Did Jack Daniel drink his own whiskey? The question is not an absurdity, as some famous makers of drinks didn’t touch the stuff. E.H. Taylor, Jr., who riffed on the real sour mash, didn’t drink. As bourbon historian Gerald Carson memorably reminded us, “he was a hedonist for others”.
Charlie Thomasson, a distiller for a small house (Willett’s), wrote an essay on traditional methods c. 1960. He didn’t drink either. Yet his article is still very interesting, e.g., he says old-time bourbon has a smell like a ripe apple.
It’s perfectly natural of course that some people in the liquor industry don’t drink, perhaps especially understandable given the temptations of being around the stuff all the time.
However, I’d guess most liquor-men (and women) did have a sip, not too often of course, because you can’t take alcohol and work effectively, or most people can’t, but most of the “names” seem to have enjoyed a dram regularly. Samuel Bronfman did, who founded Seagram. He liked his whiskey with water. I’ve enjoyed a drink with Bill Samuels, Jr., who used to run Maker’s Mark.
Jack Daniel liked his own product too. In the early 1950s, a couple of lengthy magazine articles on the distillery helped to kickstart its unceasing growth since then. Before that, it was a small Tennessee operation trying to re-establish after the lengthy shut-down of Prohibition. The war interrupted its progress but it carried on and the brand acquired cachet outside its traditional areas, in part due to the articles mentioned. You can read them on this very interesting Jack Daniel’s memorabilia website.
One of the pieces says Jack drank his whiskey with tansy and gives an account of building the drink. 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 barely-remembered nostrums of a much older time, it is a herb, native to Europe and brought here by the British. A 1930s book, Old-time Herbs For Northern Gardens by Minnie Watson Kamm, gives the low-down on tansy, or Tancetum vulgare. It is a bitter, fairly aromatic plant and other accounts describe it as spicy and peppermint-like.
It was used initially apparently for religious purposes, in Easter cakes as an echo of the Jews’ use of bitter herbs at Passover. (Who knew?).
This lead to a general but irregular use in cookery, with eggs and in puddings. It was always too one of the “medicinal” herbs, used for teas and in other ways as a general “specific” for colds, ague, fever, rheumatism, and other mostly bootless complaints. With the rise of beverage alcohol in America from Colonial times until the long push to control alcohol started in the 1830s, tansy entered numerous drinks. There are recipes in numerous cocktail manuals of the 19th century for whiskey-and-tansy, or gin-and-tansy.
The Scots-Irish in southwestern Pennsylvania were particular fans of the herb and brought it down the Appalachian trail as they moved south. Jack Daniel’s ancestry is mostly Ulsterman, in fact.
Tansy has some thujone in it, as wormwood does, which in large amounts is a poison, and I wonder if this may explain why tansy in drinks has disappeared – not just faded – while a mint julep, say, is still a known quantity. Be that as it may, if I could find the stuff I’ve give Jack’s drink a try, but have never been able to secure any. July, too, is the special month of its cultivation or rather appearance along roadsides, in ditches, culverts, and other places not very exotic. Maybe it’s in the Toronto ravine to my right 30 stories down, I’ll have to take a look.
So that’s how Jack Daniel took his whiskey, with tansy. Perhaps it tasted like a mint julep with a shot of absinthe in it? Hey that sounds pretty good anyway, a Dan Mintsey. You read it here first.
Note re first 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.