The man with the most enviable job in the market, Jeff Arnett tells us why passion beats education when it comes to creating legends, and what’s inside his bar besides whiskey. By Shikha Pushpan
T+L: What’s your first memory of tasting Jack Daniel’s?
Jeff Arnett: I was first a beer-drinker like most of the people of my age. I was probably in my early 20s when I first tasted Jack Daniel’s with Coke and developed an instant liking for it. I realized it was probably the best drink from my state, Tennessee, so I had all the more reasons to be a JD loyalist. However, I never planned to work at JD.
T+L: You’re an engineer-turned-master distiller. How did this transformation happen?
Jeff Arnett: I passed out of college with a degree in mechanical engineering and had no intentions to work in the F&B industry. I started working with a car manufacturer company, however, within months they laid off 3,000 workers. It was at this point that I interviewed for P&G and got selected. I worked at the Folgers Coffee plant in New Orleans, Louisiana and learnt the process of evaluating coffee beans for flavours—a procedure that later helped me to develop a palette for whiskey tasting. However, I knew I did not want to retire from P&G as a food and beverage person. So, that’s when I started looking for opportunities in my home town, however, I never realized it would be JD. Other than just luck, maybe I was at the right place at the right time. I joined JD 17 years ago as a Quality Control Manager and it’s not really a fun job. Nobody wants to be a part of a generation that messed it up. It’s like a job of a lifetime. And now, it’s my 10th year as the Master Distiller. I am the only Master Distiller from Tennessee, the holy grail of Jack Daniel.
T+L: What’s in your bar, besides Jack Daniel’s?
Jeff Arnett: I like to have Sherry-aged scotch. The earliest scotch that I tasted had the traditional smokey, kiwi flavours, and it never really suited me. If not JD, the Woodford Reserve’s Double Oaked is my favourite for a laid-back evening with some country music by Eric Church.
T+L: Why is Charcoal Mellowing So Important in JD’S Whiskey Making Process?
Jeff Arnett: If you taste JD right after distilling, it has a little bit of a heady mouth feel with an after taste. It tastes like corn chips; the flavours go up to the back of your tongue and it’s a bit bitter. However, charcoal mellowing sweetens the whiskey. Charcoal acts like a big sponge and soaks in all the bitterness. What a barrel does in years, charcoal does in a few days.
T+L: What makes JD’s barrels so special?
Jeff Arnett: It takes anywhere between 4-7 years to prepare a barrel at JD. All our barrels are made out of white oak trees which come from the Eastern US, across the River Mississippi. The barrels have to be new and charred. In case of Tennessee whiskeys, we prepare toasted barrels, which does not require a lot of fire and is a bit different from the charred barrels. The process brings out the dust of the wood. The toasted wood is put in open air for 6-12 months, following which they are shaped into barrels.
T+L: One secret Indulgence.
Jeff Arnett: My wife and I go on a lot of cruise vacations. A lot of people don’t really like cruises, but we have never had a bad experience. We are heading to Alaska next.
T+L: So, what does it take to make a great whiskey?
Jeff Arnett: I have never had a bad day at JD. I love my job. I truly believe that no book will ever tell you how to make great whiskey. You can read about fermentation, distillation etc, but you will never come across a book that will teach you how to be a great master distiller. I think it’s good to know the science, but experience is going to be vital. You will have to try all those permutation and combinations yourself. Education is important, but passion is more important.