From Sinatra to Stapleton: How music boosts Tennessee whiskey

NASHVILLE (The Tennessean) – Country singer Chris Stapleton’s reprisal of the classic song “Tennessee Whiskey” wasn’t just a game-changer for the rising local star — it also gave an unexpected boost to the state’s burgeoning whiskey industry.


Chris Stapleton via The Tennessean

Singing the words “You’re as smooth as Tennessee whiskey,” Stapleton performed the song live with pop star Justin Timberlake during the CMA Awards in November. The song quickly shot up Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart, and whiskey distillers are cashing in on the endorsement, intentional or not.

“I think that just having someone that is on such a big stage basically endorsing a certain product, that’s huge,” said Charlie Nelson, co-owner of Nashville-based Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery. “There’s just potential for huge (sales) bumps after that.”

Whiskey and music have long been intertwined. Countless songs, from traditional folk tunes to blues classics to rock hits, have been written about the brown spirit, which has seen a major resurgence in the past five years. The centuries-old Irish traditional song “Whiskey in the Jar” was popularized by rock band Thin Lizzy and later by metal band Metallica. In the late 1970s, country artist David Allan Coe sang, “Jack Daniel’s if you please knock me to my knees, you’re the only friend there’s has ever been that didn’t do me wrong.”

 “Listening to music while drinking whiskey, the two go hand in hand,” Nelson said.

Music icon Frank Sinatra is credited with helping to put Jack Daniel’s on the map decades before the Lynchburg-based distilling behemoth was widely known across the globe.

On stage in the 1950s, Sinatra famously proclaimed Jack Daniel’s the “nectar of the gods.”

“It was like a boom going off,” Jack Daniel’s master distiller Jeff Arnett said of Sinatra’s declaration. “Jack Daniel’s sales doubled the next year. At that point, people had heard about it, were looking for it, so clearly the sales outstripped our ability to produce it. We emptied our warehouses out and we were on allocation for the next 25 years.”

Jack Daniel’s now sells Frank Sinatra blends, including the ultra-premium Jack Daniel’s Sinatra Century, which comes with a commemorative gift box and Sinatra CD for $499.99.

Jack Daniel’s now sells Frank Sinatra blends, including the ultra-premium Jack Daniel’s Sinatra Century, which comes with a commemorative gift box and Sinatra CD for $499.99.

“Jack Daniel’s has really benefited from the attachment to music and pop culture. It started, obviously, with Frank Sinatra,” Arnett said.

In the mid-1980s, country legend Merle Haggard inked an endorsement deal with George Dickel. The Tullahoma distillery sponsored Haggard’s Ain’t Nothin’ Better Tour and plastered his face on advertisements that announced, “Water’s for teardrops. Dickel’s for drinking.”

Clayton Cutler, co-owner of Tenn South Distillery in Lynnville, said music has played a critical role in connecting consumers with whiskey’s cultural history.

“Awareness of Tennessee whiskey gives me as a distiller and a distillery the opportunity then to help people with their whiskey education. I think there is a lot of room for people learning about the different types of whiskeys and particularly about Tennessee whiskey,” Cutler said.

In 2013 state law established a legal definition of Tennessee whiskey for the first time. Known as the “Lincoln County Process,” it requires bourbon to be filtered through maple charcoal and aged in new, charred-oak barrels. There are only a handful of Tennessee whiskey-makers in the state — led by giants Jack Daniel’s and George Dickel — but several newer distillers are in the process of aging their own brands.

“With respect to Tennessee whiskey, I think (Chris Stapleton’s song) was great because not everybody knows Tennessee whiskey is its own category,” Nelson said of the song made famous by George Jones.

Jesse James, a tour guide at Jack Daniel’s distillery, said it’s not uncommon for musicians, particularly those with Nashville ties, to make the trip to Lynchburg to tour the facility. The Single Barrel Society room at the distillery displays plaques with names of those who have purchased an entire barrel of Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel Select, which ranges in price from about $10,000 to $12,000. George Strait, Eric Church and the Zac Brown Band are among the names on the wall.

“Jack Daniel’s is very well liked among the country (music) crowd,” James said.

Arnett said Jack Daniel’s connection to music dates back to the late 1800s when Jack Daniel himself would host musicians in Lynchburg. The company still sponsors various music platforms, such as international “battle of the band” competitions.

“I think music is something that changes with cultures, it changes with generations, but our brand’s attachment to music kind of makes us relevant to the new generation, the new culture,” Arnett said.

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Categories: Regional News

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