Ian McLaughlin’s inventive twist on the sour, The Gentleman and a Scholar won him a trip to Bar Convent Berlin. It’s quite the grand prize, but it will have to be a pretty amazing experience to be as memorable as the Gentleman Jack Whiskey Sour Classic finals in Tennessee. The finalists met industry icons, explored the world of Jack Daniel’s and ate and drank like whiskey royalty.
The finalists and judges traveled to Lynchburg on their first morning in Tennessee. To call what they did a “distillery tour” would be a massive understatement. They got an up-close look at every step in the process of making Jack Daniel’s.
In case you’ve ever wondered just what sets Jack Daniel’s Tennessee whiskey apart from bourbon, it’s this extra step: the whiskey slowly seeps through 10 feet of fine-ground charcoal made from sugar maple wood. Gentleman Jack is exceptionally smooth because it goes through a second mellowing process—which makes it the perfect base for a Whiskey Sour.. Appropriately, the tour of the distillery began in the rickyard where Jack Daniel’s burns its sugar maple wood to produce all the coal it needs.
From the humble hillside cave flows a clear, cool spring of iron-free water that drew Jack Daniel to Lynchburg more than a century ago. The water’s lack of iron is significant. Though iron-free, this water is blessed with a number of other minerals, drawn from the layers of Tennessee limestone it trickles through on its way to the spring. The water’s minerals contribute to the character of Jack Daniel’s whiskey.
The finalists were given the privilege of checking out the original Jack Daniel’s office. The walls feature portraits of every Master Distiller in the whiskey’s long history. It’s a good reminder that more than a century's worth of tradition and expertise goes into every bottle of Jack Daniel’s.
The finalists also visited the grave of Jack Daniel at the nearby Lynchburg cemetery. The two chairs permanently stationed at the grave have historical significance. Myth has it that Jack Daniel was quite popular with women in the area, and that they continued to frequent his grave after he passed. The chairs were placed there so they could sit during their grieving.
Possibly the biggest perk of the trip to Tennessee was the opportunity to taste with Jeff Arnett, the Master Distiller of Jack Daniel’s. The finalists and judges peppered Arnett with questions, which gave him a chance to show off the wealth of knowledge that earned him such a prestigious position. Arnett is actually the first Jack Daniel’s Master Distiller who has no relation to the founding family of Jack Daniel’s. Instead, he started at the company in quality control and quickly proved himself to be one of the most brilliant minds in the whiskey industry.
The bartenders also got to run loose in the bottle shop at the Jack Daniel’s distillery. There are a variety of expressions that can only be bought there, and the finalists weren’t about to go home empty-handed.
Following the extensive tour of the distillery, the finalists got to unwind and take in the stunning views at BBQ Hill. It was a great opportunity to bond not only as a group, but with the judges as well. The Gentleman Jack Whiskey Sour Classic is almost certainly the only competition where bartenders get to play cornhole with bartending trailblazer Dale DeGroff and eat barbecue while discussing their craft and career with Eric “ET” Tecosky and Shel Bourdon.
In 2012, Jack Daniel’s became the only major spirits brand to operate its own stave mill and cooperage and make its own barrels. What’s more, the brand procures its own American white oak logs—commencing the enterprise some call “log to bottle”—from within a six-state radius around Alabama. The stave mill then processes the logs down to staves (the planks of wood that form the barrel) before shipping them to the brand’s cooperages.
None of the bartenders had ever been to a stave mill, which is understandable considering no other American distilleries have one. Even after a couple hours there, the finalists all had a deeper knowledge of the importance of selecting wood when making barrels and—eventually—whiskey. After all, it’s the wood that gives whiskey its distinctive color and much of its flavor.
The group followed the path of the production process by going from Jack Daniel’s stave mill to its cooperage. The coopers are passionate about their craft. They shared that enthusiasm with the group by giving each finalist the opportunity to raise a barrel themselves.
But the barrel isn’t ready to go once it’s raised. It still needs to be toasted and charred. The group got to watch as the inside of the barrels were set on fire. It was a dramatic enough sight to have the finalists pulling out their phones to film it.
The first couple of days in Tennessee gave the finalists a chance to learn all about how Jack Daniel’s makes its whiskey. But the reason for the trip was to find out who made the best Whiskey Sour. One at a time, the bartenders presented the judges with a traditional Whiskey Sour and their personal take on the classic. Every presentation was smooth and thoughtful, which made the judges’ choice extremely difficult.
Before the winner was announced, the group went to Henrietta Red to celebrate the finalists. It was a great multi-course dinner with a variety of delicious Gentleman Jack cocktails, but what really stood out was the toast from Dale DeGroff, in which he shared his wisdom about what it means to be a professional bartender. It was a moving speech that perfectly fit the occasion.
At the end of the dinner at Henrietta Red, Ian McLaughlin was announced as the winner of the 2019 Gentleman Jack Whiskey Sour Classic. The judges selected the Portland, Oregon, bartender for his compelling performance, delicious drinks and the environmental theme that tied it all together. It was more than enough to earn him a free trip to Bar Convent Berlin.
All the finalists would be bringing home more than just memories. As a nice surprise, they were all gifted a bottle of Jack Daniel’s No. 27 Gold Tennessee whiskey engraved with their name and signed by the Master Distiller. After being immersed in the history and production process of Jack Daniel’s, the finalists had a special appreciation for this premium expression.