Sippin’ Jack With Jimmy

Jo McGarry
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Wednesday - August 19, 2009
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Jimmy Bedford at Jack Daniel’s

It probably is not news to you that I love whisky. I don’t drink it that much, but I have a passion for spreading its warmth and telling its story.

Mostly I tell the stories because of the people behind the scenes, because I believe that in some small way every bottle sold directly benefits families that rely on the whisky industry for survival. People, for example, like the Ileach (the less than 4,000 inhabitants of the Scottish island of Islay), who lined the streets carrying their children on their shoulders and crying tears of joy the day the Bruichladdich distillery reopened in 2001. At night, amid feasting and fireworks, they raised their glasses to an industry that has supported generations of families, and will hopefully go on for centuries more.

The man largely responsible for the reopening of Bruichladdich (brook-laddie) is Jim McEwan, one of the whisky world’s greatest ambassadors. I’ve had the opportunity to meet with him many times over the past 15 years or so, and I’m always invigorated by his incredible passion, sense of humor and outrageous stories. If there was only one person on earth I could choose to have a glass of whisky with, it would be Jim.

Another master distiller who impressed almost everyone he met was a man with a similar passion and warmth, Jack Daniel’s’ Jimmy Bedford. The first time I met him he was sitting on a hill overlooking the world-famous distillery in Lynchburg, Tenn. I was with George Szigeti and a group from Better Brands, and we’d spent most of the day touring the distillery, tasting water from the Jack Daniel’s famous cave source and watching the slow, steady drip of charcoal filtration. It was impossible not to be struck by Bedford’s grace and gentle manner. That, and his obvious love of telling his own whiskey tales. I joked with him about his almost rock star status - black-and-white photographs of him had begun to appear in glossy magazines as an advertising promotion, and people clamored to have him sign their bottles wherever he went. “I represent Jack Daniel’s,” he told me, reflectively. “When people come out to see me, they’re really coming to see a part of America’s heritage.”

Only the sixth Jack distiller since 1866, Bedford became a globe-trotting ambassador for Jack Daniel’s during his more than 40 years of service, maintaining the tradition of a whiskey that sells more than 9.5 million cases each year in 135 countries. And it was Bedford who developed the beautifully complex Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel, rich with layers of vanilla and caramel.

It was a job he took very seriously. The week after 9/11 we were sipping a glass of the world-famous Tennessee sour mash whiskey at Restaurant Row, and he shared his feelings about representing an American icon.

“Everywhere I go people want to shake my hand,” he told me. “It’s as if they want to be respectful of our country, more thankful for the tradition and the integrity we stand for than ever before. When I sit on my porch at the end of a long day and think about all of the things happening to America, it’s such a humble feeling to be here and to know that our product, made in our tiny little community with only 361 people, is recognized around the world. Well, it makes me proud to be a part of it.”

Bedford died last week at age 69. He was found outside a barn at his farm in Lynchburg, reportedly from a heart attack.

It’s because of people like him, and Jim McEwan, that I will continue to travel these Islands talking about far away islands where my favorite spirit is made. It does-n’t matter to me if the whisky is spelled with an ‘e’ or without, charcoal-filtered or made from malted barley, aged in a sherry cask or new American oak. As long as there are passionate distillers, I will enjoy their creations, and do my best to tell their stories.

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