Sunday, July 19, 2015

Jack Water - Whiskey, Water and Wellsprings

Jesus may have turned water into wine, but it took Jack Daniels to turn water into whiskey. Clean pure water makes everything taste better from coffee and tea to baking and even distilled spirits. The Jack Daniels distillery in Lynchburg Tennessee has its own protected water source. I visited the distillery in June 2015 (they are open for tours) and this story is less about whiskey and more about the water used to make that whiskey. 

The Cave Spring at Jack Daniels
See, they have their very own Cave Spring full of water, and yes it’s a natural spring inside a cave. The history of the parcel goes back thousands of years, and before the distillery purchased the spring it was the water source for the town of Lynchburg. A young Jack Daniels moved the distillery specifically to this location to take advantage of the water in 1866. They mapped the cave going back about a mile into the hillside, where it splits into two caves along the way. The water is iron free but does have lots of calcium and magnesium from the natural filtration through the limestone. The water is 56 degrees year round and produces roughly 300 gallons per minute. It’s the sole source of water for the cooking of the mash and fermentation of the whiskey. There is also a reservoir under the spring that collects the water in the drier months and the spring has never been known to run dry. If you take the tour you’ll stop by the cave spring and given the hot summer temperatures this is a welcomed respite. You can clearly see into the cave for a hundred or so feet but most noticeable, aside from the wide mouth of the cave, is the layers of limestone rock.

Layers of limestone make all the difference at Jack Daniels

Eventually the distillery purchased 250 acres behind the spring in order to protect it. This is not uncommon; if you have a pure unadulterated water source you want it protected from any contaminants, either water runoff from other places, human or animal intervention. Bottled water company Kunlun Mountain does this with their parcel. I was on the Tibetan Plateau, up in the Kunlun Mountains in China some 10,000 feet where their spring was not only housed by a small concrete structure, but there was a large perimeter fence to keep the admittedly few animals who can live at this altitude at bay. Animals are naturally drawn to water sources and if a wellhead or open source is not protected animal defecation can migrate into the well and there goes your clean water. If Kunlun Mountain at 10,000 feet protects its source of water where the threat of contamination is pretty rare (there are no housing developments up there, no farms, just the stunning snow capped mountains), why wouldn’t anyone who relies on their water do everything they can to protect it? And Jack Daniels understands this. They even briefly bottled some of it for the 1982 Worlds Fair in Knoxville. The point of course is that clean, pure water, free of contaminants and unwanted tastes and odors makes everything taste better. I was working on my third travel book and was visiting a well-known teashop in the Monterey area. I ordered my tea and scone and expected to have a wonderful time and was planning on including this establishment in my book. Sadly the water they used for the tea and also the scone was heavy with chlorine that deeply affected the flavors of both. Why would anyone want to eat or drink tea that is tainted with odors and flavors no one wants? Obviously they used their local tap water and municipal water often has heavy chlorine in it (to better understand this process see my article about water treatment plants). This doesn’t mean the water is harmful, no, residual chlorine added to municipal water helps fight bacteria in the pipes, but it doesn’t smell or taste the way we want. Surprisingly many restaurants and even bars and bakeries use municipal water straight from the tap. That’s fine if you know your water, and unwanted odors and flavors have been filtered out. You don’t want a killer Manhattan with a terrific whiskey like Jack Daniels only to have a bartender use water or ice cubes made from water that is stinky, right?
I enter the Kunlun bottled water plant, 10,000 feet over China
Obviously everyone wants great tasting water. Clean water is not a given, it is an ongoing process and tremendous effort to safeguard. Water sources need to be protected to ensure the quality of that water is viable for any industry, whiskey, wine, or anything else. Jack Daniels is but one example of a company that takes its water seriously, respects it, and goes to great lengths to ensure its excellence.


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