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In the early 1900s, Lynchburg, Tennessee, was known as the "Mule Capital of the South." Every two weeks, from October to March, the square became a big mule pen for a day, as farmers from the surrounding counties brought their animals in for auction.

Today, Lynchburg is better known for its whiskey than its mules. There still are no parking meters in the town square, where the Moore County Courthouse is located. It was built in 1884.

Moore County jail

The nearby Moore County Jail is even older than the Courthouse. A sign in the window reads: "Absolutely no tours!"

A couple locals, dressed in blue overalls, sit nearby, on a wooden bench, shaving sticks of red cedar into neat little piles of spring-like curls. We asked if anybody was in the jail.

Jack Daniel's barrelhouse
Jack Daniel's barrelhouse
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

"Don't know now," says one of them as he puts down his whittling. "We used to have a guy in there — accused of rustlin' a pig. He said he didn't do it, but he had nothin' better to do all winter, so he jes' let the jail feed him for a while."

Nobody in town is so busy that he can't stop his work to swap yarns or discuss the affairs of the day with neighbors and visitors out on the sidewalk. That's where the action is.

Jack Daniel's whiskey

Jack Daniel's Whiskey used to be sold for 10 cents a glass in the White Rabbit Saloon, with a cold ham lunch thrown in for free. Nowadays, you'll have to settle for a cold lemonade or ice tea. (Even though the distillery makes whiskey in Lynchburg, you can't taste alcohol outside the distillery or buy it anywhere in Lynchburg, because Moore is legally a dry county.)

The Lynchburg Hardware store is a favorite gathering place. "If you need help with anything," the whittler told us, "you'll find the proprietor playing checkers, near the front of the store."

But not today. The checkerboard was there all right (complete with bottle caps for checkers) but, according to a girl sitting on the counter, the proprietor was "gone fishin'." (It was good weather, after all.)

We climbed the creaky stairs and walked straight into one of those black-and-white Jack Daniel's ads. All the props are here — the whiskey jugs and glasses, even the riverboat playing cards.

No problem. We were quite content to browse. Judging by the merchandise, time stopped here about 1920. Horse collars, buggy whips, cast iron pots and Tennessee country hams hang from the walls. Cans of Watkins liniment, jars of sassafras stick candy and packages of smoked buffalo and beef sausage fill the shelves.

Tipsy Cakes

The nearby Sweet Southern Spirit General Store, on Main Street, sells Lynchburg Original Tipsy Cakes, made with butter, eggs, flour, pecans and liberally laced with Jack Daniel's Whiskey. Lynchburg Hardware sells a similar Jack Daniel's infused cake, made from a 150-year-old recipe. Because the cakes each contain less than 0.5% alcohol by volume, they are sold as non-alcoholic baked goods.

It seems that wherever you go in this town, the name Jack Daniel appears.

And no wonder. Mister Jack, as they call him here, put Lynchburg on the map. Back in 1866, he bought a small distillery and began producing Tennessee Sour Mash Whiskey. (It's not bourbon and they get mighty upset if you call it that!)

Barrels filled with sour mash whiskey
Barrels filled with sour mash whiskey
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

These days, the tourism business in Lynchburg is almost as big as the whiskey business.

Tour oldest registered distillery in U.S.

Thousands of people annually flock here every year for tours of the oldest registered distillery in the USA. Junior, our guide, warns us that the tour involves 350 steps and about a mile of walking. "But they're payin' me by the hour, so I walk real slow," he adds.

Our first stop is at one of the 45 hilltop warehouses that each hold over a million gallons of whiskey. As Junior opens the door, the vaporized whiskey nearly knocks us over. "Breathe real deep," he advises, "because that's all you're gonna git!"

Each warehouse holds 20,160 barrels stacked in neat rows. "Each barrel weighs 120 pounds," says Junior. "If one of them rolls over you, you'll get (ahem) smashed!"

Junior explains that the biggest costs in making whiskey are taxes and aging. "Several people in the hills out there have eliminated both of these costs - but they don't give tours," he adds.

We walk out to the distillery, where we see 4,000-gallon fermentation tanks filled with mash (made from corn, rye and barley malt) and large stills from which the whiskey emerges at 140 proof. Outside, a clean-up crew of resident ducks waddles around picking up spills of grain.

Statue of distillery founder
Statue of distillery founder
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Further on, we see stacks of sugar maple boards being burned into charcoal. "The charcoal is ground into pebbles and packed into mellowing vats 12 feet deep," explains Junior. "It's this drop-by-drop filtering that takes out all the things that make whiskey burn your throat and give you headaches."

Tasters advise the workers when to change the charcoal, usually every 14 to 16 weeks. But the charcoal isn't wasted. "It's made into briquettes and sold at the Lynchburg Hardware," says Junior. "And it burns real good."

The safe that killed Jack Daniel

Our final stop is at Mister Jack's original office where the big wooden desk is still cluttered with bills and invoices and penciled notes. "Beside it," says Junior, "is the safe that killed Mister Jack."

Apparently, Jack Daniel had quite a temper. He also had trouble remembering the combination to the safe. "He couldn't get the safe open one day and got so mad that he kicked it," explains Junior. "He broke his toe. Gangrene set in and that's what eventually killed him."


Jack Daniel's Distillery: www.jackdaniels.com

More Things to See and Do in Tennessee:

Dining at Miss Mary Bobos. Lynchburg, TN

Appalachian Center for Craft Workshops, Smithville, TN