Jack Daniel's Secret: The History of the World's Most Famous Whiskey

In the 140-year life of the Jack Daniel's, the world's best-selling whiskey, the liquor's keepers have managed their old-fashioned brand with a blend of savvy salesmanship and pithy advertising

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The character of Jack Daniel's, the whiskey with the iconic black-and-white label on the equally iconic square bottle, is inextricably bound up in the distinctive character of Jack Daniel, the brand's founder and first master distiller.

A physically diminutive man only five feet two inches tall, Jack Daniel [photo left] devoted his outsized personality to the ideal of making a whiskey that, thanks to charcoal filtering and other factors, he could be proud to sell at a premium price.

Jack_Daniel_(brewer).jpgIn the 1870s, Daniel had lots of competitors around Lynchburg, Tenn., in distilling whiskey filtered through charcoal. He wanted his whiskey to represent something special. So he used only the iron-free cave spring water on his property and the finest grains, mellowed his whiskey by filtering it through ten feet of sugar maple charcoal, and changed the charcoal out more often to produce a more consistent and better whiskey.

Until the 1950s, sales of Jack Daniel's grew almost entirely through word of mouth, boosted by occasional media attention. In 1951 Fortune published an article on Jack Daniel's that chronicled its growth and appeal to such disparate figures as the 1950 Nobel Prize winner William Faulkner, British prime minister Winston Churchill, and Hollywood director John Huston. A similar 1954 article in True, one of the most popular magazines of its day, put even greater emphasis on its being the favorite drink of entertainment celebrities, such as Frank Sinatra, Jackie Gleason, and Ava Gardner. Sinatra called Jack Daniel's "nectar of the gods," and he sometimes wore a blazer with a patch for an imaginary "Jack Daniel's Country Club."

"The first modern ad for Jack Daniel's," says Nelson Eddy, the brand historian, "was a small black-and-white ad simply pointing people to read a magazine article."

What is especially interesting about Jack Daniel's beginning to advertise regularly is that demand then exceeded supply. "From the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s, it was on allocation," Eddy said. "The sales representatives would literally go into an establishment and let them know how many bottles or cases they could have. When other companies would pull back from advertising, Jack Daniel's spent money on ads to tell people they couldn't get it."

The approach followed a 1955 one-page marketing plan drafted at the behest of Art Hancock, the brand's first marketing director, and Winton Smith, its first national sales director, who envisioned a future based on the heritage that Jack Daniel defined. The one-page plan, Nelson says, "codified Jack Daniel's as authentic, made by real people in an out-of-the-way place." Their ads are distinctive not only for what they say but also for what they show: "black-and-white photography of these people in Lynchburg, Tennessee, who aren't in smoking jackets, [but] work clothes they wear every day to make the whiskey."

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Jim Stengel is the CEO of the Jim Stengel Company, a think tank and consultancy, and the author of Grow.

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