I Love My Job: Jack Daniel's Master Distiller [Video]
Who would think that their ideal job would be located deep in the bucolic hills of Tennessee in a tiny town with a population somewhere between 361 and 500 people? If you knew the second you read the number 361 that we're referring to Lynchburg, because that's what it says on the Jack Daniel's label, it might be that you drink too much ...
Believe it or not, it's possible to work for the company that makes the world's No. 1 whiskey and not drink a drop. In fact, that's essential, laughs the company's master distiller, Jeff Arnett, who points out that the distillery is located in a dry county. "We have tasters who work at every step of the distillation process, but they always taste and spit," he notes.
Arnett is only the seventh master distiller in the company's illustrious history, begun by Jack himself back in 1866 -- again, going by Old No. 7's informative label. The Tennessee native majored in industrial engineering at the University of Alabama and intended to work in the auto industry, but he began working with food and drink the minute he left school -- creating coffee products for Proctor and Gamble. "Coffee and whiskey are a little similar," says Arnett in his light Southern drawl, noting that "they're both beverages dependent on grains or beans, they both have sharp features on the tongue and a specific body in the mouth."
You can tell after talking to Arnett for about 10 seconds that this is an extremely well-educated man with a scientific mind, who is adroit at simplifying the details of his craft for those less informed. He explains how the best water is found nearby in the local streams because it passes through native limestone that gives it the ideal flavor. He also throws in how they drop the liquid through 10 feet of sugar maple charcoal; the trees grown locally, of course.
Arnett has been with the distillery, starting out in quality control, for a mere seven years. It's extremely unusual for someone to go so far so fast in the company, since some employees have been working there for generations -- ever since prohibition was lifted. Arnett's predecessor held the position for 20 years. Jack Daniel was at the head for 45 years, and the product is fermented with yeast that descends from his original batch from more than 140 years ago.
"There's no pressure on me to improve the product here," Arnett says. "it's the No. 1 brand in the world. There's nowhere to go but down." He notes the importance of preservation and keeping the product consistent. Whiskey is not like a soft drink, where manufacturers are constantly tweaking, adding lemon or subtracting calories. The Jack you're tasting is the same Jack your granddaddy drank. "It's still Jack's brand," Arnett notes. "We're just stewards of it."
At Jack Daniel's, it's all about quality control, and starting in that department helped Arnett understand every step of the whiskey-making process. He oversees it all: milling, yeasting, fermentation, distillation, charcoal mellowing and maturation. He says his secret is to "count on people with more experience than I have." They turn out an incredible 150 million bottles of Jack Daniel's Old No. 7 each year, and the factory holds enough whiskey to fill 3 million bottles at any given time.
A local rock star
Arnett's job not only involves managing the 365 employees at the facility, but he often greets the 200,000-250,000 people who come to visit each year. He's the closest thing Lynchburg has to a rock star, and he's often stopped on the street to pose for pictures. He has even greater fame now that 'National Geographic's Ultimate Factories' is running and episode on Jack Daniel's. It's a small price to pay for the lifestyle he leads.
Up at the crack of dawn, Arnett arrives at the distillery each day between 7 and 7:30AM, after about a five minute drive through beautiful green Tennessee countryside. "The only traffic I run into is maybe a family of wild turkeys crossing the road," he says. He's home again by 4 or 4:30PM to enjoy time with his wife and two children, an 8-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter.
He travels about 20 percent of the time, or about 50 days per year, acting as brand ambassador, visiting other distilleries, and sharpening his knowledge and skills. His most frequent destinations are Ireland and Scotland, the world's other whiskey-making capitals.
This is the ideal job for Arnett, who says he was a bit of a science nerd when he was young. "I was the type of kid who was always tearing things apart and trying to put them back together," he says. He has a real passion for what he does, and he feels that's ultimately more important than getting good grades in school.
What's not to love about a job where "the absolute worst day is still a very good day," says Arnett. Working with dedicated people to produce one of the world's most popular products -- that's Arnett's idea of professional paradise.
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