HomeLifestyleJack Daniel’s Master Distiller Chris Fletcher Talks Iconic Whiskey and Where It’s Headed

Jack Daniel’s Master Distiller Chris Fletcher Talks Iconic Whiskey and Where It’s Headed

by Jim Casey
photo by Outsider

When Chris Fletcher was named Jack Daniel’s master distiller in October 2020, he became the eighth man to hold the coveted title. In fact, the native of Lynchburg, Tennessee, which is home to Jack Daniel’s distillery, is following in the whiskey-soaked footsteps of his late grandfather, Frank Bobo, who was Jack’s 5th master distiller from 1966 to 1988.

Armed with a chemistry degree from Tennessee Tech (2003), Chris has held several jobs in the whiskey industry, including stints in research and development at Brown-Forman (Jack’s parent company) and lead chemist at Buffalo Trace distillery. Chris returned home to Jack in 2014 as assistant distiller to Jeff Arnett, a title he held for more than six years. When Arnett unexpectedly stepped down to pursue another opportunity in 2020, Chris was tapped for the preferment.

Master of His Craft

Now, the 40-year-old native of Lynchburg is master distiller of the best-selling whiskey in the world, Jack’s iconic Old No. 7. After 16 months on the job, it’s also evident that Chris is making strides with many of Jack’s recent innovative releases, including its first age-stated whiskey in more than a century, Jack 10-Year (September 2021), and it’s highest-proof whiskey, Coy Hill High Proof (November 2021), among others.

Outsider traveled to Lynchburg, Tennessee, for a sit-down interview with Chris. In addition, the master distiller gave us a behind-the-scenes tour (Chris got his official start at Jack in the summer of 2001 as a part-time tour guide). To cap the day, we enjoyed a tasting of four of Chris’ favorites (Single Barrel Select, Jack 10-Year, Single Barrel Barrel Proof, and Single Barrel Rye). Oh, and we stopped off at Miss Mary Bobo’s Restaurant in downtown Lynchburg for some fried chicken, okra, mashed potatoes, fudge pie, and more.

Below are Outsider’s Five Questions with Jack Daniel’s master distiller, Chris Fletcher:

1. Making whiskey is part science, part art. What is your artistic approach of being a master distiller at Jack Daniel’s?

Chris Fletcher: Well, that gets into the fun part. We’ve got such a good handle on the process and the science because we’ve been doing this over 150 years. We’re pretty darn good with Old No. 7. You buy a bottle of Old No. 7 in Nashville, or if you fly halfway across the planet and buy a bottle, it’s going to taste the same, I can promise you that. So, the fun part is having this process from the time we bring in grain, corn, rye, malt, and unload it, nothing touches that process, the product. And as it flows through, from matching the fermentation, distillation, charcoal mellowing, aging, we control it, start to finish. And our own employees control that.

We’re not outsourcing yeast. We’re not outsourcing enzyme to breakdown starch to fermentable sugars. I mean, we’re making our own barrels. So to have that holistic approach to whiskey making, the way I can look at it is, why would we not innovate? And so that’s fun. That’s something that the last eight years I’ve been involved with here, with innovation here and made a lot of great plans. And again, we’ve got a great team, got a great innovation team here. A lot of people come to us with ideas. We sit down, we have ideas and brainstorming. And there’s nothing really more fun than to sit down with our team with a whiteboard and start brainstorming ideas on what we think we can do and how we can push new flavor into our whiskey.

Chris (right) shows Jim one of Jack Daniel’s 80 charcoal mellowing vats, where alcohol is drip-filtered through a 10-foot bed of charcoal.

2. One of your recent innovations was the release of Jack 10-Year in 2021. How did that whiskey come together?

Chris Fletcher: So that was something that sort of came together gradually, as things tend to do in whiskey, especially here at Jack Daniel’s. We’re hardly ever the first to do anything. I don’t know that we’ve ever been the first of anything, but that’s not necessarily bad. And one of the things, growing up here in Lynchburg and being around this distillery almost my whole life, I’m a firm believer in our history, in our past. And you look at this whiskey, this grain bill and how we make it and our process at 80 percent corn, 12 percent malt, 8 percent rye. That fuels Old No. 7, our Single Barrel Select, our Barrel Strength. All these great expressions built on that one recipe, so to speak.

So my thought is, Mr. Jack and his team got it right, and obviously you can’t argue with the success of that. And so, in looking into our history, I found these old age-statements from right around the turn of the century there, late 1800s, into the early 1900s, so when Jack was still alive. He had a 10, a 12, a 14, a 18 and a 21. We have either actual bottles of those or pictures of each of those expressions that we know existed. And so the thought was, years ago, we were talking with some brand people and some production people and somebody just said, “Well, if we don’t start seeing how we could push it, we’ll never know if we could get it back to there.”

Obviously must be a pretty doggone good way to get it there, if Mr. Jack thought it was worthy of putting his name on the bottle. So that is really a nod to the past and of our history. And so then at that point, it became, “How do we make the best 10-Year whiskey we can?”

3. The 10-Year has been so well received, can we expect another 10-Year in 2022?

Chris Fletcher: Absolutely. We are working on it. We are working on it as we speak, actually. Looking at the barrels right now, again. It will probably be a fall release, but we work well in advance. We don’t want any surprises, but we’re looking at that. And I think you’re also going to see other future age-stated expressions.

Jim (left) and Chris sample the Single Barrel Select, Jack 10-Year, Single Barrel Barrel Proof, and Single Barrel Rye.

4. I’m hearing rumors about a 12-Year coming soon?

Chris Fletcher: Yes, we are working on it, absolutely, 100 percent. I would love to be able to sit here and tell you we are going to recreate the age-stated series that Mr. Jack himself made. That would certainly be an ultimate goal for me.

But at the end of the day, we need to make sure that it’s right, and we’re doing it the right way. And we are prepared to put in the work to try to get it there because I think that collection of whiskeys and that representation of our whiskey from Lynchburg, now, and especially in this current environment of American whiskey, I think people would just be so excited to try and see different expressions of Jack Daniel’s. And things with different proofs, and different ages and different flavor profiles that we can create. Again, that gets into the fun, innovation part, that more of the art, so to speak. And it’s exciting. So I hope we can have a nice collection of age-stated whiskeys in the future.

5. Every job has live-in-the-moment aspects, but a big part of your job is looking to the future. Where is Jack Daniel’s going in the next 10 years?

Chris Fletcher: Well, that’s a big question. I think it’s important to listen to the people that love our brand, our friends around the world. And I’ve been able to travel the world, back, obviously pre-pandemic. And we have friends through Jack Daniel’s, almost, I mean, in every continent. We know and keep in touch with them. You think about the connection that we’ve made just because we work for this great whiskey brand. So I think, what that whiskey consumer wants and would find interesting, I’m the same way, I’m a whiskey consumer as well.

And so, where that inspiration, or that thought process, it may be an idea that I come up with. It may be an idea that Lexi [Phillips], our assistant distiller, comes up with. Or a member, maybe one of our accountants comes up with a great idea too. I mean, it could come from anywhere here in Lynchburg and our team.

But, I think, we answer two questions. Number one, is this right for what Jack Daniel would do? And for me, it’s a lot of, “Would my grandfather be proud of this as well?” I’m not going to lie. But on the flip side, [is it right for] the American whiskey consumer now. And it’s probably the best time in the history of American whiskey right now. And I know post-prohibition was a really hot time as well. I just cannot imagine that it was any better with the growth and the expansion that we’re seeing across the industry. It’s amazing.

The speed limit at the distillery is a tribute to the best-selling American Whiskey in the world, Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7.

Be sure to also check out Outsider‘s 5 Questions with Germán González, Master Tequilero at Tears of Llorona Tequila