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What a job! Paid to drink Jack Daniel's

Jeff Arnett takes a sip of Jack Daniel's Old No. 7, just enough for it to settle on his tongue, and then — spits it out. After all, he is at work.
Image: Jeff Arnett
Jeff Arnett, the master distiller at the Jack Daniel's Distillery in Lynchburg, Tenn., tests the aroma of a batch of whiskey.Mark Humphrey / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Jeff Arnett takes a sip of Jack Daniel's Old No. 7, just enough for it to settle on his tongue, and then — spits it out.

After all, he is at work. And besides, it's the tongue, not the throat that's vital, he says.

Whiskey lovers might not agree with his assessment. But for the master distiller at the 143-year-old Jack Daniel's Tennessee distillery, it's all about the taste.

"There's very little flavor in the back of the throat," says the 42-year-old Arnett.

He oversees the entire whiskey-making process, which includes taking a nip or two to make sure the popular brands are up to standards. For him, every day is happy hour.

"I'm the luckiest guy I know," says Arnett, who is in his second year on the job.

Dan Leigh of Atlanta was browsing through the visitor's center at the distillery and pondered Arnett's job.

Chuckling, he says, "I'm sure he has to be disciplined." Added wife Melanie: "What a job. Definitely."

Though liquor sales have declined during the economic downturn, a modest growth in Jack Daniel's sales helped the company beat Wall Street's earnings expectations in June.

The brand's distinct taste to its fans is what Arnett tries to protect. With the precision of a surgeon, he gently lifts a plastic cup of the amber-colored liquor, shakes it back and forth a little, smells, then tastes a small amount.

A buzz
He confesses that "a little does go down," but not enough to catch a buzz.

Old No. 7, the most popular brand, sells at 80 proof on store shelves — which means it's 40 percent alcohol. Arnett tests it at 40 proof because it "is the most discerning" for taste.

He's looking for a balance of sweetness and oak character from the barrels used for aging, "enough to be pleasant to most people."

Arnett, a native of Jackson, Tenn., has a degree in industrial engineering from the University of Alabama. He has worked at the distillery since 2001, starting in quality control. He worked for Procter & Gamble for 11 years, specializing in the making of coffee and citrus drinks.

A committed company man, he can talk endlessly about Jack Daniel's and how to make it. And he is reluctant to use competitors' names, instead calling them SOBs — some other brands.

"He has passion for the brand," says Randy "Goose" Baxter, a tour guide who's worked at the distillery 32 years.

Jack Daniel's, the flagship brand of Louisville, Ky.-based Brown-Forman, is available in 135 countries with 9.5 million cases sold annually. But, ironically, it's not available in Lynchburg — by law a dry city and county. However, the distillery is allowed to sell collectible bottles at the visitor center.

"Being dry, it adds to the mystique and aura," Arnett says.

Lynchburg for years has been celebrated in Jack Daniel's advertising, much of it black and white print ads featuring distillery workers or townsfolk wearing overalls. The ads take pride in listing the population at 361, but whoever counted must have been, well, disoriented. It's really about 6,000.

However, many production workers and tour guides do wear overalls at the distillery that employs 365.

"The people in the ads are the real deal," says Baxter, himself resplendent in spiffy overalls.

The whiskey, with random batches chosen, is tested at various stages before it is marketed. Arnett, who has no special training as a whiskey taster, takes two over-the-counter allergy tablets regularly because "some days you don't taste right. They help me stay clear."

Like the company's ads suggest, there is no rush to get Jack in eager hands and thirsty throats.

"You know we never get in a hurry around here," Arnett told an employee as he walked around the hilly, 1,700-acre distillery tucked away in rural Tennessee 65 miles south of Nashville. "We'll play checkers waiting on the whiskey."