Obituaries

Jack Daniel’s Tweaks Its Brand, From Bland to Exclusive

Anton Coleman, an avid fan of American whiskey with several hundred bottles in his collection, lives on the outskirts of Nashville, less than an hour’s drive from Lynchburg, the home of one of the distilling world’s most famous names, Jack Daniel’s.

Yet until recently, not one of his bottles bore the distinctively filigreed Jack Daniel’s label.

“Four years ago, I’d have told you, ‘Jack isn’t bourbon, and it sucks,’ ” said Mr. Coleman, a cybersecurity specialist.

Most serious whiskey collectors and critics would probably have agreed. They considered Jack Daniel’s — especially its flagship brand, Old No. 7 — bland and unctuously sweet, the sort of thing best left for shots and cheap cocktails.

But then, Mr. Coleman noticed a change in the way people on social media were talking about Jack Daniel’s. Gone was the mocking disdain, replaced by not just respect, but thirst.

A number of new, limited releases were coming out of the distillery, bearing the kind of characteristics that make whiskey hounds salivate — single-barrel bottling, high alcohol levels, heavily charred barrels. People loved what they tasted, and said so, setting off a FOMO stampede to snap up the bottles before they vanished.

“I was like, ‘Whoa!’ ” Mr. Coleman said. He joined the rush, and today owns 30 to 40 bottles. “They’ve really stepped up their game.”

Even as Jack Daniel’s retains its position as one of the highest-volume whiskey brands in the world — in 2022 it sold 14.6 million nine-liter cases, almost all of it Old No. 7 — the distillery has been quietly remaking its image to attract a more discerning crowd.

Among the many fans of Jack Daniel’s was Frank Sinatra, who loved it so much he had a bottle placed alongside him in his coffin.Credit…Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images
To commemorate Sinatra’s love for Jack Daniel’s, in 2013 the distillery created Sinatra Select, an early entry in its move into higher-end whiskey.Credit…Dietmar Rauscher/Alamy

It seems to be working. The company’s special releases, which vary in style from year to year, are so coveted that people have been known to camp out in front of liquor stores the night before they arrive.

One such bottle, a 12-year-old version of Old No. 7, appeared this spring at a suggested price of about $80. Just 6,200 cases were made, not nearly enough to meet demand, and after quickly selling out it began appearing on secondary markets for as much as $500.

Critics like what the distillery is doing, too. In 2022, Whisky Advocate crowned Jack Daniel’s Bonded — a term meaning that the spirit is, among other things, at least four years old and 100 proof — as its whiskey of the year. A year earlier, the magazine had ranked another release, a 10-year-old version of Old. No. 7, in fourth place.

All of this is by design. Jack Daniel’s and its corporate owner, the Brown-Forman Corporation (which also makes Woodford Reserve and Old Forester bourbons), are responding to a seismic shift in the American whiskey world.

Until the last decade or so, whiskey drinkers in the United States tended to be fiercely loyal to a single brand, and valued stolid continuity over innovation. Such loyalty is what built Jack Daniel’s into a national symbol: Musicians like Frank Sinatra and Axl Rose swore by it, and carried bottles of it onstage. Sinatra had a bottle placed beside him in his coffin.

But a new generation of drinkers, raised in a world with thousands of whiskeys to choose from, have made brand loyalty a thing of the past. There is just too much to explore — especially when they’re inundated with Instagram photos and YouTube videos of other fans talking up some sought-after new release.

Chris Fletcher, the master distiller at Jack Daniel’s, has been a key figure in pushing the distillery in a more innovative direction.Credit…William DeShazer for The New York Times

“Jack Daniel’s had a monopoly on rock stars, on motorcycle clubs. It had such immense brand loyalty,” said David Driscoll, the owner of Two-Nineteen Marketing, a consulting company focused on wine and spirits. “Yet now it finds itself in a time where there’s no more brand loyalty.”

The distillery had long offered a small portfolio of whiskeys beyond Old No. 7, like Gentleman Jack, which is filtered through maple charcoal twice — instead of the usual single pass — for extra sweetness. But they often struck drinkers as afterthoughts, and mostly appealed to the converted.

Then, in 2013, Jack Daniel’s released a special bottle to commemorate Sinatra’s love for the brand. The whiskey, Sinatra Select, was aged in barrels whose charred insides had been grooved, allowing the liquid to penetrate deeper into the wood and acquire a richer flavor.

The release, which is now a part of the distillery’s core portfolio, proved so popular that in 2015 Jack Daniel’s released Sinatra Century, a one-time release at 100 proof, packaged in a black lacquered box. It quickly became a collector’s item, and now sells for as much as $4,000 at auction — proof that Jack Daniel’s could crack into the luxury market.

“Sinatra in that way showed us that we’ve got this capability,” said Chris Fletcher, the master distiller at Jack Daniel’s.

More annual releases soon followed. The 2021 bottling drew from barrels kept on the top floors of the distillery’s hilltop Coy Hill warehouse, where, exposed to high heat in the summers, they lost unusual amounts of water. The resulting whiskey had a proof level as high as 148.3, or nearly 75 percent alcohol.

The first Coy Hill release cost about $70, but sold out and was soon going for nearly $1,000 on secondary markets. It was so popular, in fact, that Mr. Fletcher concocted a second release — this time with a maximum proof of 155.1. It also quickly sold out.

Among the many new releases from Jack Daniel’s that have captured the interest of connoisseurs are 10- and 12-year-old versions of its classic Old No. 7 whiskey.Credit…William DeShazer for The New York Times

Other recent releases, some of which are now permanent parts of the company’s portfolio, include a single malt finished in oloroso sherry casks, a twice-barreled rye whiskey and Triple Mash, a blend of bourbon, rye and malt whiskey.

None of this happened overnight; it takes years for a whiskey to mature. But at a distillery as large as Jack Daniel’s, there are many different potential components and tweaks that can make even a whiskey as predictable as Old No. 7 reveal something new.

“For me, it all adds up to another way for us to tell our story of how we make whiskey in Lynchburg and what our whiskey makers do here,” Mr. Fletcher said. “It’s just a lot of fun, and it’s interesting for me to be able to start peeling back these nuances of different things that we have and different levers that we can pull.”

Jack Daniel’s isn’t the only distillery pursuing this sort of innovation strategy. Practically every whiskey maker has gotten into the limited-edition game, to the point where the sheer choice can crowd out the regular releases, said Paul Ryan, a whiskey drinker in Framingham, Mass.

“It’s as if I have to strain to find a bottle of Knob Creek Nine Year Old amid the bottles of Knob Single Barrel, Knob 12 Year Old and Knob 15 year,” he said, citing several of the recent limited-release extensions of Jim Beam’s traditional Knob Creek bourbon.

Still, if constant innovation is now the norm, then Jack Daniel’s is well positioned, if only because it has been a wallflower all these years.

“A lot of brands have already used up their innovation cachet,” said Mr. Driscoll, the marketing consultant. “Jack Daniel’s still has a lot of tricks up its sleeve.”

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