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Finding Nathan Green

Founded in 1875, Jack Daniel’s Distillery is the oldest in the USA and makes the popular whiskey that goes by the same name as its
Lynchburg main street
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“He was a bachelor all his life,” Tommy had confided earlier with a chuckle. “He was known to have had two girlfriends at the same time and remained with both till death.” That he had two girlfriends was known to the whole town as well as those two women. Tommy was the driver of our tour bus. The bachelor in question was a man who lived in America in the late 1800s. He created a brand that is recognized today across the world, at least among those who like whiskey. Tommy was going to show us evidence of the bachelor having two girlfriends at the same time. And everyone in the village knew about it. My mind was full of thoughts about this man from what I had learnt earlier in the day, and it was not about his having two girlfriends.

Our small white tour bus could seat thirty people, and it was full. I looked out of the window on the left side of bus as we entered the cemetery. We had finished our tour for that day, a visit to a small village named Lynchburg, and were headed back to the bigger city of Nashville. Our tour bus driver had narrated his special ending to a story and promised to show us something before we left Lynchburg. The tiny village of Lynchburg claimed to have an official population of 351. Our tour bus driver was a burly man with thick white hair. Tommy wore a blue t-shirt that seemed a size smaller for him, which made his muscular build quite prominent. His voice was gentle but sometimes high pitched and he was quite a storyteller.

The final resting place of Jack Daniel. Image courtesy: Biswa Pratim Bhowmick.

Our bus pulled up near a grave site, we looked left. It took a few moments before the cameras and cell phones came out after we again processed Tommy’s words. The head stone was grey in color and stood almost four feet high. There were two metal chairs placed on each side of the stone. The gentle voice of Tom came to our ears, with a strong southern drawl, “Ya-all now see what I was saying.”

When this gentleman, Tommy was talking about, passed away, the town people decided to put two chairs next to his gravestone. Just in case both girlfriends came to mourn at the same time. Those chairs, Tommy went on to tell us, still remained in place. The man being talked about was Jack Daniel, the creator of Jack Daniel’s whiskey. Before we left, Tommy wanted to show us his final resting place. We had dedicated most of that day at the Jack Daniel distillery near Nashville in the southern State of Tennessee.

Founded in 1875, Jack Daniel’s Distillery is the oldest in the USA and makes the popular whiskey that goes by the same name as its creator. The point of entry to the complex was a white shed standing behind a row of well-manicured shrubs blooming with red and yellow flowers.

The entrance to the distillery. Image courtesy: Biswa Pratim Bhowmick.

To begin our tour we entered a building by climbing up some stairs, outside the building walls, to the second floor. We were led into a high-ceilinged room. The room exuded a musty smell of old wood and was choc-a-bloc with large wooden vats about three feet in diameter and extending more than ten feet below the floor to ground level. These vats were large enough to take two floors of the building. A black iron handle was attached on the edge of each wooden lid. One could lift the lid by grasping the handle and yanking it up. But a small lock on the handle ensured that it couldn’t be lifted right off. The glass panel on the lid made it possible for us to gaze at the vat’s contents. I peered inside. The vat was filled with small black rock-like objects. This was a unique part of the process that made the whiskey produced at Jack Daniel’s Distillery in Lynchburg, Tennessee.

As I joined the group of visitors gathered around the vats, our tour guide, Nathan, a middle-aged man with a round face and rimless glasses, came to the center of the room. Nathan wore a blue denim shirt, the cap slouched on his head bore the logo of the distillery and hid his slightly balding head. Approaching the vat near which I was standing our guide explained, “This is where we mellow the whiskey over charcoal, a process responsible for that special taste which gives Jack Daniel’s its cachet.” The special taste was generated drop by drop as the alcohol sipped through the charcoal and accumulated at the bottom. Leaning back slightly, Nathan added, “And to get our brand called Gentleman Jack, this process of mellowing the drink over charcoal is done twice.”

barels at jack daniels distillery
Display of barrels at the distillery. Image courtesy: Biswa Pratim Bhowmick.

Nathan positioned himself next to the vat near me. He grasped the iron handle on its lid and pulled at it. The lid came up a few inches and stopped right there, held in place by the padlock. Then the guide slammed it down with force. Raising his hand, he mimed the gesture of lifting and slamming down a vat lid and told the group, “Ladies and gentlemen, please repeat in quick motion what I just did, as many times as you can, within the next couple of minutes.”

We were all happy to oblige. Thud, thud, thud, went the lids, as the members of the group got into the spirit of the act and competed with each other to see how hard they could bang them down and which one would make the loudest noise. Within seconds, a powerful smell of alcohol wafted through the room. Some of us hastily reached into our pockets for our handkerchiefs and pressed them to our noses. Nathan explained that the pipes visible through the glass panel on the lid were slowly dribbling the fermented alcohol into the vats filled with charcoal.

The room exuded a musty smell of old wood and was choc-a-bloc with large wooden vats about three feet in diameter and extending more than ten feet below the floor to ground level.

Hands on hips and head thrown back in a posture that seemed to suggest that he was monarch of all he surveyed, he announced, “This is a special process introduced by Mr. Jack Daniel. It’s what we call mellowing.” The whiskey takes a full day to seep through all the charcoal to reach the bottom. And the charcoal itself is derived from a special kind of wood. Once the whiskey had seeped to the bottom it was siphoned into designated barrels made by the distillery itself. These barrels were collected and stored in a special area.

 “Let’s go to the place where we store our barrels”, said Nathan as he began to walk back to the door. We exited and a short walk led to a dark shed, four stories high. This shed housed barrels of whiskey neatly piled in groups. Wooden racks up to the ceiling were lined with barrels of whiskey. The wood racks, five feet apart, lined from one wall to the opposite wall. Necks strained to the point of spraining, some of us tried to count the number of barrels stocked in that place, but in vain. There were just too many. Noting that each barrel had the sealing date marked on it, one of the group members asked the guide how long a barrel remained stored in that way.

jack daniel's statue
Statue of Jack Daniel. Image courtesy: Biswa Pratim Bhowmick.

Nathan replied that each barrel was tested at regular intervals to check if its contents were ready. There was no clearly demarcated time span for storage. “A barrel is ready only when the master distiller tastes its contents and considers the whiskey to have met Jack Daniel’s high standards,” he explained. One barrel usually yielded thirty-five bottles of the precious stuff. During an earlier part of the tour, we had been informed that since Jack Daniel founded this distillery, there has been only six master distillers.

“Making whiskey the old-fashioned way is an art perfected over time,” Nathan observed. “We do not have too many job openings here, because people recruited years ago often stay for life and the craft is passed on from one generation to the next.”

Souvenir shop at the distillery. Image courtesy Biswa Pratim Bhowmick.

The best of each batch of whiskey, the top two per cent, in fact, was set aside to be bottled separately so that only the whiskey from a particular barrel would be in a bottle clearly marked as such. Nathan informed us that it had become a popular trend for individuals and organizations to order their own barrel of Jack Daniel’s whiskey. It was delivered to them with a special tag on each bottle, indicating that it has been especially made for them. The cost of a barrel starts from $10,000; a barrel could generate in the region of 250 bottles, in other words, the cost per bottle was around $40.

At least half of the distillery’s annual production was sold outside the United States, we were told. We had also been taken around to the small shed, painted white, out of which Daniel had run his business, blending the basic ingredients and fermenting them to make his whiskey. That initial formula for the mix for corn, rye and barley to form the mash, to begin the process, as defined by Jack Daniel is still in use.

The presence of a clear stream, whose water he deemed perfect for the high-quality whiskey he aspired to make, determined the location of his distillery. Today, the same stream, in the compounds of the distillery, continues to provide the water required for making this special brand of whiskey. Near the mouth of a cave that leads to the stream is a metal statue of Jack Daniel. The right foot raised a little to perch on top of a barrel poking up from the ground.

Jack Daniel’s office. Image courtesy: Biswa Pratim Bhowmick.

 Having completed the distillery tour, I ended up in Lynchburg’s town square as we waited for our tour bus to take us back to Nashville. A red church topped by a white steeple stood at the centre of an area that covered no more than a hundred square metres. Small buildings, either single or double-storied and made of wood and concrete, flanked each side of the square. Their red and yellow hues made them stand out against the bright blue of the sky. Holding a cup of vanilla flavoured coffee I sat down on a bench and began recounting the day’s events.

On the tour bus heading back to Nashville, our driver Tommy continued with his narrative. Jack Daniel’s story was a rags-to-riches one. He was born Jasper Newton Daniel and began to be called Jack Daniel. Jack was one of many children in a modest family and his mother passed away when he was very young. His father remarried and Jack did not get along with his step-mother and before reaching his teenage, ran away from home and ended up at the farm of a preacher named Dan Call. Preacher Call owned slaves. One such enslaved man on the farm named Nathan Green. Preacher Call and Nathan Green made whiskey on the farm and took young Jack Daniel under their tutelage about the making of whiskey using a rudimentary still located on the farm.

Tommy had paused at this point of the story and asked, “Who do you think became the chief distiller when Jack started his own brand of whiskey?” We were quiet, each in our own thoughts of Jack Daniel’s learning the making of whiskey from the Preacher and his enslaved African American man. Tommy had told us he would share something about Jack Daniel on the way back to Nashville and continued with his story as soon as we started the return journey.

street sign lynchburg
Street sign at Lynchburg. Image courtesy: Biswa Pratim Bhowmick.

His voice took a somber note, “The Civil War in the United States ripped the country apart as the North fought with the South, brother against brother.” The Civil War lasted from 1861-1865 and in 1875 Jack Daniel founded his distillery.

We waited as Tommy took his time to divulge the information. “The end of the Civil War led to the abolition of slavery,” he continued. By the time Jack Daniels established his distillery, his former teacher in the art of making alcohol by distilling, Nathan Green, had been freed from slavery. Nathan Green was a free man. “Jack Daniel asked Nathan Green to join his distillery as the chief distiller,” announced Tommy.

My thoughts were on Jack Daniel and Nathan Green as the tour bus headed to Nashville. I stared out of the window. The traffic seemed to be at a crawl. The road back was busy with rush hour traffic, people going home from work, and lit by the waning rays of an early evening sun.

I like whiskey. Trajectories of the two human beings were spinning inside my head. The little boy who ran away from home and comes of age during the Civil War and the slave, who taught the boy how to make alcohol, the slave who would become a free man with the Fourteenth Amendment to the American Constitution, in 1868, which abolished slavery. Some years later, together they start the journey to create a brand of whiskey that still retains extraordinary recognition world-wide.

I made a promise to myself. Every time I happened to raise a glass of JD and say cheers, I would remember the names of Jack Daniel and Nathan Green.


Jack Daniel’s Distillery:

Sightseeing tour from Nashville:

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Biswa Pratim Bhowmick was born in Kolkata and currently with the Fordham University as Assistant Dean/Associate Director with the Higher Education Opportunity Program at the campus in the Bronx. He is a habitual traveller with keen interest in history, culture and people. He has travelled extensively within USA. He also frequently visits Europe and Asia.

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