The first whiskey I ever had was Jack Daniel's, first as a shot in college and soon after in the eponymous Jack and Coke. The black bottle with white accent letters was long burned in my memory along with the myth of this mysterious man. The distillery in the oddly dry country of Lynchburg, Tennessee lays bare some of the legend. A life size statue stands on the grounds at just 5 feet 4 inches high, near a babbling stream of fresh water used in the distilling process.
If you go to a couple distilleries there's usually no reason to visit more, same with breweries. I usually skip the tour and go straight to the tasting room but the Jack Daniel Distillery is a bit like whiskey Disneyland. Memorabilia and antiques abound including the safe that Daniel kicked according to legend, leading to a foot infection and later fatal blood poisoning. This is now disputed by Daniel's biographer Peter Krass but a fun story nevertheless.
Walking around the grounds feels more like being on a farm than in the midst of a factory. Of the many winding paths, my favorite led to a giant pit of fire where wood is burned down to charcoal, which is then used to filter the whiskey. There's nothing quite like feeling the heat of flames that could engulf a town if let out of their cauldron. Down another path, an unassumingly rickety wooden building holds aging barrels of whiskey. A precarious climb to the top reveals the new Single Barrel Barrel Proof whiskey, an extension of the Single Barrel collection.
Connoisseurs can come pick their own barrel as each one bears unique variations. Plaques in a nearby building display names of the proud owners, including actor Kevin Spacey. Barrel proof clocks in at 125 to 140 proof (single barrel is 94), which is somewhere between melts your eyebrows and delightfully complex. Tasting it straight out of the barrel on a hot summer's day is a bit of an out-of-body experience. The flavor is initially masked by pure alcoholic power but opens itself up with tiny sips, the addition of a little water, and the aftertaste contemplation. The same charcoal filtration is used, creating a smoother taste than some other high proof whiskeys.
Nashville sits just 70 miles north and provides the perfect pairing. Walk into any bar along Lower Broadway, and you're guaranteed to find killer musicians. Robert's Western World is a dive honky tonk joint with cheap drinks and the feeling that Charlie Daniels could walk in at any moment. Tootsies is three floors of non-stop shows. I realized after several drinks that one band was playing Nickelback but the musicians were so good I nearly didn't mind. Or maybe it was the Jack and Cokes.
No alcohol is needed at the legendary Blue Bird Cafe, an intimate venue for songwriters to share their music and the stories behind them. Their regular gathering, In the Round, brings four musicians together to take turns in what feels much less like a performance than a jam session among friends. On the evening I went, Gordon Kennedy, who penned Eric Clapton's hit, "Change the World," stood out. He opened with the hit and later played a great track ("I Will Not Be Broken") that was initially rejected for the movie "Spirit" before Bonnie Raitt made it a success. He brought a young songwriter, Owen Danoff, on stage midway through who blew me away with his atypical love song, "No Such Thing (As You and Me)." There was a quite excitement in the air throughout as if discovery was underfoot.
The Country Music Hall of Fame happened to be inside my hotel so I made a quick stop before heading out of town to check out an absorbing exhibit on Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash and the influence that they had on each other. In addition to the memorabilia, what really stood out was a series of interactive listening booths where you could listen to clips of a wide range of records on which scores of unsung session musicians played. Many sounded like echoes of the ghosts that built this great town.