Distilling a New Legacy: Chris Fletcher and the Evolution of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Rye

9/21/2017

One of the beverage industry’s worst-kept secrets is finally public. Jack Daniel’s – the world’s most iconic whiskey brand– has released a new rye whiskey. Featuring a mash bill of 70 percent rye, 18 percent corn and 12 percent malted barley, Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Rye combines the distinct flavor of rye with the Jack Daniel Distillery’s time-honored charcoal mellowing process. The resulting spirit is bold, spicy and complex, yet still one hundred percent Jack Daniel’s.

For a company as tied to tradition as Jack Daniel’s, bringing any new product to market is going to raise some eyebrows. Things don’t change too frequently at the Jack Daniel’s distillery, nor do they in its hometown of Lynchburg, TN.  

“It is a town of only 600 people, and we employee about 500 people at Jack Daniel’s,” said Chris Fletcher, Jack Daniel’s Assistant Master Distiller.

Fletcher is one of those 500 people, but he hadn’t planned to stick around that long initially.

“When you grow up in a town of 600 people, you think you’re going to go somewhere else,” he said.

So instead of staying around his hometown, Fletcher went off to study chemistry at Tennessee Technological University. Leaving home to go to college isn’t that surprising, unless you consider that Fletcher himself is a part of the Jack Daniel’s legacy, as his grandfather is retired Master Distiller Frank “Frog” Bobo.

“I think a lot of people in Lynchburg have stories similar to mine, where their grandparent or parents have worked for Jack Daniel’s,” said Fletcher. “For me it was something I never really thought about until I was almost done with college, and by then, I just sort of fell into it.”

Now, 14 years later, Fletcher is distilling his own legacy at Jack Daniel’s, working under current Master Distiller Jeff Arnett to create Jack Daniel’s Rye.

So what led to the creation of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Rye? We asked Fletcher himself.

 

Creating a New Jack Daniel’s

The conversations were being had at least as early as 2010, maybe even a little before that. Our initial thought process was that we have this icon that is Jack Daniel’s, which is sweet, has some floral fruit notes, a little oakiness and a just hint of spice. If we were going to make a rye whiskey, we wanted to make sure that we could bring a lot of that rye spice out, front and center.

We didn’t want to be too close to that signature Jack character, which we thought that 51 percent or something near that might not be different enough. We wanted that spice character to be pretty bold, but we didn’t want to go all the way up to 90-plus percent because at that point you lose balance and complexity that way. That much rye would just cover up a lot of the other flavors that we really want to shine through. So that where the 70 percent rye grain bill came from. There was actually a retired distillery manager who was pretty active in formulating that mash bill and deciding on the 70 percent rye. There were other people too because it never comes down to one person.

 

The Trials and Tribulations of Working with Rye

Getting that high-rye mash bill through the distillery posed some unique challenges. We built that distillery to make just one grain bill, so you kind of have to trick the system into thinking you’re making standard Jack Daniel’s but you’re really pushing rye through instead.

You need to physically handle the rye with a little bit more care. With rye’s high-protein content, you run into some issues with pumping and foaming. Foaming is a big concern of ours because after you fill that fermenter and it has time to settle in, suddenly that whole thing can rise up and foam out if you’re not careful. We were very careful and we never had to dump anything out onto the floor. We really looked at cooking times and hold times throughout the process, making sure that the natural enzyme package was going a good job of breaking everything done. That we could safely and efficiently move the mash from cooker to fermenter without clogging the pipes. It was a lot of things we never really had to sit down and talk about before, and now suddenly needed to be figured out, quickly.

 

Poised for On-Premise

When you take one look, one sip of that rye, you realize immediately that this is a whiskey destined for the on-premise market. This is going right for those men and women behind the bar who are into classic cocktails, are looking for a whiskey with a great balance of flavor, and want to know for a fact where that whiskey comes from. I think Jack Daniel’s Rye is going to open a lot of doors and help drive a lot of different cocktails with our base of rye whiskey.

Bartenders are one of the biggest reasons we went with the higher 90 proof. We know that today’s bartenders tend to work with higher proofed spirits when developing cocktails, so we wanted to make sure that we were giving them something that they really could play around with. I think the options are just so open because this whiskey really is balanced between sweetness and spice, so bartenders can work off of either flavor note. I would naturally assume that a lot of the classic cocktails will lend themselves to this whiskey, but I’m hopeful that the rye inspires them to bring some new flavors into the mix as well.

 

Living and Working with Family

There is this very real dynamic where people who have worked at the distillery for a few years, or maybe their parents have worked there, are always working towards and preparing it for the next generation. 

I’m lucky that I have my granddaddy still at home. He’s 88 and still answers a ton of my distilling questions. He is the ultimate resource in a way. He’s made a ton of whiskey in his lifetime and he still remembers an incredible amount of details about the equipment, the temperatures and the process.

 

Representing the Hometown Team

It is something we grow up around, so there is probably some level of taking it for granted. At some point in your life, however, you start to understand the scope of the brand. When you travel, you’re bound to see the hometown flag of Jack Daniel’s. When you think about the amount of people around the globe who have a connection to what we do in Lynchburg, that’s pretty amazing. Every drop of Jack Daniel’s comes from Lynchburg and nowhere else. So at some point is starts to sink in how many people are enjoying and connecting with Jack Daniel’s, and a large part of that connection is directly tied to the place where it is made.  

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