I’ll have a Jack, please. No, not that Jack. A better Jack.
Pause, for a moment, and consider that you can go into any bar and call for this drink by first name. Just four letters, a single syllable: Jack. If a consumer product’s goal is ubiquity and reflexive recognition, then Jack Daniel’s is one of the world’s greatest brands, with perhaps only one rival on these criteria. Ironically, it’s one that has a close association with Jack.
Andy Warhol made this striking observation about Jack’s frequent glassmate: “You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it.”
As we’re fond of reminding everyone here at MALT, being a great brand does not translate to being a great whiskey. The fact that Jack Daniel’s is available everywhere and tastes more or less the same whether you’re in Lynchburg or Lisbon may be the secret to commercial success, but it’s certainly not the type of attribute that garners high marks on this site.
This sense of uniform universality is, fairly or unfairly, what has kept me from exploring the Jack Daniel’s portfolio. Unlike comparably-sized distilleries Buffalo Trace and Jim Beam, for example, Jack Daniel’s products are all branded with the eponymous Mr. Daniel’s moniker. Whereas a Blanton’s isn’t a Buffalo Trace and a Booker’s isn’t a Jim Beam, in my mind, any Jack Daniel’s is still equated with the Old No. 7 black label behind every bar in the world.
I’m not alone, it would seem; Jason’s precisely average review of the Single Barrel Select is the only coverage that the MALT team has heretofore lavished on the number-one selling whiskey brand in the world. I’ve written previously about our team’s obliviousness to the mega-malts that (I like to believe) is a by-product of our focus on what interests us, as opposed to what would drive site traffic.
A business trip to Nashville recently provided me the opportunity to reconsider my omission of Jack Daniel’s from my whiskey consciousness. A visit to the well-stocked bar at the 21c Museum Hotel offered a plethora of Tennessee whiskey options. A gentle inquisition of the knowledgeable barman resulted in the purchase of a dram of the 2019 edition of Jack Daniel’s Heritage Barrel expression, from the company’s Single Barrel Special Release line.
This is Tennessee whiskey, of course. We previously discussed the rivalry between local heavyweights Dickel and Daniel’s as a sort of proxy war for parents Diageo and Brown-Forman, as well as speaking to the proprietor of craft distiller Fugitives about his grain-to-glass approach to the format.
This expression is set apart by being composed of a selection of “fewer than 200 barrels,” according to the press release. These barrels are aged for an additional year “at the highest altitude of the Jack Daniel Distillery’s warmest barrelhouse.” The company’s site for this bottling specifies further that this is barrelhouse 1-09, on Coy Hill, if that means anything to you. In addition, “[e]ach heritage barrel is slowly heated to achieve a deeper, richer toasted layer before being charred,” so, you know… great? The measure of success, to me, will be whether this can come up with anything more interesting to say for itself, compared with standard Jack.
The first edition of Heritage Barrel in 2018 was enthusiastically received; this is from the second installment, released in October 2019. This bottled at 100 proof (50% ABV). MSRP for this release was $65.
Jack Daniel’s Heritage Barrel (2019 edition) – Review
Color: Medium dark brown cola color
On the nose: Starts with a meaty whiff of sweet and hot barbecued brisket, offset by the burnt sweet scent of caramelized sugar. There’s some sharper notes of chili pepper and limestone as well as the medicinal herbaceousness of eucalyptus. A metallic smell meets toffee, baking spice, and candied fruit.
In the mouth: This arrives with the distinctive flavor of hot links, as well as a savory note of tomato ketchup. The meaty tang persists all over the top of the mouth, accented by an earthy, almost dirty woodiness. Mostly characterized by the smoky sweetness of burnt sugar at midpalate, this shows pastry shoulder and a subtle stoniness as it transitions to the finish. This lingers with the faint nip of herbs as well as a note of dill pickle barrel brine.
Not one you’d confuse with the garden variety black label, this has a personality all its own. There’s plenty of complexity throughout, with consistent themes being the interplay between smoky and sweet elements, as well as a pervasive meatiness reminiscent of pit barbecue.
There are some off notes, mostly on the finish, where the pickle aftertaste evokes memories of MGP. I’m not usually sensitive to this myself, so the fact that I noticed it means that those who find this unpleasant (and I know a few) might steer clear of this one.
All in, though, there was plenty to like here. As a novel departure from the norm, I’m glad I got to try a dram of this. While I’d probably stop short of purchasing a full bottle, this was an instructive lesson in not judging a book (or bottle) by its cover.
As far as I could determine this is not available (yet) in Canada, so I have no idea what price it would command here. My local liquor board has the usual gamut of Jack Daniels lower-range product, the regular whisky, the honey version, something called “Fire” (yikes), the Gentleman Jack, and the only premium offering is the “Sinatra Edition” at a breathtaking $275 per liter bottle. I did not notice mention of an age statement on this so I presume there is none as per JD’s usual practice. It sounds as though this is better than the rough standard JD I would only want to use as a mixer with something else like Coke. I tend to think of the JD line as similar to Macallan in the scotch whisky world, trading on the name and brand image in order to command retail prices far beyond what the quality of the liquid would justify otherwise. At least this one sounds somewhat more palatable.
Greg, the Sinatra Select is $120 here, which is way more than I could imagine paying for it given the specs (grooved staves?). As far as I can tell, the higher price goes toward covering the licensing fee for the use of Sinatra’s name.
This is going for around $200. Honestly, I just Gabe a hard time splurging for a $200 Jack. When I see $200 from Compass Box, Macallan, Ardbeg, I moan and complain, but I expect to see that from them. My expectations for Jack are just a bit more tempered…can’t see spending that much on it
PB: fully agree. In fairness to Jack, it’s not like they’re pricing this at $200 (I presume that is a secondary price?). Nevertheless, Jack probably has some pretty tasty barrels. If they wanted to gradually raise the brand profile among “serious” whisky folk, they could release them unfiltered at full strength for a reasonable price over time, and let word of mouth take care of the rest.
What’s interesting to me from the label is the 100 proof/50% ABV barrel entry proof this appears to use. That seems quite low compared to Jack’s contemporaries. The lowest I think I’ve heard is Maker’s Mark which is maybe around 105-110 and Wild Turkey which uses 115 now. 100 proof should theoretically pull a host of different character from the barrel which is interesting to me.
Sharp eyes, Anders. You’re right: theoretically a lower barrel entry proof should draw more of the sweetness from the barrel, while cutting down on the tannic extraction (I’m told). This is comparatively low relative to Bourbon whiskeys, but will defer to others on whether this is more common in Tennessee whiskey?
Anders, 55% barrel entry proof was the standard up until the 1960s which is when most of the legendary and maybe, even hyped, Stitzel Weller stuff are from.
I’d say entry proof really matters in spirits production. But who cares when almost everyone is in it for profit these days
John and Anders, I had an in-depth conversation with Caleb Kilburn, master distiller of Kentuky Peerless, about entry proof (and the relationship to sour mash) yesterday. It addresses a lot of these questions. If you guys are patient for a little while, it will be well rewarded. Stay tuned.