For special military occasions, whiskey better by the barrel
When Dave Scott was an Air Force wing commander at Hurlburt Field from 1999 to 2001, he used to give out special bottles of Jack Daniel’s, made from a single barrel of the Tennessee distillery’s finest product.
The bottles were from the Jack Daniel’s By the Barrel program. Created around the turn of the century, it allows consumers to purchase an entire barrel full of a select 94 proof whiskey, which is then decanted into about 250 750 ml bottles.
Scott, a retired major general who last served in 2009 as deputy director of U.S. Special Operations Command’s Center for Plans, Operations, and Intelligence at MacDill Air Force Base, knows a thing or two about the popularity of whiskey among the military.
He is part owner of the Bad Monkey, an Ybor City bar frequented by the area’s military community, especially commandos.
The bottles were coveted by those who served under him, says Scott, who commanded about 6,000 Air Force Special Operations personnel at the time.
“They have a little tag around the neck of the bottle, like a dog tag, which you could engrave,” Scott says. “If you like whiskey, this is a high quality whiskey. If you purchased them as part of a group, this was your signature gift.”
The bottles, he says, would be given to mark special occasions.
“It was a nice gift for a promotion or retirement or going away or to have a special event to celebrate a significant mission,” Scott says. “It’s good whiskey.”
And wildly popular with the military, according to the folks at Jack Daniel’s.
“Today, the military is the No. 1 consumer group that purchases Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel as part of our By the Barrel program,” says Jane Rubenstein, the distillery’s global public relations manager.
The vast majority of those purchases — 99 percent Rubenstein says — are made by groups within the military.
“Battalions, regiments, a Navy SEAL team, etc., they pool their money together and purchase a barrel through the program,” Rubenstein says. “Many times the barrels are purchased to celebrate the ending of deployments, special occasions such as weddings and to reflect upon fallen heroes.”
The program has been a hit at MacDill.
People associated with the base have purchased at least seven barrels since the program began in the late 1990s, according to Jack Daniel’s.
Figuring out who purchased them, however, is no easy task.
Alcohol by the bottle is sold on military installations at what is called a Class 6, or liquor store. Those stores are managed by the Army & Air Force Exchange Service, or AAFES for short.
Dating back to 2011, the oldest records available, AAFES has sold 150 barrels worth of the Jack Daniel’s single barrel whiskey at 38 military installations worldwide, says Julie Mitchell, a spokeswoman. But none at MacDill in that period.
Neither the 6th Air Mobility Wing, the base host unit, nor the two major commands there, U.S. Central Command or U.S. Special Operations Command, could say by deadline whether anyone affiliated with them had participated in the Jack Daniel’s By the Barrel program.
Jack Daniel’s officials could not say who purchased the barrels, because they are not sold directly, but through a distributor.
But regardless of who purchased them, the seven barrels “is an impressive purchase,” says Matt Blevins, the distillery’s senior brand manager.
“We do several hundred barrels a year,” says Blevins. “To have one installation buy that many is impressive.”
Scott, who says he over-saw the purchase of two barrels, got in at the beginning. The By the Barrel program, which began while he was at Hurlburt, allows consumers to not only buy a barrel’s worth, but also select which barrel they want to buy, Blevins says.
Unlike the regular Jack Daniel’s brand, which is made from several barrels, the By the Barrel program offers the contents of a single barrel, Blevins says. It is also 94 proof, or 47 percent alcohol by volume, as opposed to 80 proof, or 40 percent alcohol, in the standard Jack Daniel’s No. 7 brand. But more than that, the whiskey is special because of where it is stored in the warehouse, Blevins says.
All Jack Daniel’s whiskey is stored in oak barrels made by the distillery. But the single barrel whiskey, he says, is stored on the highest shelves.
“Imagine your attic,” Blevins says. “It is hotter in the summer and cooler in the winter. That temperature fluctuation is what pushes the whiskey in and out of the wood. That’s where it works its magic. Over years of that process happening, it gives the single barrel whiskey its rich and robust character.”
The end result, Blevins says, “is a different taste. You get the single barrel taste much more in the back of your tongue.”
But no two barrels are the same, with taste, volume and even storage time varying.
“Two barrels sitting right next to each other will mature differently,” he says. “You might get a barrel that leans very heavily on the oaky side of the taste spectrum. It might have a more dry character than one that is sweeter, with a vanilla, caramel side.”
The program gives consumers the chance to taste three different barrels and choose the one they like. Then the contents are bottled, and shipped off via a retailer, like AAFES, he says.
Each barrel yields an average of 250 bottles, though that can vary. Along with the bottles, purchasers get the original barrel.
The price ranges from $10,000 to $12,000, Blevins says, depending on volume and state taxes.
And not only is each bottle part of a unique collection, they are slightly cheaper to purchase this way, Blevins says.
The Jack Daniel’s single barrel whiskey wasn’t Dave Scott’s first by-the-barrel purchase.
In 1995, while stationed in Europe, Scott was part of a group that contracted to reserve a butt (an extra big barrel) of Springbank single malt Scotch.
“It was a big deal,” he says. “The Springbank we bought back in 1995 was awesome as well,” Scott says. “It was a little- known distillery, but it was on the Mull of Kintyre where the Navy SEALs had their base of operations back in the day. Paul McCartney’s farm is just up the road.”
There are still a few bottles, with specially designed labels, floating around, he says.
“We are down to the last few bottles,” Scott says. “We had one signed by the remaining Doolittle Raid survivors at their last reunion in Fort Walton Beach. For the last several years bottles have been auctioned off at the Special Operations Warrior Foundation dinner in Fort Walton. So the Scotch is a ‘warrior’s moment in time’ that continues to serve a worthwhile purpose.”
As much as he likes the by-the-barrel product, Scott says it is not ideal for his bar.
“It is a business decision,” he says. Having that many bottles “is a lot of product for me to have to store.”
There is not a huge demand for high-end whiskey at the Bad Monkey, Scott says.
“I am more meat and potatoes in there,” he says. “I wouldn’t mind having a bottle or two.”
Still, there is some call for quality single-malt Scotch brands like Glenlivet and Macallan, Scott says.
But good old Jack Daniel’s No. 7, that distillery’s bread-and-butter product, still reigns supreme.
“Jack Daniel’s, hands down, is the best-selling,” he says.