The whiskey engineer

16 October, 2014

Jeff Arnett wanted to build cars but his life took another path. Hamish Smith talks to the man behind Jack Daniel’s

It’s a fact that drinks journalists like to meet the guys that make the stuff. Perhaps it’s because distillers’ talk is usually straight – deep down they hate the flannel just as much as we do – but mainly it’s because they are the only indispensible part of the business we work in. In a post-apocalyptic civilisation-rebuild scenario, nobody’s going to be looking to Fluff PR to make the first barrels of year-zero whiskey. 

Jeff Arnett would be high up the list. Amid the mayhem he’d still be wearing his company shirt, instructing his team with a drawling reassurance. Here is a master distiller that is built more for big machines than tiny canapés.

“I’m the whiskey maker – 80% of my time is spent in Lynchburg,” he says proudly, second-guessing the assumption that master distillers aren’t even the master of their passports these days, let alone distillation. “For a lot of people the title master distiller is used very loosely – some are just a talking head. I do enjoy doing the ambassador work but I like to spend a lot of time in Lynchburg doing the job I talk about doing.”

Unlike many that are carted around the circuit on the strength of their surname, Arnett is not a Daniel and therefore defined only by distillation. He’s only the seventh master distiller at Jack Daniel’s since 1866, so you can imagine he arrived in Lynchburg with a pretty serious whiskey pedigree. 

He didn’t. When Arnett took his first job at Jack Daniel’s in 2001, he had never worked in the alcoholic drinks business. In fact, but for some bad luck in 1990 he would probably be making car parts. 

“I wanted to make cars for a living,” he says matter-of-factly. From sports cars to muscle cars to the kind of trucks that wouldn’t look right outside of the Deep South – Arnett has had them all. “When I got the keys to my first car I was in love. It was a Pontiac Firebird dressed out like in Smokey and the Bandit - black with a gold bird. For a 16 year old kid I was in hog heaven.” 

Arnett trained as an engineer in his hometown of Jackson, Tennessee, – what he calls “the buckle of the Bible Belt” – with the intension of entering the automobile industry. Whilst studying, he had temporary work placements making breaks for Ford and when he graduated in 1990, he took his first proper job at General Motors. Or at least he thought he had. A few weeks before his start date GM called to give news of a hiring freeze. 

From steering units to turning points, “I didn’t know what to do. If you say you’re from Tennessee the first thing people think of is music and whiskey. I tell people I don’t sing very well so that wasn’t an option.” 

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