Jack’s Drink

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Did Jack Daniel drink his own whiskey? The question is not a non-sens. Some makers of famous drinks never touched the liquid.

E.H. Taylor, Jr., who wrote, and testified, expansively on the real old sour mash, never took a sip. As bourbon historian Gerald Carson memorably wrote, “he was a hedonist for others”.

Charlie Thomasson, a long-time distiller for Willett’s, a small, traditional house, wrote an essay c. 1960 on traditional bourbon-making. He didn’t drink, either. Yet, his article is full of good sense. He says that old-time bourbon smells like a ripe apple – very true – and the essay (not online) has much more.

It’s natural, of course, that some people in the liquor industry don’t drink, given especially the temptation of being around the stuff all the time.

Still, I’d think most in the alcohol industry like a tipple. Samuel Bronfman did, who founded Seagram Distillery in Canada. He liked his rye whisky with water. I’ve enjoyed a drink with Bill Samuels, Jr., who used to run Maker’s Mark, the bourbon distillery.

Jack Daniel liked his own product, too. In the early 1950s a couple of magazine articles kickstarted the haute reputation of Jack Daniel’s, which has never waned.

Before that, Jack Daniel’s was a smallish Tennessee distillery trying to regain its form after lengthy shut-downs mandated by Tennessee and National Prohibition.

WW II interrupted its progress again but the distillery carried on, ultimately to great success. You can read more in this interesting, memorabilia website.

It states there the founder, Jack Daniel, drank his whiskey with tansy. He would put a bunch of fresh-picked tansy in a glass, add water and sugar, and fill with whiskey.

Tansy is one of those little-understood herbs, a name that evokes a former time.

It is native to Europe and was brought to America long ago. A 1930s book, Old-time Herbs For Northern Gardens by Minnie Watson Kamm, offers good detail on Tancetum vulgare.

Tansy is a bitter, fairly aromatic plant. Other accounts describe the taste as spicy or peppermint-like.

It was used initially for religious purposes, e.g., in Easter cakes, apparently an echo of the Jews’ use of bitter herbs at Passover.

This lead to an irregular use in cookery, eggs and puddings, especially. Tansy was also a “medicinal” herb, used in teas and as a general “specific” for colds, ague, fever, that kind of thing. There is much else interesting about tansy lore, easy to find online.

Before the long push to control beverage alcohol gained traction tansy featured in numerous drinks. Cocktail manuals of the 19th century feature a whiskey-and-tansy, or gin-and-tansy, among other mixtures.

The Scots-Irish of southwestern Pennsylvania were particular fans of tansy, it seems, and brought it down the Appalachian trail as they moved south.

Tansy has a little thujone in it, like wormwood. In large amounts thujone can be dangerous. Maybe this explains why tansy in drinks has disappeared, not just faded, while a mint julep, say, retains its allure as a classic mixed drink.

Be this as it may, if I could find tansy, I’d give Jack’s drink a try. One glass can’t hurt, we think. Despite yeoman efforts though, I’ve never found it!

Mid-summer too is the special time of its appearance. It likes roadsides, ditches, culverts, of that order. Maybe it’s in the Toronto ravine near where I live, I’ll have to take a look.

But we come back to it: what was Jack’s mixture like? I always wonder. Maybe a whiskey mint julep with a shot of absinthe comes close?

Note re image above: The illustration of tansy is from Wikipedia, here, and indicated as in the public domain. Believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.