Scene's second annual Pig & Whiskey festival goes down this weekend (Friday, Saturday and Sunday; full details at scenepigandwhiskey.com) in Willoughby. It's a gluttonous feast of barbecue and whiskeys, and as luck had it, Jack Daniel's assistant master distiller Chris Fletcher was in town for a few hours last week. (We'll get to the reason why in a little bit.) We couldn't pass up the chance to talk liquor with someone with as regal and beautiful a title as that. Plus, we were thirsty. Fletcher, 34, has been at the post for two years now. Before that ...
Chris Fletcher: I was actually with a competitive company making bourbon. I grew up in Lynchburg. When I finished school, Jack Daniel's hired me, but I started in Louisville, Kentucky, at the headquarters of the parent company there, Brown-Forman. I started in the R&D lab, got to work on JD and making the barrels and bourbons and all types of spirits. I did that for nine years, then went to Buffalo Trace, made some bourbon there as their lead chemist.
In terms of product and sheer quantities, how do they compare?
At Buffalo Trace, I got to work with different distillers and get different perspectives, and then I had an opportunity to go back home; my grandfather was a master distiller at Jack for about 30 years It's a neat thing. [Ed. Note: there have only been seven master distillers in the brand's entire history.]
Chemistry. At Tennessee Tech. Did you major in chemistry to work in distilling?
Nope. I didn't know at all. I got out of high school and didn't think I'd go back to Lynchburg; there are only 600 people in the whole city. I went to college, thought I'd move to a bigger town. I ended up coming back with my roommate to do a tour. I needed a summer job. I was like, 'You get paid to talk?' It beat cutting grass. I started there and thought, 'Yeah, chemistry is applicable.' I finished two years later and didn't want to move back home so that's when I went to Louisville.
How many jobs have you held in the whiskey world then? Counting tour guide.
Well, I had my granddad to help learn the process, and the history too. I started as a lab tech working on various projects of whiskey maturation. Moved over to chemistry, looking at the quality of what's coming off the still, then moved into microbiology, which is a big yeast lab, basically. We're now completing a $100 million expansion that was just starting a couple years ago. That's when my boss called and said we're kind of thinking of an assistant master distiller position, and things worked out.
Is there really a barrel shortage for the whiskey and bourbon business?
We don't have a shortage. But I can say the climate has been difficult for loggers to go and get the trees. It's not like they're out in the open. You have to find them, and if there's rain or cold winters, it makes it difficult. We're unique in that we do that all ourselves. We buy whole logs; they come from the Eastern U.S. We're the only whiskey maker that makes their own barrels.
That's a nice segue to talk about why you're here. There's a bar in Warren, Ohio, that's hit 21 barrels of something or other?
The Powerhouse Bar and Grille in Warren. They're on their 21st – hopefully 22nd soon – of Jack single barrel. We have a program with a single barrel product where you can buy a whole barrel for your bar or yourself or your buddies. George Strait bought a whole barrel. Erich Church has bought at least four. But Powerhouse is on No. 21, and that's pretty special. We started the program back in the late 1990s. Black Label, that's about a 200-barrel batch, whereas you talk about small barrel, one is as small as you get. It's about $10,000. You get 250-ish bottles at 94 proof. A lot of business owners buy them and give them as gifts.
I need to tell my boss about that, but I doubt it'll be under my tree at Christmas.
People can pick it out and they can sit with me or the master distiller and sample and talk about the flavors. When whiskey goes in, it's all consistent. The barrel is the No. 1 ingredient. That's why we make our own. Everyone else is outsourcing their No. 1 ingredient for flavor. We're pretty proud of the fact we don't do that. Speaking of flavors: Do you have a cinnamon flavored thing?
It's brand new, actually.
Why? And by that I mean, why did you guys decide to do it?
With us, we're the No. 1 premium whiskey in the world, so when you look at our brand, you want to be careful. I met a young man in L.A. recently who was walking around in an Old No. 7 shirt. I told him I worked at Jack and asked him if he drank whiskey. 'Well, no, it burns. It's hot.' Well, hopefully now with Jack Fire, you have JD as the whiskey base and some sugar and cinnamon and there's a product that can bring you into the brand. They start there, in another year or two maybe they'll be sipping Old No. 7 on the rocks. Your taste palate does grow and change. I think right now flavored whiskeys are huge. It's not what I have on a Friday night, but people love our product line and we try to be conscious that we're putting the Jack name on it. You don't want to mess with that and if you do flavored whiskey, you want to make sure it's high quality. We were certainly not the first to go down the flavored path, but we've gotten pretty good feedback from our friends who say they enjoy our product. I don't think we're going to become Baskin Robbins and 31 flavors. I think we'll continue to be cautious with new flavored offerings as we are too with new whiskey offerings.
What are some new whiskey offerings?
We have a new one this month that we're bottling now. It's a single barrel product, so the same stocks as what JD single barrel is, a five-to-seven year aged product only coming off the top floors of our warehouse where good heat really forces the whiskey in and out of the barrel. Instead of adding water to 94 proof and then bottling it, we're just going to put it in the bottle, no water, very little filtration. Just enough to get the chunks out. We don't want any twigs floating around in there. But we're going to put it straight in and whatever proof it is, it is. Mother Nature is deciding. The flavors will be different and the proofs will be different: One could be 129, the next could be 139. I've seen our single barrel product go over 140.