Jack Daniel, the Welsh whiskey man

Tuesday 5 November 2013, 13:01

Phil Carradice Phil Carradice

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There is a belief held by many Americans that Jack Daniel, the founder of the company that produces the great Jack Daniel's bourbon, was Welsh. More specifically, people say he was from Dale in Pembrokeshire. Well, the answer to that one is yes – and no.

Just a year or so ago Mark Evans, a businessman from Llanelli, claimed to have found the recipe for the bourbon in a book of herbal remedies once owned by his great-great grandmother and dating from the early years of the 19th century. Her husband, called Daniel, had emigrated to Tennessee in 1853. It was here, three years later, claimed Mr Evans, that he went on to found the whiskey company.

The Jack Daniel's company later denied the claim, stating that the original Jack Daniel had been living in the USA for two generations before 1853 and had learned to make whiskey from a Lutheran minister in Lynchburg.

Jack Daniel, the company said, was the youngest son of 10 children born to Calaway and Lucinda Daniel who had emigrated to the USA in the final years of the 18th century. They did, however, acknowledge that Jack came from Celtic stock. His grandfather was certainly Welsh and his grandmother Scottish – so maybe whiskey distilling was in his blood.

Unfortunately, the early records of the Jack Daniel's distillery at Lynchburg in Tennessee were destroyed when a fire swept through the court house where they were being stored. It is therefore difficult to come to a clear decision on the origins of the man and his whiskey. What is probable, however, was that the whiskey was not originally brewed in Llanelli.

Quite where Jack's forefathers came from in Wales remains unclear. Some sources say that the original man, Jasper Newton Daniel, was from Swansea – hence the coining of the name Jack – others, that he came from Ceredigion. Even his date of birth is unclear. All that is known is that he died from blood poisoning in 1911 – hopefully not acquired from drinking his whiskey.

Jack Daniel was not the only producer of bourbon whiskey, however. And he was certainly not the only one with Welsh connections.

Evan Williams Bourbon – considered by many connoisseurs to be the finest of all bourbons – and Matthews Southern Comfort were both first produced by Welsh distillers. These were men who had left Wales during the early 19th century, a time of strong temperance belief in their mother country – although whether or not that had any bearing on their decision to find a new life in the USA remains unknown.

Evan Williams' family certainly came from Dale in Pembrokeshire so, perhaps, this is where the confusion with Jack Daniel first began. He left Wales towards the end of the 18th century and began producing his whiskey in 1783.

Regardless of the Welsh bourbon connections – and, incidentally, Jack Daniel's is not technically a bourbon, it is Tennessee sour mash – for many years there was no real Welsh distilling of whiskey. That situation has now been rectified and the spirit (no pun intended) of Jack Daniel and Evan Williams lives on in the shape and form of Penderyn Whiskey. The old boys would probably be very happy.

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    Comment number 1.

    Phil, great article -I have visited the Jack Daniels distillery in Lynchburg,TN - most enjoyable. They give the tourists a blast of raw alcohol by lifting the lid from one of the massive charcoal filters while they are gathered around. Probably to get them more in the mood to purchase expensive souvenirs!

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    Comment number 2.

    I mist visit the JD distillery. I was in Barbados a year ago and visited the Mount Gay Rum distillery - or do they call it a brewery? Anyway, they do a similar thing - nearly blew my head off.

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    Comment number 3.

    Well fancy the forefathers of all that American whisky/bourbon being Welsh! If I’d known that, on a recent trip to the States I would have drank it and saluted them. As it was I drank too much beer and came back with a beer/burger belly.
    I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised at the affinity of whisky with west Wales – the liking for the beverage is born out in your account of what happened to the whisky from the wreck of the Loch Shiel, Phil.

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    Comment number 4.

    For those who don't know what rmacmhor is alluding to, the Loch Shiel was a cargo ship that went ashore on Thorne Island - just opposite Dale, on the other side of Milford Haven - in January 1894. Her cargo, 100% proof whiskey, washed ashore and was appropriated by the locals, many of the women carrying away bottles of the stuff hidden down the legs of their bloomers! You can read the full story in an earlier blog, if you're interested.


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