Jack Daniel’s legacy


A while back, a Los Angeles-based producer approached Tink and me to gage our potential interest in writing a historical mini-series about the life of whiskey maker Jack Daniel. Though most people in Hollywood are incredulous that an accomplished television writer like John Tinker would just up and move to the Deep South, they are smart enough to know that it does, in fact, increase his creative I.Q. He is developing material by simply living among of a region of people so different from Beverly Hills or Pacific Palisades.

The first words out of Tink’s mouth were, “Definitely! My wife’s people come from those whiskey-making mountain renegades.”

Then he repeated a line from my second book, a line he totes around like a little boy with his favorite truck, “There is a chasm that runs through those mountains that separates the righteous and the renegades. The righteous love the Lord with all their hearts and the renegades run from Him with all their might.” For effect, he will pause, smile big then add, “My wife comes from both.”

Later, on a Skype call with the producers, Tink interrupted long enough to dash off to the fridge and return with a Mason jar, full near to the brim of crystal clear liquid. “This is moonshine,” he announced proudly.

The producers in Los Angeles laughed merrily around the table in that kind of stuttered way that Skype sometimes offers. “Where did you get that?” asked one.

Tink grinned and shrugged. “We don’t know. When we got married, someone left it outside the front door with a note of congratulations, welcoming me to the South.” It wasn’t necessary to add the following but Tink did. “Ronda gargles with it whenever she’s getting a sore throat. More likely than not, it knocks it right out. Kills every germ.”

We felt pretty certain, of the various writers being considered for the project, we were the only ones who could lay claim to the fact that we had actually visited the Jack Daniel Distillery in Lynchburg, Tennessee.

We had been in Nashville for the wedding of Darrell and Stevie Waltrip’s youngest girl, Sarah Kate (I was instrumental in naming her but that’s another story), and had gathered post-wedding morning at the Waltrip home for brunch. When we mentioned over a sausage and egg casserole that we were thinking of stopping in Lynchburg, several other guests enthusiastically promised it would be worth our time.

It was. The town and the distillery sit far away from the interstate, cloaked beautifully in towering hardwood trees and thick, green grass. The rivers and creeks that ripple through are perfectly clear.

Jack Daniel, impressed by the local, sparking rivers spent a lifetime buying up land with water on it. We visited his office and I touched the mountainous black safe that is reputed to have brought the tough man to his knees.

One morning, Jack Daniel again couldn’t remember the combination to the safe. His Scotch-Irish temper roared and he kicked the safe with all his lower might. His foot was badly injured which would lead to infection, then to amputation and, after almost two years of decline, his death.

There was something we learned in our research that we didn’t learn on the tour that day (though we did taste Jack Daniel Whiskey-flavored ice cream). Those waters that made Jack Daniel a legend would also make him a saint.

He wasn’t too much interested in religion though he was a generous man who gave away a lot of money, including large contributions to the churches whose people railed against the sin of his brew. As death drew nigh, Jack, a well-loved bachelor gentleman, found the Lord. He sealed the deal with God Almighty by taking a full emersion baptism in the very river that had sustained his distillery for decades. He shall never thirst again.

Funny how history ebbs and flows, isn’t it?

[Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of “What Southern Women Know (That Every Woman Should).” Visit www.rondarich.com to sign up for her free weekly newsletter.]