Jasper Newton “Jack” Daniel was born in Lincoln County, Tennessee, between 1846 and 1850—period archival records were destroyed in an 1883 courthouse fire, leaving his precise birthdate permanently obscured. Jack was the youngest of ten children to Calaway and Lucinda Daniel, the latter of whom died shortly after his birth. Calaway later remarried to Matilda Vanzant, who fostered an abrasive relationship with the Daniel children, particularly Jack, which impelled him to leave home sometime during the late 1850s. Jack eventually found work as a farmhand for Reverend Dan Call, a local minister and business proprietor. One of Call’s enterprises was whiskey distillation, a trade that immediately enamored the young boy. Jack’s curiosity evolved into a lifelong passion when he was apprenticed with Call’s most skillful distiller—an enslaved man named Nathan “Nearest” Green.
Green taught Jack the art of distilling and sugar maple charcoal filtering—a defining step in Tennessee whiskey production known today as the “Lincoln County Process.” First, a medley of milled grains (containing at least 51% corn) is cooked in hot water, “mashing” the starch into fermentable carbohydrates. The resulting mixture (called “wort”) is introduced to yeast, which converts the available sugar into alcohol. Following fermentation, the liquid is pumped and vaporized through a copper still—separating ethanol from unwanted compounds and condensing the spirit to 70% ABV (140 proof). The distillate is then poured over ten-foot stacks of sugar maple charcoal and “mellowed” for 3-5 days, imparting superior smoothness and flavor. Once gravity filtration is complete, the whiskey is lowered to 125 proof and placed in newly charred white oak barrels for aging.
Jack Daniel acquired Reverend Call’s whiskey business in 1866 (a consequence of the surging postbellum Temperance Movement) and named Nearest Green its master distiller. While Mr. Jack’s company was established shortly after the Civil War, existing documentation suggests that it was not officially registered with the federal government until 1875, thus challenging the legitimacy of being “America’s oldest registered distillery.” Nevertheless, Jack Daniel’s iconic “Old No. 7” brand name most likely derives from its original registration number—Distillery No. 7, 4th District—according to biographer Peter Krass. At some point, the federal government reconsolidated Tennessee’s tax districts and reassigned Daniel “Distillery No. 16, 5th District.” Despite the change, Daniel continued to label his products with “Old No. 7” for brand recognition’s sake.
During the early 1880s, Daniel moved his distillery to Cave Spring (or “Stillhouse”) Hollow—a natural water resource located in Moore County, Tennessee, where the current production facility resides. The property’s limestone caves act as a natural purification system that filters out iron particulates and enhances minerality, producing exceptionally clean groundwater perfect for distilling.
By 1890, Jack Daniel’s was one of the largest whiskey distillers in Tennessee. While the company had enormous, untapped production potential, Daniel refused to process more than 99 bushels of corn per day—which yielded approximately eight barrels of whiskey—to prevent the government from stationing another revenue agent at his distillery. Daniel’s regional popularity graduated to international acclaim after winning the gold medal for “World’s Finest Whiskey” at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair.
According to local legend, sometime in 1906, Daniel fractured his left big toe after kicking his safe in a fit of frustration. His wound developed gangrene shortly thereafter, requiring several amputations as the infection progressed up his limb. Due to his ailing health, Daniel entrusted his nephew, Lemuel “Lem” Motlow, with the distillery in 1907. Jack ultimately died from sepsis on October 9, 1911.
Jack Daniel’s Distillery faced considerable challenges during the first half of the twentieth century. In 1909, Moore County elected to go “dry,” which effectively abolished local alcohol production and consumption. The Tennessee General Assembly followed suit in 1910, enacting statewide prohibition nine years prior to the Eighteenth Amendment. Motlow attempted to establish distilleries in St. Louis, Cincinnati, and Birmingham, but quality concerns prevented any product from being sold. Although federal Prohibition was repealed in 1933, Tennessee’s alcohol manufacturing ban remained in effect until 1937. Jack Daniel’s briefly resumed operations between 1938 and 1941; however, the economic ramifications of the Great Depression and World War II severely hampered the demand for distilled spirits. Production ceased again between 1942 and 1946, as necessitated by the domestic war effort.
Jack Daniel’s popularity has grown substantially in recent decades thanks to influential pop culture references and a resurgent appreciation for American whiskey. The town of Lynchburg, Tennessee (population 6,500) welcomes more than 300,000 annual visitors who “make the pilgrimage” to this world-famous distillery.
Jack Daniel’s offers a variety of experiences, but the “Flight of Jack Distillery Tour” ($30 per person) is by far the most popular. The excursion begins at the Visitor Center, which features several intriguing exhibits dedicated to the history of Jack Daniel’s and Tennessee whiskey. From here, participants are shuttled to the Rickyard, where stacks of sugar maple are burned into charcoal—the essential component of the mellowing process.
Down the road stands Jack’s Office, the oldest building on the property. Though modest in size, this historic structure served as company headquarters until 1953. The interior has been restored to its turn-of-the-century appearance. Visitors can even see the infamous safe that Daniel supposedly fractured his foot against. Positioned behind the office is Cave Spring—the quintessential element of Jack Daniel’s whiskey—which sources eight hundred gallons of pure spring water per minute.
The next stop is the Stillhouse, which features six, hundred-foot column copper stills. Here, alcohol is extracted from fermented mash and condensed into a clear, distilled spirit. After charcoal mellowing, the distillate is poured into a new, charred oak barrel and stored in one of ninety barrel houses across the Lynchburg area. Altogether, these warehouses store more than 100 million gallons of aging whiskey. The distillery tour finishes at Barrel House 1-14, where inspirited participants may sample five Jack Daniel’s products. Interestingly enough, Moore County is still dry. No Jack Daniel’s—or any alcohol for that matter—may be sold or consumed outside of the distillery. Those wanting a commemorative bottle may purchase one (or more) at the White Rabbit Bottle Shop located in the Visitor Center. There are plenty of opportunities, however, to purchase Jack Daniel’s merchandise and local fare in Historic Lynchburg Square, just a few hundred yards from the distillery.
The product of a meticulous, multigenerational craft, Jack Daniel’s Tennessee whiskey leavens the American spirit. Its time-honored techniques and deep-rooted traditions have prevailed for more than 150 years, burgeoning an esteemed legacy enjoyed by millions.
For more on Nearest Green, visit The National Museum of African American History and Culture, The New York Times, Gastropod, History, and NearestGreen.org