You used to have to work at Jack Daniel's Lynchburg, Tennessee, distillery to know how the world's best-selling American whiskey tasted straight from the barrel. Now, drinkers everywhere can sample what only a small coterie of tasters have previously ever experienced.
In August, Jack Daniel's will bring to a store near you its first-ever cask-strength whiskey: Jack Daniel's Single Barrel Barrel Proof. That's not a typo. The repetition in the name is because this new member of the company's Single Barrel Collection is offered at barrel proof. The straight-from-the-barrel experience means that it comes without dilution and at variable strength, starting at 125 proof and going all the way up to a scorching 140 proof. By comparison, standard Jack Daniel's (black label) comes in at 80 proof and the regular Single Barrel strength is set at 94.
"To us this is the purest, most authentic expression of Jack Daniel's Tennessee whiskey you could offer—straight out of the barrel and into the bottle," says assistant master distiller Christopher Fletcher, who was involved in its creation from start to finish. He adds that the product had been in the works for a while and when the market became "as good as it's been in decades," the decision was made that the timing was right. "I wish we'd done it a little while back," he chuckles.
Fletcher, the grandson of Frank Bobo, a former Jack Daniel's master distiller, casts the release in terms of whiskey purity in the face of what he calls some "outlandish offerings" from other distillers in the interest of enlarging their portfolios. "It's the simplification of being able to sample, to literally sample, a barrel and not only have it be a barrel-strength product, but also a true single-barrel product with each barrel providing a different experience from proof-content to flavor-content as well."
Cask strength typically reflects more than just more alcohol. In the straight whiskey world, more proof usually means more flavor—and it certainly proves true with this dram. It's a big, brash whiskey that goes on an adventuresome palate safari that includes wood, vanilla, fruits, spices, nuts and chocolate.
Most whiskey comes off the still far above bottling proof, then loses alcohol percentage during aging and even more when water is added to dial in the standard strength it hits the shelves at. American straight whiskey can be distilled as high as 160 proof (Jack Daniel's limits itself to 140). Eighty proof is the minimum level for bottling. Cask-strength packaging means no dilution and unfixed levels. (Proof can go up or down in the barrel as the alcohol and/or water evaporates depending on idiosyncratic conditions in the warehouse.)
The Jack Daniel's Single Barrel Barrel Proof has also been only minimally filtered after aging to retain flavor. ("Just taking out the sticks and stones," Fletcher describes it.) This is an interesting revelation, since all Jack Daniel's is famously charcoal-filtered before it goes into the barrel. In fact, this is part of the definition of Tennessee sour mash whiskey. Gentleman Jack, another Jack Daniel's product, is distinguished by being charcoal-filtered both before and after maturation. Fans who expect the signature smoothness of other Jack Daniel's expressions will be surprised by the grip that the latest product offers.
The original Jack Daniel's Single Barrel collection was introduced in 1997 as serendipity that arose from warehouse expansion. Barrels were placed in previously unused upper rafters, and it was discovered that the locations imparted extra flavor to the whiskey. Casks for the Barrel Proof expression, says Fletcher, are also culled from upper floors of warehouses. "We've been maturing whiskeys in these warehouses for decades," he says. "We kind of know which barrel houses are more inclined to get the temperature change and the air flow that will lead us to the Single Barrel profile."
The distillery has 87 warehouses within a two-mile radius of the still house, with varying numbers—three, four, seven and nine—of stories. Fletcher says that a few other location variables—e.g. relative elevation of the warehouse, proximity to the humidity of a creek—also affect maturation. "Being on the fourth floor [or a shorter building] may be more advantageous than being on the seventh [of a taller one]."
A team of 13 anointed tasters (including Fletcher and master distiller Jeff Arnett) work toward the Single Barrel selections, with sampling beginning at about four-and-a-half to five years of maturation. "We're not going to get hung up on how old it is," says Fletcher, noting that the Single Barrel is usually between five and seven years old. "We want that elevated level of barrel flavor: toasted oak, a touch of smoke, more spice, more intense caramel vanilla, butterscotch, brown sugar."
Another offshoot of the Single Barrel collection is the opportunity to buy an entire barrel's worth of Jack Daniel's, with the contents bottled and the empty cask delivered alongside. Fletcher says that while the possibility of extending that service to the Barrel Proof product has come up, no decision has been made. "I think a lot of our friends are going to be asking us for that."
Jack Daniel's Single Barrel Barrel Proof (variable proof, tasted at 133.7 proof, or 66.9 percent alcohol; sourced from Warehouse 2-45, fourth floor; $65 a 750 ml. bottle)
APPEARANCE: Dark copper color (lots of reddish orange), appropriate to its strength. Swirling creates a ring of tiny beads that hang seemingly forever, until they gather into tiny droplets that crawl down the glass.
NOSE: The aroma fairly shouts of cinnamon, licorice and a nutty, rancio aroma, then subtly backs off to reveal vanilla and butterscotch.
PALATE: Once you're past the heat, it seems to be all about that base, with walnuts, huge cherry and chocolate taking over. A drop of water uncoils the serpent, and out come bigger nut, graham cracker, vanilla and toffee flavors. The smoke and spice you expect from Jack Daniel's shows itself, but in a much more assertive way. Nothing coy here.
FINISH: The finale is extensive and transcendent, as it revisits the flavors of the palate and gathers notes of oak, caramel flavors and orange peel. You'll be recalling this liquid long after it's gone.
CIGAR PAIRING: We were in the midst of a massive Bourbon pairing (16 selections) for an upcoming feature in the October 2015 issue of Cigar Aficionado when this whiskey arrived. Given the similarities between Tennessee sour mash whiskey and Bourbon, we decided to slip it into the mix with two classic cigars.
Padrón 1964 Anniversary Series Torpedo (Nicaragua, 6 7/8 inches by 52 ring gauge, $16.40, 91 points, Cigar Aficionado October 2012). A box-pressed torpedo with a nearly veinless wrapper. It's rich and toasty with spicy notes that build to woody flavors and a touch of dried cherry on the finish. In other cask-strength pairings with this cigar, we found it a bit overpowered by proof. But in this case the Padrón soothes the beast and instead of unleashing the Kraken, teases out the whiskey's nutty side to great effect as well as welcoming fruit. The cigar, by contrast, becomes fuller bodied with leather arising.
Fuente Fuente OpusX Robusto (Dominican Republic, 51/4 inches by 50 ring gauge, $12.50 90 points, Cigar Aficionado April 2014). Each puff of this robusto imparts an earthy and dense smoke that has elements of salt and leather, both of which recur on the finish. Huge flavors from the cigar and the whiskey meet to make an almost perfect pairing. The OpusX draws out extra cocoa, vanilla and butterscotch from the Jack Daniel's, giving the whiskey a markedly sweet dimension. Subtler notes of nuts and fruits, plus a rising leather level, come alive on the cigar. Both cigars in this pairing made for such brilliant partners, it's hard to choose a favorite.