Bourbon’s bad rap

31 Mar

My friends treat me well on my birthday and some of them give me gifts of liquid gold. They know I like bourbon and sometimes I’m presented with a bottle of bourbon. Not just any bourbon, good bourbon like Maker’s Mark, one of the best Kentucky bourbons around. It’s strong, no question, but it is lovely with warming caramel notes and a little spice. Makes my chapped winter lips tingle. I’m not a big drinker but I appreciate the complexity of amber liquors and I drink them straight. That’s right, straight.

It’s the sweet sting of an Irish whiskey or a bourbon that does it for me, you see, and when I tell people I like bourbon, even men call me “hard core”. I just like the taste of it. I think people might be scared of bourbon due to a popular misconception that confuses it with another hard and notorious whiskey, Jack Daniel’s, the drink of the rebellious.

Bourbon is an American whiskey that must be made in Kentucky to be considered a true bourbon. It is made of corn and aged in charred, oak barrels. I’m certainly not an expert of bourbon but I know that I like the “straight” bourbons – bourbons of themselves without additional colour or flavours. Higher end bourbons are a pleasure to sip, like a fine scotch which is meant to be savoured. (For those hard-core bourbon fans who are able to travel, there is a bourbon tour called the Kentucky Bourbon Trail with tours of the best straight bourbon distilleries in the state: Maker’s Mark, Woodford Reserve, Jim Beam, Wild Turkey, Four Roses, and Heaven Hill.)

Jack Daniel’s is not featured on this fine bourbon distillery tour because it isn’t bourbon and it’s not made in Kentucky. It’s Tennessee sour mash whiskey. I believe that people confuse JD with bourbon (easy enough to do) and because of this, bourbon has taken on the associations of Jack Daniel’s drinkers as hard-drinking, ass-kicking rock & rollers and bikers, but it isn’t necessarily true.

Jack Daniel’s (JD)

American whiskeys are made of basically same stuff but are processed differently and not all are considered true bourbons. Jack Daniels is an example of this. This famous Tennessee whiskey is sugar maple, charcoal-mellowed, relatively cheap, and easily accessible in many parts of the world. Jack Daniel’s is also the signature drink of old school rock & roll, and this 80 proof bad boy booze has been the liquid drug of choice for the world’s heaviest bands.

There is certainly an attitude about Jack. I remember getting two bottles of Jack for my brother and I for a rental viewing of The Doors movie – a stinging drink well-suited to watching a film about Jim Morrison. By the end of the movie, we were messed up on Morrison and the bottles were empty. We went out looking for more. I can’t explain it but I can appreciate that rock & roll and Jack Daniel’s strike a perfect balance.

So what is it about Jack?  It seems like a good drink for a guy, strong and honest. It is the hard-drinking liquor that separates the boys from the men; it’s the type of drink that could grow hair on your chest. Jack Daniel’s is the stuff of legend, like the musicians who favoured it.

Keith Richards, Rolling Stones

I think that Keith  Richards that started it all. Keith made drinking Jack Daniel’s cool among rock & rollers; he guzzled it on stage, in limos, studios, and on planes. As a member of the original bad boy group, Keith Richards had the freedom to do/drink/smoke/snort/inject whatever he wanted. And he did. And he’s still alive to talk about it.

Steven Tyler, Aerosmith

“I kept my medicine cabinet on stage, in a 14-inch drum head, the bottom of which contained… one Dixie cup with a straw and blow [cocaine] in it and the other with Coca-Cola and Jack Daniel’s in it.”

Jimmy Page, Led Zeppelin

Rock god Jimmy Page was another heavy JD drinker as seen here in 1975. Again, being in a super group like Led Zeppelin gave Page license to do as he pleased, including getting a good buzz on with his favourite Tennessee whiskey before the show.

Lemmy, Motorhead

“I’m not completely fixated on Jack Daniel’s – it’s just that it’s the one with the best distribution system worldwide.”

When we lost Lemmy at the end of 2015, Jack Daniel’s came out with a selected single barrel whiskey in tribute. “We have selected one that is dark, oaky, but still some corn and sweetness with that signature Jack smooth charcoal smoky finish.”

Bon Scott, AC/DC 

AC/DC’s Vince Lovegrove, in an interview with Adelaide Now, talks about the night when their singer, Bon Scott, got into a horrible road accident where he was “smashed to smithereens”. Guess who else was there?

“About 11pm on May 3, 1974, at the Old Lion Hotel in North Adelaide, during a rehearsal with the Mount Lofty Rangers, a very drunk, distressed and belligerent Bon Scott had a raging argument with a member of the band. Bon stormed out of the venue, threw a bottle of Jack Daniels on to the ground, then screamed off on his Suzuki 550 motorbike.”

This happened before AC/DC became famous. It is likely that JD was present the night of Scott’s death in 1980, caused by pulmonary aspiration of vomit due to acute alcohol poisoning.

Van Halen

Van Halen bassist, Michael Anthony, shamelessly adored JD to the point of having a Jack Daniel’s bass guitar made. Get your replica here.

I found a really weird eight-minute video of Van Halen singer, David Lee Roth, spewing out drunken drivel on stage until the arrival of a little person in a suit who delivers a tray of JD for the singer to pound before the band breaks into Janie’s Crying:


Here’s a JD endorsement from the heavy-speed-black-thrash metal band from northern England, Venom. If this doesn’t make you want to drink Jack Daniel’s, nothing will.


Slash, Guns N’ Roses, Velvet Revolver

Slash is the modern rock god guitarist who favours Jack. Especially in G N’ R’s early days, the band smoked and drank heavily. If you have a copy of Appetite for Destruction, the back cover shows the boys in all of their rock & roll glory, sitting around with guitars, beers, sneers, and the mandatory bottle of Jack.

Charity Jack

Given that Jack Daniel’s compliments the devil-may-care rock & roll lifestyle, would you believe that Jack Daniel’s can do more than get you @$%*!& up? It supports charities too!

Yes indeed, during the 2011 Sunset Strip Music Festival, Motley Crue received an award for contributions to the Sunset Strip music scene, and Jack Daniel’s Tennessee whiskey donated a specially-chosen barrel of hooch, bottled it, and made it available for a recommended donation to support the to the Skylar Neil Memorial Foundation, an organization to support the people doing breakthrough work to find cures for cancer, AIDS, and other diseases.

Skylar Neil is the late daughter of Vince Neil, singer from Motley Crue, another band notorious for swilling JD and sucking hard at the rock & roll teat. Shown here is the cover of their 2001 tell-all book, The Dirt: Confessions of the World’s Most Notorious Rock Band. That bottle looks mighty familiar, doesn’t it?

So ultimately, Jack Daniel’s is a split personality casting a dual image: the kick-ass and the charitable, but mostly the kick-ass. Curiously, or perhaps not, I found no female musicians who were into Jack, which suggests that women either don’t like it or don’t like it’s image (though I’m sure there are plenty of exceptions that we just don’t hear about). JD is a drink that only the strong will survive, and unfortunately, some of them don’t.

As one of the rare women who likes straight bourbon and has had her share of Jack Daniel’s, I take full responsibility for the image this conjures and I’m more than cool with it. Like the clothes I wear or the way I speak, my choice in spirits reflects who I am as a person, but contradicts the image that is associated with these hard liquors. It’s all about ownership, I suppose. Straight up.

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