Master Distiller of the Jack Daniel Distillery
Story by Lyda Kay Ferree, The Southern Lifestyles Lady.
Jeff Arnett was named Master Distiller of the Jack Daniel Distillery in 2008. His supervision of the entire whiskey-making process of milling, yeasting, fermentation, distillation, charcoal mellowing and maturation ensures the world’s top-selling whiskey label is both in constant supply and true to Jack’s guiding belief that “Every day we make it, we’ll make it the best we can.”
In 2001, Jeff took his first job at the distillery in quality control and overseeing Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel. Since then, his work in a variety of capacities throughout the distillery, including warehousing, maturation, distillation, charcoal mellowing management, barrel quality and bottling, as well as being a member of the Master Tasters’ panel, have primed him to spearhead the entire operation.
Arnett is one of only a handful of master distillers in the distillery’s history which began production in 1866 with its founder, Jasper Newton ‘Jack’ Daniel. Jeff is proud to accept the enormous responsibility that comes with having one of the most envied jobs in the world.
A native of Jackson, Tennessee, Arnett received a degree in industrial engineering and worked the food and beverage manufacturing industry for 11 years before moving to Lynchburg in 2001. Jeff and his wife, Lori, have two children. When not in Lynchburg, which takes up 80 percent of his time, Jeff travels the world as an ambassador for Jack Daniel’s, sharing the brand’s stories with all he meets.
VIP: Tell me about your background and how you landed the position as master distiller at the world-famous Jack Daniel Distillery in Lynchburg.
Jeff Arnett: I grew up in Jackson, Tennessee and went away to college on a scholarship to the University of Tennessee at Martin where I pursued an engineering degree hoping to work in the automotive field. While I was at UT Martin I began to co-op with Allied Signal/Bendix Brakes in Jackson. They did not have a four-year engineering program at the time, so I transferred to the University of Alabama where I completed my degree. It was a terrible time in the automotive field, so I could not find work there. I did not have any options in the automotive field. While on campus I put in a resume at Proctor and Gamble. P&G offered me an opportunity to interview at The Folger Coffee Company in New Orleans. This was my first job out of college. I lived in Slidell, LA and worked at Folgers for 4 1/2 years. That started my career in food and beverage.
Then I worked at Sunny Delight in Sherman, Texas, where I was quality manager and ran the processing department. In 1997 there was a boom at the Pringles plant in Jackson, and I had the opportunity to return to Jackson. Since it was my hometown, I decided to come back home, and I stayed for 4/1 2 years. Later, P&G announced a voluntary separation package and I began to consider a new job. At the time I was engaged to my present wife, a Lambuth University graduate from Columbia, Tennessee, and she had always liked Middle Tennessee.
I sent a resume to James Patrick, who owned an international executive recruitment firm. At the time I did not know who he was. When he received my resume, he asked if I were the son of Alice Arnett, whom he had known in high school. I had heard Mom talk about him so many times. James told me that he was on retainer for Jack Daniel Distillery. The thought of a job in quality control didn’t excite me, but to be honest. I wasn’t sure where I wanted my career to go. James stayed after me and asked me to consider an interview at Jack Daniel Distillery. It took me about a month to interview there.
After my interview at Jack Daniel Distillery, there was no doubt in my mind that I wanted to work there. It was the first time that I had seen quality interwoven into a production culture. I thought to myself—this is a dream job if I can get it. Two weeks after the interview the distillery invited me to a day-long interview. They made me a job offer that I accepted. I came to the distillery in May 2001 and it has been the best move of my life without a doubt in every regard in terms of my family and my lifestyle.
VIP: Did you have reservations about living in such a small town as Lynchburg?
JA: Not really. When we first moved into the Lynchburg area, we did not live in Lynchburg as there are not a lot of amenities there. There is a small grocery store and the distillery square is tourism-driven. We live about 12 miles up the road in Tullahoma (pop: 20,000), which has an excellent school system. We have always felt very welcome there. Everybody knew everybody. Growing up on the south side of Jackson, I was accustomed to that environment. Slidell, LA had a population of about 40,000 and Sherman, Texas about 25,000 people.
VIP: What are your chief duties as master distiller?
JA: I spend 80 percent of my time in Lynchburg where I oversee the whiskey production. This is our only distillery, so that keeps me here a good portion of the time. You become a bit of a celerity in the world of people who follow our distillery. I spend about 60-75 days a year on the road. I’ve been to 35 countries in 9 years. Later this year I’m traveling to Spain. By the time I retire I may have visited 70 or 80 countries. My work is 80 percent production and 20 percent marketing and ambassador.
VIP: Describe a typical day at the distillery.
JA: One of the things that I love about my job is there really is not a typical day. I can do something as mundane as review budgets and look at budget data. There may be celebrities walking the property. Approximately 300,000 people visit and tour our distillery. I shake hands with visitors, possibly offer them a tasting or give a tour. Today the distillery has about 550 production employees. Ninety-five percent of them come from our county—Moore County, which is the second smallest county in the state of Tennessee, or an adjacent county.
VIP: How many employees work at the distillery and is it a 24/7 operation?
JA: The distillery is a 24/7 operation. We shut down 4 weeks a year, which gives us time to do heavy construction work that is dangerous when vapors are in the building. It is one of the few times that our employees can look inside the equipment, walk the system, label pipes and so on. By the first week of October we are up and running again.
VIP: Talk about tastings and how often they are held.
JA: Distillery tastings are daily and for warehouse and bottling operations they are held weekly. We have about 100 employees who participate in tasting.
VIP: What’s new at the distillery?
JA: In October we will launch Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Rye. Our whiskey-making process is so special, and it just makes sense for us to create our version of one of America’s first whiskeys. This is rye whisky made Jack’s way. We think our grain bill provides the ideal taste and character—one that’s bold and balanced and not dominated by one flavor. Our goal with Tennessee Rye was to create a versatile whiskey with a balance of flavors that can be enjoyed neat, on the rocks or mixed in a classic American whiskey cocktail. There is a whiskey renaissance going on now where people are exploring whiskey history.
The distillery and Visitor Center are going through a nearly $200 million expansion to meet worldwide demand as well as improve the visitor experience for the more than 270,000 guests who visit Lynchburg every year. The laws in Lynchburg have changed to allow a sampling tour. When the law changed, we did not have tasting rooms. We offer two formats of tasting—the standard family of brands that include Honey and Fire or Barrel Proof Sinatra Gold.
We have upgraded the parking adjacent to the Visitor Center and our new Welcome Center that serves the distillery, the local Chamber of Commerce and the merchants around the Square. We went from 7 motorcycle parking spots to 70. Our distillery is becoming a very popular place for cycle riders. We have redone the Exhibit Hall and Bottle Shop, which are absolutely gorgeous, and the renovated house for the Tennessee Squires and other visitors is beautiful.
VIP: Do visitors at the distillery find it odd that Moore County is a dry county? Is there any indication that this might change?
MA: Recently a community improvement forum was held in Lynchburg. They are actually posing that question to residents in Moore County. From our standpoint it is not a necessity, but for people who operate at the retail level, restaurants and bars, they would benefit from a change of the law. We are a manufacturer, so we can’t be retail. We’ve always liked that Moore County is a dry county.
VIP: What are your hobbies?
JA: I don’t fish. My grandad loved to fish at Lick Creek on the Tennessee River. I was on a golf team in high school, and I enjoyed playing at Woodland Hills. As an adult I haven’t had a tremendous amount of hobbies. I am a home improvement buff. Currently I am finishing a screened-in cedar porch on the back of our house. It will have an outdoor fireplace and we can watch football games there. I’ve always loved cars. At our last house we had a big barn where I stored several cars. Later, when we moved I had no room for the cars, so I sold them. Now I’m about to purchase a car again. My hobbies are sports, home improvement projects and old muscle cars.
VIP: What are the best national and international markets for Jack Daniel whiskey?
JA: California, Texas, New York, Tennessee and Georgia turn more to Jack Daniel per capita than some of the other states. Outside the US the UK (United Kingdom) is one of our best export makers with over a million cases consumed there of Jack Daniel and they love our Tennessee Honey product. Australia, Germany, France, Canada, Poland and Japan are all in our top 10.
VIP: Do you have a favorite recipe using Jack Daniel whiskey?
JA: I love the baked apples served at Miss Mary Bobo’s and found in some of Lynn Tolley’s cookbooks sold in the gift shop of Miss Mary’s in Lynchburg. The flavors of Jack Daniel and apples are very complementary. In the United Kingdom they make a cloudy apple juice cocktail.
At home we have a grill on the back porch. I’m not a big chef person, but I operate a grill pretty well. We use Jack Daniel as a marinade. Visit www.jackdaniels.com for food and drink recipes.
VIP: Describe the Jack Daniel Invitational Barbecue Championship Cook-off held every October.
JA: This will be our 29th annual cook-off. Recently I met with members of our team in Louisville and pitched an idea to have a special product for out 30th anniversary next year. The cook-off is always a great time to visit Lynchburg. There is a cool nip in the air and this year we may see more autumn color than usual. Note: See Autumn in the South article for more information on this year’s cook-off.
VIP: Describe an ideal day for you.
JA: I don’t mind traveling, but I’m happiest when I’m home. I’m a homebody. Driving from Tullahoma to Lynchburg in the mornings, there is typically a little fog in the hollow. I’m reminded of how blessed I am to work here. I spent most of my career going in and out of cinder block buildings with no windows. It is kind of magical to work at a place where people want to come just to look around. We take for granted that we work in a place that people love. A good day is any day that I’m in Lynchburg!
VIP: Do you have to pinch yourself to realize that you are THE master distiller of the oldest registered distillery in the United States?
JA: Recent discoveries in our early history are a bit vague as to whether I am indeed the 7th master distiller. But there have been 28 presidents and far fewer distillers. I’m part of a special group since 1886.
Distillery tours are offered daily from 9am to 4:30 pm and typically last an hour and fifteen minutes. Jack Daniel’s also offers several enhanced tours which include a sampling of our hometown product. Sampling tours are available on a first-come, first-served basis. All participants must be 21 years of age or older to take a sampling tour. For more information, please visit: wwwjackdaniels.com