The Ambassador of Lynchburg

By Jeff Dunlap
 Of all purveyors of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey lore, few are as widely known or revered as Roger Brashears of Lynchburg, Tennessee, home of the spirit distilled there since 1866 now sold in 120 nations worldwide.

A wellspring of wisdom as down-to-earth as the product he represents, six-foot-two Brashears — six-four in cowhide boots — probably has entertained more politicians, country music stars, TV network correspondents, newspaper reporters and cooking show hostesses than anyone south of the Mason-Dixon line.

Sharp as a tack, and with a voice as tough as fried sausage, Brashears was hired by the folks at Jack Daniel’s in 1963. He knows as much about the product, its fabled advertising and homespun public relations that make it the world’s best selling American whiskey as any man alive — largely because he is part of the reality of Lynchburg, population 361.

Look no farther for a man who embodies qualities of the brand he works for. Originally from east Tennessee — “I am just a country boy…” — he sought honest work after his wife, Rosemary, became pregnant. Today, he claims to not know what his official title is, although “Lynchburg ambassador” is as good as any.

His first job was writing letters back to people who wrote to the Jack Daniel’s distillery 75 miles southeast of Nashville, way out in the boondocks. Brashears’ typing wrecked typewriters, but that didn’t matter.

“I had to write those letters because those city boys in public relations didn’t know how to do it,” he says, explaining the problem.

“We were having a raccoon hunt and invited a group of people down to Lynchburg for it. Somebody had sent an invitation that said, ‘We’ll meet on the town square at 2 o’clock and go hunting.’ This fellow Art Hancock (a Jack Daniel’s executive) came in and I told him right there, ‘That will be the longest doggone raccoon hunt I’ve ever seen.’

“He said, ‘What are you talking about?’ And I said, ‘Well, those darned raccoons don’t come out ’til after dark and it doesn’t get dark ’til 8:30 or 9 o’clock at night — What are we going to do?’

“He said, ‘Change that letter!’ And I reckon they’ve kept me on at the company ever since.”

The Town Square
 It is well known that Moore County, where Lynchburg is located, is “dry.” Sales of distilled spirits are outlawed. The town is everything portrayed in the legendary Jack Daniel’s print, cable TV and cinema ads: Rural, slow, friendly and folksy. Miss Mary Bobo’s Boardinghouse, where people gather for noon meals that extend well into the afternoon, is a block from the town square. The Moore County courthouse stands at its center, surrounded by tall oak trees and hundred-year-old structures housing businesses, including the Lynchburg Hardware Store and The Moore County News, a newspaper that occasionally lists the best day to hunt bullfrogs.

“We don’t have any town drunks,” avers a man on the square in denim overalls. “We all take turns,” he says with a smile.

One Friday per month — “Good Friday,” as called by locals — employees of the distillery are given a half-pint of Jack Daniel’s to take home. If you ask how many people work there, Brashears replies, “About half.” Inquire how far away the nearest liquor store is, he deadpans, “Eleven miles, seven steps and one screen door.” The distillery and its warehouses are indeed located in a hollow in the region’s low hills, near a cave spring that flows with pure, iron-free water.

“That’s where the secret begins,” says Brashears. “Good water.”

Lock, stock and barrel, Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey is owned by Brown-Forman Corporation of Louisville. In 1956, the company acquired the distillery and the brand from the family of Lem Motlow, who was Jack Daniel’s nephew. Mr. Jack, as locals call him, was real. Born in 1846, he went to work for a preacher at a young age after his mother died and his father remarried. The preacher, Dan Call, made whiskey on the side but gave it up to focus on his ministry. Mr. Jack, whose given name was Jasper Newton Daniel, bought the still. After the Civil War, the federal government instituted a tax on whiskey making. Mr. Jack, who stood about five feet, two inches tall, obliged. In 1866, his little still back in the hollow became the first distillery registered in the United States.

“I’ve been here 40 years and it hasn’t changed much,” notes Brashears. “‘Course, back then we had one distillery, but now we’ve got five. We had 8 or 10 warehouses, whereas now we’ve got a few more than that.” More than 40 warehouses, in fact, are hidden in the hills where new-born whiskey ages for at least 4 years before being bottled as 86-proof Jack Daniel’s, 80-proof Gentleman Jack or 94-proof Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel, a super-premium brand selected by Jimmy Bedford, master distiller, as uniquely special.

“Proof,” of course, refers to a distilled spirit’s alcohol content. The term dates to the old days when moonshiners poured some of their fresh batch onto a pile of gunpowder. If the gunpowder ignited from a lighted match: that “proved” it was good whiskey. Too much water in whiskey: the gunpowder won’t burn. Gunpowder soaked with a mixture of 50 percent water and 50 percent whiskey will burn nicely when lighted. Hence, a 50 percent alcohol mix is “100 percent proof” that you’ve got good whiskey. Now you know why 100 proof whiskey is 50 percent alcohol.

“We make it how we always did — we ain’t a-hurried — and that’s why people like us,” Brashears declares. “Some folks are in a real hurry to get here — we see around 250,000 visitors a year at the distillery (listed on the National Register of Historic Places), from bikers to bankers.

“But, once they get to Lynchburg, people just slow down.”

Barrels of Oak
 It is important to note that Jack Daniel’s products are all Tennessee whiskey, not bourbon. There is a difference. In Lynchburg the big difference is “leeching,” also known as “mellowing.” Put simply, this occurs after the whiskey has been distilled from a fermented mash of corn, rye and malted barley, emerging from the process as 140-proof clear liquid. Before being stored in barrels for aging, the Lynchburg products ooze through 10 feet of charcoal for about 12 days. The folks at Jack Daniel’s make their charcoal from sugar maple trees abundant in the surrounding hills. The trees are cut down, dried, sawed up, and stacked into ricks, then carefully burned to a precise form with minimal ash. That charcoal is then ground up and put into vats, 12 feet tall, where the whiskey mellows, eliminating any taste of grain. Later the whiskey is sealed in barrels of American white oak and trucked into the hills, where it mellows a few years longer in a warehouse.

Brashears, age 64, is esteemed by members of The Tennessee Squires Association. That is the semi-secret outfit known to many as the organization whose invited members are given a deed of ownership to one square inch of land in Jack Daniel’s hollow. From time to time, Tennessee Squires in good standing receive a letter from someone in Lynchburg, detailing how their property is holding up. The correspondence includes an annual financial statement showing the partner’s share of profit or loss, such as a 19-cent loss due to “flood damage.” It may also include a note from, for example, someone in town asking permission to dig up earthworms on the property for use as fish bait. It is an understated marketing tool that has inspired loyalty for the brand and affection for the town of Lynchburg around the world. It also has inspired more than a few calls to Brashears’ office from an attorney for somebody’s wife, in the process of divorce, demanding to know how much land in Tennessee the husband really owns.

He fields such calls in a large room filled with very old Jack Daniel’s decanters, fading photographs of distillery friends, proclamations he has received from politicians, black leather chairs cut from whiskey barrels and an enormous desk piled two feet high with a clutter of letters, magazines and memorabilia that hasn’t been tidied up in many years, except at one corner.

“People always ask about this desk — like why don’t I clean it off — but I know where everything is,” he says, leaning back in a tall chair and stretching out his legs.

In 1907, Lem Motlow built the house where the room is located, about three hundred yards from the distillery that Motlow later inherited from his Uncle Jack Daniel. Mr. Jack, by the way, died of gangrene in 1911, an infection that apparently set in after he lost his temper and kicked an iron safe.

“The distillery leases this house from the Motlow heirs,” Brashears says of the elegantly simple, two-story white structure with high ceilings.

“Lem’s wife, Miss Ophelia, never set foot on distillery property when she was married. After Lem died she never accepted income from the distillery. Her sister was Miss Mary Bobo, who ran the boarding house for lady schoolteachers in town until she died, rest her soul, at age 101. Miss Ophelia and Miss Mary always said they were from the educated side of the family.”

The Good Life
 Such tales of Lynchburg and showcasing the lifestyle in advertising have helped introduce Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey to new friends worldwide; currently, more than 11 million cases sell each year. Mr. Jack Daniel is an American icon in remote parts of Asia and Africa. It is said that Frank Sinatra was buried with a bottle of Jack Daniel’s in his coffin.

Why does the Lynchburg story travel so well?
 “Everybody’s lonesome,” says Brashears. “They relate to this little, old town because we are not selling a product, but a way of life. When people get lonesome, they like to think back to their roots, about heading home, going back in time.

“My way of explaining it is this: Even if you were born in some New York apartment house and had generations of family living in the big city, well, you can relate to us because everybody likes to believe they can go back in history to the good life, where their ancestors were men of the soil and raised their own crops.

“It’s an honest and simple way of life.”
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© 2002 Jeff Dunlap All rights reserved

Roger Brashears passed away at age 73 on September 12, 2012, after working at The Jack Daniel Distillery for 47 years.

Photo of Roger Brashears by Lew