Jack Daniel’s: a brand history

27th January, 2015 by Tom Bruce-Gardyne

For some, Jack Daniel’s is America in a bottle; the emblematic spirit based at the heart of the nation. This is how the brand achieved its iconic status.

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Jack Daniel’s is one of the best-loved whiskey brands in the world. Here’s how it achieved world domination

*This feature was first printed in The Spirits Business October 2014 issue.

“The story of Jack Daniel’s is the story of the American dream,” states the whiskey brand’s website, referencing the life of Jasper Newton Daniel, born in 1850 and raised by a local preacher and part-time distiller in Lynchburg, Tennessee.

Probably far more important for brand-owner Brown-Forman was that he adopted the nickname Jack. For as John Hayes, Jack Daniel’s MD and senior vice president, says: “I can’t quite imagine people asking for a Jasper and Coke.”

“Jack’s easy to pronounce,” he continues. “You can say it in China, Brazil or anywhere. It’s also a name of attitude and masculinity if you think of Jack Nicholson or Jack Kennedy, and it’s got a casualness and friendliness to it.” Jack Daniel’s drinkers are on first name terms with their chosen spirit in a way Jim Beam, Johnnie Walker or José Cuervo can only dream of.

Hayes says the brand is “certainly an icon of America overseas,” but claims it’s not something the company has pursued overtly. “We’ve never waved the American flag. We tell our story truthfully and it all comes back to Lynchburg and this image of small town America.” So much so that earlier this year one local resident argued Brown-Forman should pay US$10 a barrel community tax for having surfed the town’s bucolic image for so long. His proposal was rejected.

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Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey has become an “icon of America overseas”

Not everyone in Lynchburg wears denim dungarees or talks in a deep, Southern drawl, but many of the distillery’s 250,000 annual visitors are “amazed that it’s actually real,” says Hayes. The brand has certainly seeped its way into American popular culture. “When Hollywood scriptwriters want to use short-hand to show that a character is somebody to reckon with, they still put Jack Daniel’s in their hands,” says brand historian Nelson Eddy. An even stronger musical bond stretches from Sinatra through the Stones to Burnin’ It Down – the latest country chart-topper by Jason Aldean.

All this was to come in 1956 when Brown-Forman bought what Hayes calls a “very regional 200,000 case brand.” Most was the cheaper Green Label version that you can still find in a few States. Sales grew steadily though supply failed to keep up until the mid-1970s. Demand was stoked by adverts that proclaimed: ”We’d rather ask for your patience than your forgiveness,” with text explaining the time consuming process of filtering the spirit through maple charcoal and maturing it in charred oak.

Once production was finally cranked up, Jack Daniel’s took off with US sales virtually trebling between 1973 and 1986. Hayes joined the company a year later just as exports were starting. “On my first UK trip, you couldn’t find a bottle of Jack Daniel’s in a pub in London,” he recalls. Last year the brand broke through the million case barrier in Britain – its biggest export market, followed by Germany, France and Australia. Foreign sales accounted for 60% of the 11.5 million cases sold in 2013 (IWSR).

Following a well-worn path of American brands, Brown-Forman supplied US troops stationed abroad. It also used the distribution channels of its recently-acquired Southern Comfort to reach foreign consumers who had never tasted American whiskey before. Soon they began to embrace Jack, especially when sweetened with Coke. Hayes reckons about half of consumption is mixed, and of that Coke accounts for over 80%.

Perceived as a far more mixable spirit than Scotch, the brand successfully converted vodka drinkers who identified with its young, rock ‘n’ roll image. It has “a tremendously wide consumer franchise, what we call ‘bikers to bankers’,” says Hayes. Or in the words of a famous advert: “Jack Daniel’s – served in fine establishments and questionable joints”. This duality needs careful handling by the marketing team. Swing too close to Keith Richards brandishing a joint and a bottle of Jack, and conservative drinkers swing the other way.

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Despite its turbulent history, Jack Daniel’s has maintained a far-reaching and diverse consumer base

In 2003 the strength was lowered to a standard 80 proof (40% abv) because “Jack Daniel’s was perceived by many as too strong”, says Hayes. With social media still in nappies, negative comment was muted, and nothing to match the on-line barrage that hit Beam. For daring to dilute Maker’s Mark last year it was branded “un-American” – a terrifying label in the land of the free, though some say it was a PR stunt.

The financial crash of 2008 caused distillers like Brown-Forman to reduce fillings. Prices were kept competitive and for a while the whiskey market stalled before it bounced back with a vengeance four years ago. “Our business took off a lot faster than we expected,” says Hayes, who used pricing to suppress some of the demand. “In the UK we’ve added £3-4 a bottle over the last four years.”

Complicating matters was a squeeze on lumber following flooding in the Missouri oak forests in 2011. There have been calls to allow the use of refill barrels for Tennessee whisky which must have panicked Scotch whisky distillers given their reliance on American cast-offs, but Brown-Forman is firmly against such a move. “Why on earth in this booming American whiskey market would we want to do anything to say we’re inferior to Bourbon?” asks Hayes.

Fuelling the boom has been flavoured whiskey. First came Wild Turkey American Honey in 2006, followed by Jim Beam’s Red Stag and finally Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey in 2011. It was the first big extension since Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel in 1997, and it had to satisfy three key questions, as Hayes explains: “Will consumers like it? What does it do to the equity of the Jack Daniel’s trademark? And will it cannibalise the rest of the portfolio?”

If Tennessee Honey came late to the party, it soon took the lead. “We’re over a million cases globally and it hasn’t slowed down,” says Hayes. In April it was joined by the cinnamon-infused Tennessee Fire which is carefully being rolled out across America. “By the end of this year,” he adds, “the flavoured American whiskey category will be bigger than Scotch in the USA.”

Click through the following pages to see the timeline of Jack Daniel’s brand history.

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