Written by Jennifer Chesak | Photography by Steven J. Conway
Tennessee whiskey is not Kentucky bourbon; nor is Kentucky bourbon Tennessee whiskey. So when I find myself overlooking the Louisville, Kentucky, skyline from the bridge of a Meridian Yacht and sipping Jack Daniel’s—a Tennessee whiskey—my head spins a little. And not from the booze.
First of all, have you been to Louisville? It’s quite beautiful—especially viewed from a yacht floating on the Ohio River—but more on that later. Back to the whiskey. In the galley of the Meridian 391 Sedan are no fewer than five bottles of various Jack Daniel’s labels, including Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel, a 94-proof whiskey drawn from individual barrels. And in the salon and on the bridge are folks from the Louisville-based Brown-Forman Corporation, which owns the legendary Tennessee-made brand. The executives have climbed onboard the 391 to experience for an evening the allure of the Meridian lifestyle.
We partake in drinks and hors d’oeuvres at sunset while cruising toward an al fresco dinner at a waterfront restaurant—thanks to our delightful captain, Chip Jaworski. Talk easily turns to what it would be like to own the boat we’re enjoying. You see, none of us actually do; Sea Ray of Louisville, the local Meridian dealership, has offered to host us for the evening.
“Honestly,” says Matt Appleby, the Central Division marketing manager for Jack Daniel’s, “I have never been on a boat like this before.” He looks out across the water at the lush shoreline as we make our way to Captain’s Quarters, the restaurant that has provided us with the onboard ceviche, shrimp cocktail and other appetite-whetting dishes.
With plate in hand, Greg Pestinger, the senior brand manager for Jack Daniel’s Family of Brands, joins us to watch the sun take its leave. “The man who buys this boat is definitely the guy who drinks Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel,” he says, taking a sip from his glass.
Intrigued, I press him for more. “Yeah,” he adds, “he definitely likes to celebrate his life in the outdoors, enjoying the environment. Just look at this, being out here on the water. Obviously, he’s a guy who has been there and done that and craves something interesting.”
I nod in agreement. A Meridian Yacht holds a certain sort of intrigue, not to mention the endless potential for adventure. The 391 features two staterooms with plenty of privacy and a galley with all the necessities. “The use of space is really amazing,” says Nate Stewart of Arnold Worldwide, the agency that manages Jack Daniel’s ad campaigns. “And the bridge level is nice and comfortable with great views.”
Chip does a perfect job of delivering us to the restaurant. We dine under the stars, relishing the warm evening. And when we ’ve taken the last bites of our various seafood dishes, we lazily stroll back down the promenade to the water’s edge. The Meridian, glowing with interior light, creates an inviting floating chariot. Not wanting the evening to end, we plead with Chip to take us for another look at the skyline—this time all lit up.
Churchill Downs and the perfect baseball bat have long been Louisville’s claims to fame, but as of late, Derby City has gained prominence as one of the top five “Foodiest” American towns, courtesy of Bon Appétit magazine. And according to Condé Nast Traveler, it boasts the number-one hotel in the South, 21c Museum Hotel.
While on a boat, we get a whole new perspective on one of the city’s many nicknames, “The Gateway to the South.” From right here in Louisville, a yacht owner could cruise down the Ohio River, join up with the Mississippi, head out into the gulf, and from there, embark on a full Great Loop tour—or just head on over to the Bahamas. Essentially, the Meridian owner can travel as far and wide as he or she desires, and do so in style. Meridian Yachts exude polish and class. And the owner of such a boat, no doubt, respects a classic.
“Very few brands hold the same mystique as Jack Daniel’s,” says Sean Wachsman, the whiskey’s associate brand manager. He refills my rocks glass and we head out onto the aft deck. “It’s a very personal brand,” he adds. “When I meet people, they don’t say, ‘Hello,’ they tell me a Jack Daniel’s story.”
The iconic distillery operates out of Lynchburg, Tennessee, in a dry county. There ’s something uniquely adventurous about that. And let’s not forget that less than a century ago, the U.S. government outlawed nearly all of the manufacture, sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages for more than a decade.
Thanks to Jack (Jasper Newton Daniel), who founded the brand in the latter part of the 19th century, Jack Daniel’s was an established and reputed brand by the time Prohibition took effect. His nephew, Lem Motlow, took over the distillery in 1907. The state of Tennessee had actually outlawed whiskey prior to nationwide Prohibition, causing Lem to briefly distill in other states. All production halted when the 18th Amendment became law in 1920. After the 21st Amendment repealed Prohibition in 1933, the production of Jack Daniel’s didn’t resume until state law allowed. Thanks to Lem’s work as a Tennessee state senator, the distillery eventually went back to work in Lynchburg.
Fast forward to the 21st century. Whiskey is becoming part of a broader trend of Americans harkening back to their roots, Sean says. “You see it in today’s fashion and television,” he explains. Whiskey has traded its bootlegger roots for a classier persona that ties into a timeless luxury.
The spirit isn’t just swigged from mason jars filled at backwoods stills by out-laws anymore. In fact, more and more women are drinking whiskey, too. Women’s willingness to give whiskey a shot is quite the reversal, considering that the fairer sex was instrumental in enacting Prohibition, which coincided with the women’s suffrage movement. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union’s purpose was to create a “sober and pure” world.
The word pure sticks in my head, ironically. Jack Daniel’s is produced from an iron-free cave spring in beautiful Jack Daniel’s Hollow. Visitors to the facility in Lynchburg can hear the water trickle while stepping inside the very office where Jack once managed the operation. It’s also where he met his demise. Both tales and records hold that Jack broke his toe kicking a safe in frustration after failing to remember the combination. The break led to an infection, which ultimately led to blood poisoning and his death in 1911.
Jack Daniel’s whiskey filters through 10 feet of firmly packed charcoal made from hard sugar maple. The aging process begins when the whiskey is placed in new charred oak barrels. The charcoal mellowing, which the distillery does drop-by-drop, gives the whiskey its unparalleled smoothness, and is one of the major traits that separate Tennessee whiskey from Kentucky bourbon.
Of course, one can certainly enjoy a Tennessee whiskey while in Kentucky. No law prohibits such an indulgence, and as I look out across the river at the twinkling Louisville skyline from the bridge of the 391, I raise my glass to that.