“Don’t Let Facts Get in the Way of a Good Story:” Interpretive Themes at Jack Daniel’s Distillery

At the beginning of Jack Daniels Distillery tour

At the beginning of Jack Daniel’s Distillery tour

I spent Mother’s Day with my family in Lynchburg, Tennessee, at Jack Daniel’s Whiskey Distillery, because moms like Jack Daniel, too. I have wanted to write about one of these tours for a couple of years now. Not because I’m a huge whiskey drinker (most of my friends know I’m perfectly happy with cheap beer), but because I am completely fascinated how these large distilleries in Kentucky and Tennessee use heritage to sell their brand and product. These efforts aren’t just a casual occurrence; companies are spending millions of dollars on visitor centers and other services, catering to what I consider a public history experience.

I first noticed this a couple years ago when I stumbled into the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience in downtown Louisville. I didn’t mean to run a public history analysis on the place (I was celebrating my 26th birthday, after all), but I couldn’t help myself once our guide mentioned the number of people that make the pilgrimage to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. This trail, created and trademarked in 1999 by the Kentucky Distillers Association to educate the public about the bourbon craft and its important contribution to Kentucky heritage, now links 18 Kentucky distilleries. The KDA itself dates back to 1880, formed so that distillers could lobby for state laws and regulations that favored their industry. It is with little surprise that they continue to work together today for a common marketing strategy.

In each of the past five years, Kentucky Bourbon Trail visitors have set and smashed attendance records. In 2014, participating distilleries welcomed 725,000 visitors. Some companies might hesitate sending customers to their competitors, but the KDA wisely encourages visitors to pay homage to multiple distilleries on their trip through a passport program (designed in a similar fashion to the National Park Service program) they launched back in 2007, in which visitors can collect stamps from all the distilleries they visit. Although, I’m sure most of the lushes on the bourbon trail are much more interested in collecting bottles than stamps, which is probably what the KDA is hoping for.

My family shopping after the tour

My family shopping after the tour

I give all this background on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail and KDA to bring up my recent tour of Jack Daniel’s distillery in Lynchburg, Tennessee. JD is not a part of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail (although I’m sure there are plenty of sots that extend their tour from Kentucky to Lynchburg), and I am not going into the debate about Tennessee whiskey versus Kentucky bourbon. But I do think that both the KDA and JD both know the importance of using heritage tourism to support and sell their brand and products. I noticed certain themes used by both the guide at Evan Williams and those presentations I’ve heard at JD. I want to talk about those themes and interpretive strategies in this post.

First, these distillery tours, including JD, really do benefit from a cultural landscape approach, meaning that guides work to point out the importance of setting, natural resources, and built environment in making fine spirits. Whiskey making at JD has changed a lot over the years, and a cultural landscape approach helps explain changes over time. At JD, tour guides place emphasis on the natural resources both local and imported to craft their product, including the spring that Jack Daniel purchased when he started the business.

Ben, our guide, talks to the group about the spring that  becomes whiskey.

Ben, our guide, talks to the group about the spring that becomes whiskey.

The quality of the natural resources in relationship to the setting is notable, because these themes help tour guides explain how JD “crafts” its products and makes a unique Tennessee product. It is amazing, then, that in the midst of walking through a factory that produces so much whiskey en masse that guides effectively show how each bottle of JD is handcrafted, particularly the ubiquitous No. 7. I’m sure this emphasis on craftsmanship is necessary for a company like to JD to stay ahead of all the artisanal enterprises that have been cropping up in recent years.

Jack Daniels's office

Jack Daniel’s office

Contributing to this idea of craftsmanship is the cult of personality that is exploited by tour guides and furthered by preservation efforts at the site. Jack Daniel’s original office is just a few steps away from the spring. The company has carefully preserved the building and uses it as a stop for its tours. Inside the office, you learn about Jack and his larger-than-life personality. Guides then talk about Lem Motlow, his nephew who inherited the business and brought it through prohibition. They also talk about the master distillers who carry on Jack Daniel’s legacy for quality spirits. But in the same breath, the guides also mention that company was sold to the Brown-Forman Corporation in 1956, which is one of the largest American companies for spirits and wine. I find it incredibly interesting that this part of the story is given such little attention since it is likely that this absorption allowed Jack Daniel’s whiskey to be so internationally recognizable. In fact, the tour guides speak proudly of the reach JD spirits has across the world. But, spending a lot of time on this absorption would mean taking away from the cult of personality that surrounds Jack Daniel and the idea that this is a “family company,” which is also emphasized in the office tour.

Text on panel inside visitor center

Text on panel inside visitor center

Inside the visitor center there are a few exhibit panels and artifact cases. One exhibit panel describes one mystery surrounding Jack Daniels in which historical facts seem to undermine the legend. The exhibit writers end the text with the following: “Of course, facts shouldn’t get in the way of a good story.” I think that’s the take away message from the JD tour. The tour guides are sharing very valuable information with visitors about the process and product, but to a certain extent they are perpetuating myths about Jack Daniel and the history of the company. They use history when it helps them tell a good story, but at the end of the day they are weaving together a tale that they hope will encourage you to buy their product. I also noted that Art Hancock, the company’s first marketing person, began collecting the artifacts shown in the cases in 1954. Sixty years ago, Art understood the marketing potential of Jack Daniel’s story and began collecting artifacts to tell that story. So it seems that the impulse to collect and present material culture relating to Jack Daniel’s story originated with a company marketer.  Using history as a marketing tool is just as much of a tradition in Lynchburg as distilling.

I thoroughly enjoy the Jack Daniel’s distillery tour and recommend it to anyone visiting the area. I’m certainly not trying to knock it in this post, considering that the tours are free to the public. I do think that public historians have something to learn from Jack Daniels and the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. For example, I wonder if they have any historians on staff and what kind of training they go through. I would love to know more about how these operations are organized, and, what, if anything, non-profits might learn from them. I also think they do a great job explaining process and product, which some historic industrial sites struggle to do.

On the other hand, I think public historians can add value to these operations, if they are not doing so already. Jack Daniel’s, for example, could easily offer a walking tour that extends into the town of Lynchburg itself to better talk about the social, economic, and political relationships between the town and the distillery. And I do think there are ways that guides can bring these larger issues into the tours, particularly when discussing the company’s absorption by a larger parent corporation. Public historians know how to use the facts to tell a good story. 

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