Behind the Brand

Chris Fletcher

Master Distiller at Jack Daniel's Tennessee Whiskey


How would you put your own mark on the traditions developed over generations of a storied brand? We sat down with Jack Daniel’s Master Distiller, Chris Fletcher, to find out. Chris took the helm of a brand that was established in the 1860s by Jack Daniel as the first registered distillery in the United States. Now, he fuses family tradition, having grown up around the stills with his grandad, with a new edge based in his chemistry and distilling experience to continue the growth of this brand.


Well, it's home. I grew up here. I grew up just down the street, and my grandfather was a distiller here for quite a number of years. He started working here in 1957 and retired in 1989 as our master distiller. So I was around the distillery as a child with him, and Sunday afternoons were the slow times where sometimes I would tag along with him. And of course, obviously, I didn't know what a distillery did back then or what Jack Daniel’s even was, but that's where my connection with the distillery started.

I always kind of knew it was a special place. And I think anybody that comes here and sees the work that takes place and walks through feels some of that. It's authentic, and every drop is made here in Lynchburg. And, you know, there's just something about it; there's a feeling about this place that you get, even if you're not a whiskey person at all.


The Jack Daniel statue

It was more of a roundabout way than you might expect. People think when they hear about my grandfather that it was something that from a young age I aspired to do. And that was absolutely not the case. He actually retired when I was eight, so I was not around the distillery from that point on. My transition back to the distillery didn’t start until I had gone to college, and I had already completed two years of college. I was studying chemistry and didn't really know what I wanted to do. And I had come home one summer with my roommate from school, and he wanted to go and take the tour of Jack Daniel’s and learn about whiskey and all of this stuff.

So we took the tour, and I kind of had a bit of a lightbulb moment where I thought, “well, you know, I do need a summer job. And being a tour guide, you just get paid to talk and you meet people that love coming to Jack Daniel’s. And how great is that.” And it was a great summer job. That's when I started to think about the proposition that this could be more than just a summer job. And, of course, I had my grandfather, who made as much whiskey during his lifetime and career as anyone. In the 1960s, Old No. 7 was allocated to every state in the country, and he could not make enough. They expanded as much as they could every year, all while maintaining the consistency of flavor.

To have him as far as learning the process and gaining a deeper understanding into what happens in the nuts and bolts, that's where I started to fall in love with the process. And then, two years later, I graduated and was lucky to find there was an open position for an entry-level position in the research and development lab, which is in Louisville, on the Brown-Forman campus. I applied and got that job and started to learn about Kentucky whiskies and Canadian whiskies and tequilas and the work at our cooperages and to work in all kinds of different projects in Research and Development.

Research and Development is an interesting place because you get pulled into any project, covering any part of the process for any of the brands. And that was where I started to learn how to taste whiskey for quality and different things. And my work grew from there. I spent about nine years there working with some other distilleries for a while as a lead chemist, and I'm fortunate enough now to be back home. I've been back in Lynchburg for almost eight years and am very fortunate to work in this role. Being the Master Distiller for Jack Daniel’s is special for my family and me.


Chris Fletcher in the barrel house

I don't really think about that, to be honest. You know, my granddad is probably undoubtedly the most influential person for me as far as being a distiller. And I've been fortunate because I have worked with a number of great distillers in my career. And I have learned from many, many people, including obviously Jeff (Arnett) before me here at Jack Daniel’s. And, of course, some other distilleries that I've been able to work with through Brown-Forman and even outside of this group. That's one of the things that I genuinely love about this industry.

People care about people in our industry as a whole. And I've certainly been fortunate to work with many different distillers. So, I don't think about how many have come before me; it's more about ensuring that we're getting done what we need to get done and making sure the quality of our product is something that I know my granddad would be proud of. And then also that we’re innovating and exploring new offerings, which has been a focus of mine here in the last couple of years.


I'm a firm believer that your past contains many things that help you plan for your future, especially when you look at the success that Jack Daniel’s has had globally. And you can see this in how we have made new releases: Gentleman Jack came out in 1988; Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel having come out in 1997. Both of these releases built on that classic Tennessee whiskey grain bill. Our bourbon type green bill was the same for two very different flavor profiles in the bottle.

When you look at that, and then you look further back into our history, even as far back as pre-Prohibition into what was done, I think there's just such a rich history here in Lynchburg. And so many people know our classic Jack Daniel’s No. 7 that it gives us even more of an opportunity to continue to tell our story in a little bit of a different way with a different offering that maybe people don't think of when they think of Jack Daniel’s. And that's the fun part because that's when we can get creative and really dig in on the process here.

One of the advantages we do have as Jack Daniel’s is that I truly believe we're the most complete distillery out there because of what we can control, from incoming grain all the way through to the barrel and into the bottle, we are able with our people and our whiskey makers to control every single step. We don't outsource things. And that, in turn, gives us this wonderful process to dig in and make changes and see what we can do for innovation. With that type of capability, it just makes it that much better to be able to do things that hopefully even Jack Daniel himself will be proud to know that we're doing today.


Getting back to that complete distillery concept, once we unload a corn, rye or barley truck, nobody touches the process but our whiskey makers. And we have some of the best men and women that are making our whiskey here and have been generationally. I told you about my grandfather. There’s this statistic somewhere that around two-thirds of all employees here are either related to a current employee or had a previous family member work here. And so, when you consider that almost 70% of our workforce has family history here, think about the level of pride and quality that people put forth every single day into what they do. It's personal to them; it's their family.

Lynchburg is a town of about 600 people. And it's the number one selling whiskey in the world, now going to 170 different countries. And, you know, we send a little piece of the families of Lynchburg in every single bottle that leaves here, and I think that is what permeates underneath that Jack Daniel’s label and square bottle. It’s that authenticity that they know this product is genuinely coming from one place in this little town in Tennessee and made by some of the same families that have been making it for over 100 years. So, I think that cannot be overstated.


We have no secrets. We make every drop right here in Lynchburg. Please come and see us; we’d love to show you. We love to talk about how we make our whiskey. We give out our grain bill; we tell you exactly how it's mashed and the water that we use, and how we ferment with our yeast strain that we can date back the prohibition. And how we distill on 100% copper stills. We make our own barrels by running our own stave mills to process the oak to then make the staves in the heading material to then make our barrels with our own coopers at our two cooperages.

And so all of these things that people get to experience when they're able to come here to see and do. I think it's essential to be transparent and consistent in a day and age where there tends to be a bit of smoke and mirrors and lots of stories and marketing in American whiskey now. Certainly, it's understandable because it's hot right now. Everybody wants to throw a whiskey product out there on the market with their name on it because it sells. But Jack Daniel’s was leading the way and growing when American whiskey was not popular, period; the 70’s, 80s, and 90’s when being in the American whiskey game was a difficult venture. But Jack Daniel’s not only maintained, but we also grew. And it enabled us to continually reinvest in our process to expand our capabilities here in Lynchburg.

And now we benefit from this complete distillery to where we control everything from A to Z. And so you know, that's my biggest single message. Not everyone's going to agree and think that Jack Daniel’s is their favorite whiskey, right? I understand that everyone has a different palate; I totally understand it. However, I believe that as more people understand that even though we are successful, we still do things in a way that my grandfather did in 1957. They're pretty impressed by that. It's one of the things that I'm most proud to continue. We owe our success to this legacy.


That was something that Jack himself did. He relocated the distillery from a farm that was about three miles south of town right around 1880.Obviously, there was no city water back then, so you had to find your own water source. Before Jack was even born, there were people distilling around this water source. It was a significant water source that at one time supplied Lynchburg with city water.

It's an underground spring that floods this area, and it comes out of this cave. And now it's only used for whiskey making. But it provides much more water than we even need today to make our whiskey. And because of this, we maintain a capacity of these water intakes of over a million gallons. We also don't even have to filter this water because it's coming from underground; it's never exposed to the air, and it goes through a sand bed filtration to remove any dirt or anything that may come in through the pumping process. We’re very fortunate that Jack set us up pretty well when he moved over here on this side of town on the more east side of Lynchburg.


Chris Fletcher with his grandfather

Certainly, my grandfather was the biggest influence on me. I mean, I just spent way more time with him than anyone else. He retired when I was eight. And I spent so much time with him over summers, and as I got older and understood the work that was going on, and then certainly as I studied chemistry; he was a chemist as well. We had that in common; we were the only two chemists in the family. He was just such a resource.

I can remember just a couple of years ago, when he was well into his 80s, we were sitting in a meeting and discussing an operation at a different distillery regarding how some equipment was arranged and running. And it didn't add up to me; I was a little unsure. While I didn't fixate on it, I did remember it, and I stepped out during our lunch break to immediately call him up on his phone and said, “Hey, what do you think about this? This just doesn't work.” And he thankfully agreed with me.

So that made me feel better, and just to have somebody that could be that type of technical resource. He was just so technically inclined around distilling and turning grain into whiskey. The Master Distiller role here in Lynchburg has always been predominantly focused on whiskey production because once it gets into a barrel. Certainly now, with my role also as the Director of Quality, it is more all-encompassing. Regarding distillery operations, my granddad was the best resource and mentor that I've ever known. And I wish he were still here. We lost him about a year and a half ago, and I tell you that I certainly miss those phone calls and being able to tap into that information.


Every day is so different for me, from maintaining quality and then wearing a hat of public relations and doing things like this [interview]. Under normal non-pandemic times, I have had the opportunity to travel and meet people all over the world and talk about what we do here in Lynchburg. There's an interest in that. Hopefully, we get back to that, too.

The folks in our quality labs do such a fantastic job that they don't necessarily need me around. But I like to keep connected to them consistently and stay deeply involved in what they're doing. They do such a good job, too. Nearly everyone working here has a personal connection to our brand. Even quality control is taken personally. When you're doing something that you know your family has done for generations, and maybe your daughter or son may do it in the future, there’s an intentionality and focus on quality that you can't even really measure. That's one of the great things about Lynchburg. The families of Lynchburg make this product what it is.


Chris Fletcher with a bottle of Jack Daniel's

I love our Single Barrel expressions because in a single barrel, you do get that variation. I mean, our classic Jack Daniel’s products are so consistent, as they have to be, right? But the Single Barrel expression is where you're going to get the variability that Mother Nature is inherently going to put in those barrels because you're not mixing anything together. And so, our Single Barrel products are always some that I pull for regularly. I think it just hits a nice sweet spot for us because they're only top barrels with five to seven years generally, pulling at around 94 proof or even we do some Barrel Strength. That is normally one of the first ones I reach for.

But then again, if you're looking for something to mix and have something more refreshing, you should look no further than Gentleman Jack. As Gentleman Jack is charcoal mellowed the second time, it’s a remarkably easy, soft whiskey, and great with simple mixers, if even just with soda water and a squeeze of lime. I mean, that's great. I would say certainly, Gentleman Jack, when applied like that, is fantastic. It just depends. I find that seasonally when it's sweltering outside, I want something a little lighter in flavor; as we get into fall and winter, we go with flavors that are a little bigger and bolder.


I would just say, “ask questions.” As a consumer of American whiskey, you have a right to know the brand and work behind what you’re getting into. There’s nothing here at Jack Daniel’s that is a secret. There's nothing at all proprietary; I love to show people every little piece of what we do. Have fun, enjoy responsibly, and ask all of the questions that you can because whiskey is such an interesting product. Making whiskey is a lot of fun, and every detail of what we do is fascinating. Everybody should experience that, so when you have a chance, come to Lynchburg and see it for yourself. We would love to welcome you to our family.

Please drink responsibly.

Tennessee Whiskey, 40% alc. by vol. (80 proof). Distilled and bottled by Jack Daniel Distillery, Lynchburg, Tennessee.

Jack Daniel’s and Old No. 7 are registered trademarks of Jack Daniel’s Properties, Inc. © 2021.