VALDOSTA -- You may not know Jimmy Bedford's name, but you have likely seen his face associated with one of the best marketed names in the world -- Jack Daniel's Tennessee Whiskey.
Bedford is the sixth master distiller for the Jack Daniel's Distillery in Lynchburg, Tenn. That means there have only been five master distillers of the famed whiskey since Jack Daniel himself during the latter half of the 19th century. Since the mid 1990s, Bedford has regularly traveled to cities across the United States as well as the world, promoting Jack Daniel's. His image often accompanies magazine ads for the whiskey, advertisements which have made his face recognizable wherever he goes.
This week, Bedford is scheduled to spend three days in Valdosta because the Valdosta region has purchased more Jack Daniel's Single Barrels than any other district in Georgia and that includes Atlanta, says Stan Thomas, regional account representative for United Distributors Inc. While in Valdosta, from Tuesday through Thursday, Bedford is scheduled to visit Applebee's, several packaging stores, visit with radio stations and area TV; he is scheduled to help a charity event for The Haven, a women's shelter, Tuesday night; visit several area package stores; eat at local restaurants; and visit Moody Air Force Base.
The week before last, Bedford was in Greece. Next week, he is scheduled to take another overseas trip. On his recent visit to Greece, a Greek pointed out that America is really not a very old nation. Compared to Greece's 3,000-year-old heritage, Bedford noted this was true; however, some of the oldest products in the modern age come from America, including Jack Daniel's, which is one of the oldest as well as one of the best-known products in the world. The man in Greece could not disagree.
Talking to Jimmy Bedford is like speaking to an encyclopedia on the history and making of Jack Daniel's. During a recent phone interview, Bedford takes an interviewer back to America's Civil War days to explain the history of Jack. But the story doesn't start with the man named Jack (and yes, Virginia, there really was a Jack Daniel), but to a man named Dan.
In the mid 1800s, Dan Call owned a still from which he made whiskey. Besides making and selling whiskey, Dan had many vocations. He sold goods and he was also a preacher. Both selling whiskey and preaching were a contradiction that caused Mrs. Call some heartache, and she told Dan Call that he had to decide between preaching the Word or selling whiskey. Dan Call chose preaching.
Call sold his still to an enterprising teen-ager named Jack Daniel. Born in 1850, Daniel was about 13 years old when he received the still at some point during the Civil War. To distill his whiskey, Daniel used cave water he found near Lynchburg, Tenn., and soon the young teen's whiskey was a beloved libation by men of both the Confederate and Union armies. After the Civil War, in 1866, the 16-year-old Jack Daniel registered his still and his product with the government as a legitimate enterprise.
Jack Daniel had a success with the whiskey that bore both his and his state's name. Using his cave water and his still, he meticulously kept to the same routine to create every batch of whiskey, so whenever and wherever a bottle was opened the taste and potency would be nearly identical.
As the enterprise grew, he hired people to help him run the operation. One hire was a nephew named Lem Motlow, the man who is probably responsible, even more than his Uncle Jack, for ensuring that Jack Daniel's remains a viable brand. "If it wasn't for Lem Motlow," Bedford says, "you and I probably wouldn't be having this conversation now."
Jack Daniel had a way of making whiskey, but he wasn't a great businessman. Lem Motlow was, and he rose to become the proprietor of Jack Daniel's by 1890; Motlow's name still appears as proprietor on the famed black label of every bottle of Jack even today.
Though Motlow was proprietor, he never was the master distiller. The second master distiller was another one of Daniel's nephews, Lem's brother Jess Motlow. In 1911, Jack Daniel died, but the Motlow side of his family kept the business and Jack Daniel's name going. At least they did until 1913, when Tennessee adopted prohibition status and liquor was banned in the state. The Jack Daniel's plant closed. Lem Motlow attempted producing Jack Daniel's in Alabama, but with the different water, the taste wasn't the same. He bootlegged a little out of St. Louis. By the time of the 18th Amendment which brought Prohibition to all of the United States, Jack Daniel's was effectively already out of business. Once national prohibition was lifted, which took even longer to end in Tennessee, Lem Motlow hadn't given up on restoring the Jack Daniel's brand and label.
He ran for the Tennessee state legislature and won a seat, helping to repeal Tennessee's prohibition and then he began rebuilding the Jack Daniel's business. But it takes years to properly age Jack Daniel's, about three to five years per barrel. To make some quick money and keep the operation afloat, the distillery produced a whiskey that had only been aged one year. This one-year brand carried Lem Motlow's name on the label and was available only in a couple of states, including Georgia. Lem Motlow, the man, and Lem Motlow, the product, kept Jack Daniel's afloat. The distillery continued making the Lem Motlow label until the early 1990s, but Lem Motlow, having resurrected the company, died in 1947.
In the 1950s, Brown-Foreman purchased Jack Daniel's. The company also owns liquor labels such as Early Times and Southern Comfort as well as other products. Under Brown-Foreman, Jack Daniel's became more of a national name and then an international product. Though the company increased production, marketing and distribution, Brown-Foreman chose not to interfere with the Jack Daniel's process. They left the distillery solely in Lynchburg, Tenn., a town that has a population of roughly 400 people as of the 2000 Census. They left it near the same watering source that Jack Daniel had used, and the distillery continues to this day using the same process that Daniel perfected in the mid 1800s, though Bedford says some of the equipment has been modernized.
The distillery also continues the 150-year-old tradition of finding a master distiller and sticking with him. Jimmy Bedford is only the sixth master distiller in the history of the company, which means Bedford is only the fifth distiller after Jack Daniel himself.
Bedford grew up near Lynchburg, where about 80 percent of the populace works at the distillery, and many of the employees can trace their family's genealogy through the generations that have worked for Jack Daniel's. Bedford, however, is the son of a farmer, who operated a successful farm outside of Lynchburg. In the 1960s, Jimmy Bedford took youthful summer jobs at the distillery. As a young man, he was hired on full time in 1968. Through the years, Bedford worked in the yeasting, fermenting, milling and distillation areas. Starting at Jack Daniel's, Bedford never dreamed of one day becoming master distiller. By the mid 1980s, though, he saw it as a possibility. During the '80s, the previous master distiller was burned by steam. While he recuperated, Bedford filled in for the master distiller's responsibilities. Upon his return, the previous master distiller liked how Bedford handled the job. In 1988, when the previous master distiller retired, Bedford became master distiller.
At the time he took the job, the master distiller had traditionally stayed in the distillery, supervising the production of Jack Daniel's labels. By the mid 1990s, Bedford's responsibilities unexpectedly changed. Three cities invited him to visit and speak at events. Bedford had never been a public speaker but, in the interest of his company, he traveled to the three cities. After the trip, Bedford felt like he did O.K. Nothing great, but he hadn't embarrassed himself or Jack Daniel's, he says. To his surprise, though, the cities invited him back as did others. A company spokesperson in the form of the master distiller was born. He has traveled to 46 of the 50 states, many on numerous occasions, and has visited 25 nations, as the face of Jack Daniel's.
Bedford has been asked almost every type of question, such as a female reporter who asked him if he believed the Jack Daniel's bottle was sexually attractive to women. He is often asked how he and the Jack Daniel's employees keep from getting drunk spending their days drinking whiskey; Bedford notes that a batch of whiskey's quality is not determined by taste in the distillery but by smell. To his surprise, given the nature of his product, he is occasionally asked to speak to youth groups; he usually tells them his product is meant for adults and when they become adults, if they desire to partake of his product, they should do so responsibly and in moderation, which is how they should do everything in life.
In the past decade, since Bedford began his side career as company spokesman, Jack Daniel's has also tried a few new things. Not with the process or location of the distillery, but with marketing and adding new products. In the past few years, Jack Daniel's has increased its line of merchandise such as shirts, hats, key chains, etc., bearing the company's logo. Since 1998, it has also introduced new products such as Jack Daniel's Single Barrel Tennessee Whiskey.
The single-barrel line is aged longer, at approximately seven years, than the regular Jack. And each barrel has a slightly different taste. Though it has the undercurrent of the familiar Jack Daniel's taste, it is cut by tastes such as vanilla, or a smoky ambience, a slight hint of cinnamon. To purchase a single-barrel taste, a bar owner is invited to the distillery, where they are offered four to five samples from available barrels. The bar owner chooses the taste he likes and then purchases the entire barrel for his establishment.
Jimmy Bedford notes that Tra Williams, owner of Loozie Anna's in Remerton, for example, has purchased three single-barrels. And that the Valdosta region has purchased about 15 single-barrels. There are other regions in the United States that have purchased more, but given the Valdosta region's size, it has sold more than any other area of Georgia, according to United Distributors.
Jimmy Bedford has come to enjoy his travels and he is enthusiastic about this week's Valdosta visit. "I work for a company," Bedford says. "I'm a link between here and other places and I talk about Jack Daniel's. When I sign my name, I sign it for Jack Daniel's."
Jimmy Bedford is scheduled to arrive Tuesday in Valdosta. His schedule has him visiting Tuesday: both local Applebee's, 2-4 p.m.; radio station visits, 4 p.m.; Warehouse package store, 6 p.m.; Smitty's package store, 7 p.m.; dinner at The Bistro, 8 p.m.; Second Annual Benefit for The Haven and Jack Daniel's Charity Auction, 9 p.m.; Wednesday: various media spots, 8:30 a.m.-noon; lunch at Kinderlou Country Club, noon; Smitty's, 2 p.m.; Jac's Liquor Store, 3 p.m.; radio visit, 4 p.m.; Thursday: radio talk show, 8:30 a.m.; Moody Air Force Base shopett, 10 a.m.; Five Points Liquor, 11 a.m.
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