whiskey everyday how Jack and Nearest would have made it on the very best of days and this is down to modern distilling techniques and standards. Jack’s motto was “Every day we make it, we’ll make it the best we can” so like him, we start with the best quality grain; 80% Yellow corn and create a mash bill with 12% malted barley and 7% Rye, just like it was in 1866. We ferment for one week with our proprietary yeast strain which is cultivated in Lynchburg by our in house microbiologist until it reaches 10% abv or 20 Proof. We distil with copper continuous stills until it reaches 70% abv and then it goes to the mellowing room.
Something that is particularly special is that Jack Daniel’s have their own cooperage onsite. Could you tell us more about this and maturation at the distillery?
We actually have two cooperages now. the Brown-Forman cooperage in Louisville where our parent company is based and also one in Trinity, Alabama. We predominantly use barrels from the Alabama cooperage which caters just for Jack as the Louisville site also produces barrels for Woodford Reserve and Old Forester Bourbons as well as our tequilas. After the barrels arrive at the distillery, they are filled with our mellowed new-make before going for a long sleep in one of our 90 barrel houses.
Jack Daniel’s is a long-established producer, can you tell us how the brand and the product have developed over the decades?
Jack Daniel himself started the distillery back in 1866 and gained a lot of popularity in America before taking international recognition at the 1904 World’s Fair when he won a gold medal for the ‘finest whiskey in the world’. It wasn’t until 1988 that the distillery started to branch out and innovate with the (nearly as old as me) Gentleman Jack which was the world's first double mellowed whiskey. In the 90’s we introduced Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel which has most recently won a coveted double gold at the San Francisco spirits and gold at the bartender spirits awards. Most recently we have ventured into making rye, something that has never been done at the Jack Daniel distillery before as well as adding to our whiskey liqueur offerings with Honey, Fire and Apple. These are great to introduce the whiskey flavour profile to people that might find traditional whiskey daunting and are so much fun to mix with..
As the most popular American whiskey in the world Jack Daniel’s has some incredibly devoted followers, how do you interact with your fan base and does this influence the whiskey that you produce?
Jack Daniel’s is a huge collectors brand globally and social media has made everyone around the world a few clicks away. I often get messages on Instagram and Facebook from collectors across the world, asking about bottles, limited editions, release dates etc and I’m more than happy to have a chat and share what I know. The distillery has released several limited edition ranges throughout the years which are always snapped up by the collectors first. Their passion for the brand is wonderful and their knowledge keeps me on my toes.
Can you tell us about the Jack Daniel’s portfolio of whiskeys? What does Jack Daniel’s aim to offer whiskey lovers through their range of whiskeys?
I’m really excited by the whiskey offering from the Jack Daniel distillery and grateful that I get to represent such a great spectrum of flavour. There really is something for all whiskey drinkers from the Laid back & Mellow ‘Gentleman Jack’ which might be one for a scottish whisky fan to try as it’s double mellowed and light on the oak, to the Big & Bold ‘Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel’ which is packed full of oak and complexity.
Jack Daniel’s has an impressive range of whiskeys . If you had to pick, which would be your favourite and why?
For me, Jack Daniel’s Old No.7 is my go-to! It was the first whiskey that I ever tried, it’s not too big, not too light and it’s one of the most consistent whiskeys going, in my opinion. It works well neat, with a splash of cola/soda or in a cocktail.
Other than Jack Daniel’s, what else would we find in your drinks cabinet?
With my cocktail bartending past, my home “booze shelf” might look a touch daunting to many people. There are lots of liqueurs, bitters, amaros, sherry and vermouths that I use in cocktails from time to time but if you were going to really twist my arm to say one, I’d probably pick Aquavit. I love the unusual flavour that is like nothing else (it also works great in Jack Daniel’s highball cocktail too).
Can you share with us a few reasons as to why whiskey is the heart and soul of your life?
My friends and family are all big whisk(e)y fans and we will often catch up over a dram and discuss each other's goings on. For me, whiskey can be an occasion, a catch up, an event or an experience. It can bring people together and I love that.
Throw in a touch of live music and give me my Jack Daniel’s t-shirt and I’ll be in my element!