Each year Jack Daniel's holds a World Championship Barbecue and all sorts of enthusiasts attend. Peter Krass went along
When you take a sip of Jack Daniel’s you may think you’re simply drinking Tennessee whiskey, but you’re not. You’re taking a drink of a whole subculture, a subculture comprised of avid JD drinkers, collectors, and fans from every part of the world.In an annual pilgrimage, thousands of these folks – from Harley Davidson bikers clad in leather to dapper whiskey connoisseurs – descend on tiny Lynchburg, Tennessee, home to the distillery, to attend the annual Jack Daniel’s World Championship Barbecue. While the prestigious bbq competition hosts pre-qualified teams from around the world, for hardcore JD fans it’s not about the eating; it’s all about networking, buying collectibles, and, of course, drinking JD.In Lynchburg, a dry town, the drinking is discreet but before long you notice who’s been imbibing. The festive tone for the most recent two-day event was set late Friday afternoon when a couple from New York – Teri and Joe Acampora – renewed their wedding vows in the village gazebo.Not so strange perhaps, except that they had been married only a week and the renewal was the first official act of the just formed International Society of Jack Daniel’s Collectors.Ceremony guests included collectors from the United States, United Kingdom and Germany, as well as locals. Presiding over the ceremony – which began with a Pledge of Allegiance to Jack – was Bob ‘the reverend’ Berry, who, hailing from South Carolina and a manager for UPS, has a 20 by 20 foot JD chapel in his home.While a lighthearted event, their absolute dedication to JD was apparent, more so at the reception party. A collector from Germany, Andreas Julius, opened a bottle of Monogram JD, a 94 proof (versus Old No.7’s 80 proof) whiskey produced for Far East/Asian markets only. While not exactly smooth, this bottles was a treat simply because it isn’t available in the U.S.For taste test purposes, when I presented a bottle of George Dickel, a neighbouring county’s whiskey, everyone hissed that it was the anti-christ. It was JD or nothing.As midnight approached, politics crept into the conversation and I asked Andreas if JD is still extremely popular in Germany in light of tumbling U.S. popularity.Indeed it is. So what is it about JD that brings together such a range of people and prompts a collector to spend more than $2,000 on an antique jug or bottle?To begin, JD is an alluring American cultural icon in the spirit of John Wayne or Humphrey Bogart. People latch onto the
flamboyant backwoods Jack Daniel legend.Another primary reason is the embracing tone set by the distillery. For five years now Andreas has organised an annual trip to the bbq, his group of European collectors numbering a dozen or more. Why does he keep coming back?“I think the main reason is that the guys at the distillery gave us the feeling that we are welcome,” he explains, a response echoed by attendees from both sides of the Atlantic.“It’s always a ‘warm’ reception. In Germany a boss from such a great company would never get in touch with his customers.”The JD boss he is alluding to is master distiller Jimmy Bedford, who goes out of his way to attend events catering to fans and, like an accommodating sports star, patiently signs his autograph. A bottle or glass or any JD trinket with Bedford’s signature immediately appreciates in value, so he alone is an attraction. In fact, many diehard enthusiasts spend most of their time at the distillery, only wandering to the bbq zone when hunger calls.Adding to the warmth, the annual bbq offers the perfect opportunity to meet new friends or reunite with old ones from all over the world. A group of four longtime friends from the U.S. explained to me that they reunite each year at the bbq to celebrate their respective birthdays – it’s a date set in stone and an excuse to eat and drink unfettered by family.Most of the collectors, however, first encountered each other surfing the web in the late 1990s, buying and selling collectibles. Even though they vie against each other on Ebay, they consider themselves close friends bound together by their love for JD.They transcend stereotypes: there is the young entrepreneurial Andreas toasting with Chuck, a retired postal worker and Vietnam Vet. They relish each other’s company and swapping war stories of pursuing a particular collectible or sipping (usually to excess) JD from a particular commemorative decanter.The collecting, drinking, and JD legend all go hand-in-hand to create an intensely loyal customer base. But for the hardcore fans I encountered, it always starts with the drinking; they truly prefer the unique charcoal filtered taste.As for the barbecue competition – with a total of 60 teams from eight countries and names such as Parrothead Smokers – it was merely a backdrop that added to the flavour of the experience.
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