When I was asked if I’d like to go to a Jack Daniel’s whiskey tasting in Lynchburg, Tenn., followed by a trip to the 26th Annual Jack Daniel’s World Championship Invitational Barbecue, I was faced with an immediate dilemma: which four-letter modifier to put before the word “yes!”
As a Southerner, I’ve always had an affinity for whiskey, and J.D. is the undisputed king of them all. “You can solve all the problems in the world with a sunset, a good friend, and a bottle of Jack,” an old professor of mine was fond of saying, and over the years I’ve been astounded by how right he was. That combination has gotten me through work quandaries, personal hardships, and more than one breakup. So going to Lynchburg, the motherland of Jack Daniel’s lovers, was a pilgrimage for which I’ve been training my whole life.
[Or maybe I should say, for the record, “… for which I’ve been training since I turned 21.” Please drink responsibly].
A day with a lifelong friend: Old No. 7 (Photo: AP)
My whiskey/barbecue quest began in Nashville, where I stayed at the newly renovated Sheraton Nashville Downtown. The centrally located hotel was an ideal vantage point from which to enjoy Music City. Best of all, there was a mini-bottle of Jack waiting for me in my room. Sheraton may know the value of a good hotel renovation, but it was good to see that they also recognize the importance of a strong pre-game.
It was from there, on a bright fall morning, that my group and I did the 90-minute pilgrimage to Lynchburg. We were told that the tasting would be at 11 a.m., followed by the barbecue.
Lynchburg, TN had a county fair atmosphere on barbecue day. (Photo: Sid Lipsey)
Drinking whiskey at that hour in the morning is out of character for me. Although I often adhere to the “It’s 5 o’clock somewhere” philosophy, morning drinking just feels uncomfortably close to “Brush my teeth with a bottle of Jack” Ke$ha territory.
But, hey, when in Rome, you do as the Romans do. And when in Lynchburg, you drink Jack when the locals tell you to drink Jack.
Speaking of locals, our morning Jack Daniel’s tasting was headed up by a man who famously isn’t from Lynchburg. “I’m the first Jack Daniel’s master distiller not born in Lynchburg,” Jeff Arnett told us upon our arrival (he’s from Jackson, Tenn.). I have no idea how controversial this outsider’s groundbreaking ascension was in Lynchburg, but it was fun imagining it making for an inspirational Lifetime-style movie: A Shot of Courage: The Jeff Arnett Story.
Jack Daniel’s Master Distiller (and professional whiskey sipper) Jeff Arnett (Photo: Sid Lipsey)
Jeff led us through a leisurely, flavorful exploration of the various Jack Daniel’s brands. And he shared a little of his personal history as well. Jeff revealed that he came to Jack Daniel’s after working at Procter & Gamble, where one of the brands he worked on was Folgers coffee.
“So you’ve made the whiskey and the coffee you use to sober up,” I told him later. “That’s definitely vertical integration.” He laughed, either because we’d spent the hour sipping whiskey or because he was being polite. Man, do I love the South!
During my day in Lynchburg, this was what we called “brunch.” (Photo: Sid Lipsey)
After the tasting (and it was just a tasting — for all the big talk I had done beforehand, I ended up taking only a couple of sips of the whiskey they provided; that’s as pitiful as going to the Ben & Jerry’s factory and having one lick of four cones), it was now Barbecue Time.
The 26th Annual Jack Daniel’s World Championship Invitational Barbecue was in full swing when I got there. It very much had a county fair vibe, with tons of little booths serving all manner of treats of the meat and liquid varieties.
But the luckiest people in the park, maybe even in the whole state of Tennessee, were the ones seated in the judges’ area. The dozens of judges were tasked with sitting around all day eating plate after plate of expertly crafted barbecue. I don’t know what job is more torturous: that job or being paid to taste whiskey.
Meet the contestants (Photo: Jack Daniel’s)
“Truthfully, it is a dream job,” legendary barbecue expert Ardie Davis told me. This was his 25th year judging the Jack Daniel’s competition. “I missed the first one,” he said.
Ardie revealed to me the secret of award-winning barbecue: ”It has to look good. It has to be tender. It has to taste good. I look for something with a kiss of smoke; too much smoke it’s going to be bitter. I don’t want the seasoning to dominate the meat flavor. I want to taste the barbecue.”
Barbecue expert Ardie Davis gets down to the serious business of judging barbecue while keeping sauce off his white outfit. (Photo: Jack Daniel’s)
It was clear from the various delicious meats I saw passed around the judging area that there’d be no shortage of barbecue that fit Ardie’s strict criteria. It was all a carnivore like me could do to keep from going all Cookie Monster on the place and eating every plate in sight.
It’s a feeling the judges know all too well. “The trick is knowing no matter how delicious it is, one bite of each rib — that’s it,” Nashville news anchor and barbecue judge Nick Beres informed me. He recounted that his first time judging the contest, he starved himself the entire week before to get ready. The result: when it came time to start judging, he started bingeing. “I tried eating everything on the plate,” he recalled. By the third category, I was done.” But even though he knows now to pace himself, he confessed at that moment, less than halfway through the tasting, “I’m full.” Poor Nick.
While Nick and the other judges had to pace themselves, I was under no such obligation. I sneaked in a sample or two (or three) of the contenders. It was the best barbecue I’d ever tasted: flavorful, tender, and cooked with care and precision. It was enough to make me consider becoming a licensed barbecue judge. By my third bite, I was already rehearsing how I’d begin that conversation with my animal-loving, vegetarian wife.
The judging plate. Remember: judging barbecue is not a sprint, but a marathon — a delicious, delicious marathon. (Photo: Sid Lipsey)
Before I knew it, it was lunchtime (yes, we drank Jack at 11 a.m., ate barbecue for the next couple of hours, and then were going to lunch, proving once again that of the Seven Deadly Sins, gluttony is the most vacation-friendly).
We lunched at yet another Lynchburg institution: Miss Mary Bobo’s Boarding House, a 101-year-old establishment now owned by the parent company of Jack Daniel’s.
The good eating continued at another Lynchburg institution: Miss Mary Bobo’s. (Photo: Sid Lipsey)
Miss Mary Bobo’s is no longer a boarding house; instead, its rooms serve as dining rooms where you can enjoy delicious, family-style Southern meals. Each seating is led by a lunch hostess, whose job is to sit with your group and, according to the restaurant’s website, “see to it that the plates are kept full, that the conversation is kept lively and everyone has a wonderful time.” Mission accomplished.
A meal at Miss Mary Bobo’s: southern goodness on a plate. (Photo: Hungarian Snow/Flickr)
So whether I follow up on my temptation to become a barbecue judge (spoiler alert: not likely; see the part about the “animal-loving vegetarian wife”), I’m definitely going back to Lynchburg and its Jack Daniel’s barbecue fest. It’s how something affiliated with a decidedly adult pursuit — whiskey! — can be so wholesome and family-friendly.
Despite my earlier fantasy of a whiskey-themed vacation to Lynchburg, what I got was something better: a celebration of eating, drinking, and being merry.