Jack Daniel's master distiller launches cocktail competition for Scottish bartenders

We spoke to Jack Daniel's master distiller Jeff Arnett after the successful Glasgow Sessions event to learn more about the brand's new competition for Scottish bartenders - Tennessee Calling.

Published 18th Oct 2016
Updated 8 th Aug 2023

As a brand that has always stood apart from its neighbours, Jack Daniel's are used to doing things their way and though a few of their rivals are also beginning to embrace the on-trade, the Tennessee company are going the extra mile.

The Glasgow Sessions, which saw Jack Daniel's master distiller Jeff Arnett, alongside one of Scotland’s most acclaimed bartenders Stuart McLuskey and award-winning mixologist Erik Lorincz give a talk to local bartenders in the east end venue St Luke’s, follows on from the success of the London Sessions and the New York Sessions.

The events, which are the first of their kind in the drinks industry, were set up as part of a series of thought-provoking seminars with the industry’s most respected professionals.

With the support of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey, each of the events offers local bartenders the chance to learn from the best in the industry and this session ended with a talk around quality from none other than Jack Daniel’s master distiller himself, Jeff Arnett.


Jeff, Jack Daniel's seventh master distiller, providing an oral history of the brand, discussing everything from charcoal mellowing and toasting to his successor Chris Fletcher and the growth of the business from a one-man operation under Jasper Newton "Jack" Daniel to the Global colossus it is today.

The Glasgow Sessions also coincided with the launch of Tennessee Calling, a new cocktail competition that will see three bartenders chosen from Scotland and given the chance to discover the history, craft and versatility of Jack Daniel’s.

Travelling to the USA, the three winners will be given the unique opportunity to get up close and personal with some bartending icons and hone their craft on a trip to New York as well as the home of Jack Daniel's in Tennessee.

The first leg of the trip will see the winners visit the Big Apple, to experience for themselves, how the best in the business run their bar.

Working with their mentors, the three winners of Tennessee Calling will create, plan & host an event at The Dead Rabbit Grocery & Grog in New York - The World's Best Cocktail Bar.

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After leaving New York, the winners will travel on to Lynchburg, Tennessee, for the ultimate distillery experience, and see for themselves the whiskey making skill at The Jack Daniel Distillery.

• For more information and to find out how to enter you can visit the website here.

We took the chance to grab an interview with the man himself and learn a little more about the brand's interest in the on-trade, ideas for the future and if he enjoys Scottish food.


So, Jeff, why is Jack Daniel's diversifying and offering these new expressions?

Whiskey had previously gone through a kind of a sleepy period where you didn't see a lot of new entrants to the market, and that's now changed over the past 5 or 6 years.

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You've got more people from other parts of the drinks industry looking at whiskey for the first time and of course their needs are going to be different from traditional whiskey drinkers.

A lot of people may even have tried whiskey before, but have stepped back from it because it was a little too characterful, too potent.  and so we came out with Gentleman Jack, a double mellow version of black label and that was a step towards those consumers who are new to whiskey and were maybe finding it hard to approach.

In a bid to make our brand more approachable to these consumers, we came out with Gentleman Jack, a double mellow version of the black label.

Our range of flavoured whiskeys have further extended on that; the proof is a little bit lighter and when you add the honey and molasses and maple and chestnut flavours, those things make it a little bit more palatable, with the sugar disguising some of the heat of the alcohol.

It's about being as approachable as possible, we released the Tennessee Fire, our cinnamon whiskey, after realising that people who enjoy buying rounds of shots were perhaps not going to buy Jack Daniel's but the Fire, is more appealing universally, be it to men or women, young and old, which has made it a popular product for us.

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And what about your newest expression the Rye?

That stemmed from the cocktail and mixology scene, where everybody now wants Rye, and it is definitely a cocktail whiskey.

Rye whiskeys have historically been known to be bold and full of character, so a lot of people might not drink them straight.

As a base for a cocktail they are great, because you can add a little bit of sweetness, you can add your bitters, you add your souring agents, and you can work with that, because it is such a big flavour and one of the things mixologists told us they don't like is that if a whiskey is too soft, it can fade into the background when the other ingredients are added.

What makes that feedback from the on-trade so important to you?

We have some of the best cocktail people, in different markets, affiliated in some way with the brand and all we ask is for is an honest dialogue from them.

If they tell us they think Jack Daniel's is awful, we say "Ok. we'll accept that but why?"

"What is that you want to see from us that you haven't seen yet?"

We've made some choices over the years, there's been a gradual move towards lower proof, and that's been in answer to the demands of what people have been looking for.

80 proof has become the bottled norm for larger more established brands like ours, not just in whiskey but in vodka and rum too.

But we can take steps back from that, a lot of the bottles we are now releasing are not 80 proof bottlings, we are amping that up, in recognition of the fact that we do want to be on the back bar, we do want mixologists to be excited about our releases like the new Rye.

With events like the Glasgow Sessions and competitions like Tennessee Calling, it's obvious mixology is a big part of your focus right now, why is that?

If you look at what I call the 'Whiskey Renaissance', it's being driven by women.

Though men have historically always been out to drink whiskey, women are now more likely to try whiskey too. Are women going to start off drinking whisky straight? Most men didn't, so probably not going to happen so we aren't going to be able to just pour straight out of a bottle and expect everyone to come to the party.

Are women going to start off drinking whiskey straight? Most men didn't.

So more than likely that's not going to happen, we aren't going to be able to just pour directly from the bottle and expect everyone to come to the party.

And for that reason, cocktails are hugely important. New whiskey drinkers, who are learning about whiskey for the first time, are going to bars and asking for a Manhattan, a sour, an Old Fashioned as a way to try whiskey that isn't too daunting.

That means these older cocktails are starting to gain real popularity again.

So, yes, it's important for us to ask bartenders what they need, because they are the ones who are in direct conversation with the consumer. We have the ability to answer their needs if there is enough demand.

Eight years ago, we had three whiskeys, now we have nine. We are definitely sticking our head out of the shell that we had it in and looking around and realising the world is changing, we don't have to be a one whiskey wonder.

We don't have any handcuffs on here, we control so many parts of the process that no one else controls that we can probably do it all.

We started off with toasting and charring barrels, then grooving with the Sinatra, then there was toasted maple and the number 27 Gold.

We changed grain bills with the Rye, added flavours to create the Honey and the Fire, and we've even gone barrel proof for people looking to try the purest expression.

Smaller craft distillers tell us they wish they could do what we do in terms of how we can control all of the processes, but at the same time, we've taken some licks for being a big well-established brand and not being a bit special like these smaller newer distilleries.

It's a delicate balance, the same balance that a mixologist has to find when he's serving a big party where they want every cocktail to be perfect but people can't wait 30 minutes or an hour in line to get one.

You have to be able to get the volume up without compromising what's in the glass.

This is your third (flying) visit to Scotland, have you tried any great Scottish food?

I went two really nice restaurants in Scotland when I've been here before.

In Edinburgh, I went to a place called the Grain Store; it has no sign, you have to know the address but everything I tried in there was unbelievable, it might be one of the best meals I've ever eaten.

The second restaurant was in Glasgow and we went to the Ubiquitous Chip, and we had the haggis there.

I wanted to try it because it was the local dish and I always eat in the best restaurants that I can and I think the Chip had just won an award saying something to that effect.

It was a great restaurant, and a wonderful meal and I really enjoyed the haggis, it was pretty tasty.

What about Scottish whisky? Do you take any lessons from Scotch?

I think all of the American whiskies have taken lessons from the Scotch industry becaue they were first, so alot of the techniques that were developed were adpatations of what began here.

The one asset that we have is of course the forrests, the white oak, so it just kind of makes sense that would start the barrel off then pass it on, it's very synergistic, we are very appreciative that we can use the barrel and then find a new home for it.

We've just bought Glendronach, Ben Riach and GlenGlassaugh, I've not visited those locations yet but once I get some time I'm looking forward to it.

One of the things I really like that I see in Scotch whisky is the sherry cask finishes, which is something interesting for us. I'm interested in doing some finishing, there are some wines and other prodcuts that match up well with what we are and what we do.
Not every single wine barrel is going to work for us but I think that holds some promise, it's something I want to explore further down the road.

With Tennessee Calling what are you going to be looking out for?

One of the things that's hard, that I've realised from past competitions is that the competitors are all so good.

The thing that ultimately helps me choose who wins the competition, is looking at how many ingredients they have chosen.

I'm looking for something that bartenders are going to embrace, something that's scalable. If people can assemble the cocktails from the back bar, they are definitely going to create that cocktail.

The great thing about this competition, is that we are going to pick three winners, not jsut one, to come with us to Lynchberg and I think that's a great thing.


Driven by a passion for all things drinks-related, Sean writes for The Scotsman extensively on the subject. He can also sometimes be found behind the bar at the world famous Potstill bar in Glasgow where he continues to enhance his whisky knowledge built up over 10 years advising customers from all over the world on the wonders of our national drink. Recently, his first book was published. Dubbed Gin Galore, it explores Scotland's best gins and the stories behind those that make them.
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