By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
In 1865, a 13-year-old Jack Daniel inherited what was then known as “the Lincoln County process” — filtering corn whiskey through sugar-maple charcoal, an idea that may have come from African slaves — from a Lutheran minister whose wife and congregation agreed the reverend should choose between his weekday and weekend callings. When the small regional brand was sold by Lem Motlow (still listed as proprietor on the label) to Brown, Foreman in nearby Lexington, Kentucky, in 1954, enthusiastic converts began to write in begging for “Old No. 7,” much like the Adolph Coors/Smokey and the Banditcraze of a generation later. Shortly after my own induction in August 1986 (Member #a1628 in good standing), I received two black-and-white photos of “some of the countryside surrounding your land,” a brushy expanse stretching to the horizon. Soon after, I was being invited to the annual “coon hunt,” which my square-inch of land, incidentally, “sits right in the middle of.” Weeks later I got a photo of 15 gentlemen posed with shotguns and hound dogs who looked like the Ale and Quail Club from Palm Beach Story.
From then on, roughly twice a year, I would receive folksy greetings or cagey offers from residents of Lynchburg, many of whom have become recurring characters: County executive Carl Payne keeps me informed on land-use rules and my right-of-way easement. Herb Fanning of the General Store has assured me that local flooding did not erode my topsoil (he checked), offered to remove the horseweed worms from my land if he could use them as fishing bait, and once coyly suggested my white-face bull might be behind the moon-faced calves emanating from his pure-bred Black Angus cattle. More recently, Randall Fanning (Herb’s nephew) reported he saw a coon dog stretched out on a low branch of the elm tree that overhangs my property.
The letters have touched on free-market enterprise (growing loblolly pines; harvesting General Patton’s empty artillery ‰ shells as souvenirs), civil disobedience (protesting parking meters on the town square) and impending ecological disaster (confronting the musk thistle challenge by introducing the musk thistle weevil). The cumulative effect is like a private-label Prairie Home Companion, except that the characters — dutifully depicted in calendars, ads and the occasional newspaper story — are all apparently real.
Owners Lisa and Jerry Kenton spent $8,600 on this evening’s barrel, but figure they’ll just about break even. “It took us eight months to get through the first one,” says Jerry. “I bet this one goes tonight.” Just in case, he’s got Roseanne Barr’s ex–tour bus parked out front, which he recently bought and retrofitted with Jack Daniel’s paraphernalia (he left the tabletop Buddha, though), and they’ve already landed one booking for an upcoming golf tournament as a consequence. According to Bedford, about 1,500 barrels of Single Barrel have been sold intact since the brand was introduced in 1997; Bellagio’s in Las Vegas has been through eight, and country music stars George Strait and Gary Morris have each bought their own.
Of the approximately 150 guests in attendance, roughly half seem to be Squires: There’s Dave, a union rep for heating and cooling workers, up from L.A. with his business partner. “I’d give it all up and take your job in a second,” he tells Bedford, his eyes dancing over the Master Distiller’s prized signature. There’s Jim, a gunmaker from Agoura Hills who ran moonshine in his youth (alcohol, tobacco and firearms being the cornerstones of our national character). “My grandfather was a shiner, and I used to haul the swill from the press and dump it out in the woods,” he says. “He always told me Jack Daniel’s was the finest whiskey made.” And then there’s Dana, an archconservative lawyer and ardent Joan Armatrading fan, now in her second year of Squirehood, who assures me that “George W. Bush is by far our hottest president.”
None of the Squires gathered here have been out to inspect their land in person, although the Lynchburg distillery is host to a quarter-million visitors annually and maintains a special Squires Room through which only cardholders may pass. But all are quick to flash their membership cards and trade drinking stories — the conviviality of an AA meeting without the guilt. Those, like me, who have left the drinking life far behind, seem no less enthusiastic. (In fact, one of my prized possessions is still an empty Jack Daniel’s bottle signed by Keith Richards.) It’s as if the values latent in the Tennessee soil and limestone spring water, or implicit in the advertising, now radiate from the product itself to form a consensual community, where Lem Motlow is always the proprietor and the population is always 361. Like they say in their first letter to you after you become a Squire: “It is just our feeling that too little time is spent in this day and age enjoying the friendship of others. The Tennessee Squire Association is our small attempt to speak up.”
The Squires here tonight will drink to that — even the ones who don’t drink.