How the Biggest, Baddest Name in Booze Died a Pathetic, Underwhelming Death
Jack Daniel’s is more than just a drink. The Tennessee whiskey has an iconic status generally only enjoyed by much more mass-appeal products — considering what a small percentage of the population enjoy drinking whiskey, that shit’s everywhere.
It’s intrinsically woven into both rock ‘n’ roll and biker culture, a 40 percent ABV symbol of rebellion and hard living. Lemmy from Motörhead — arguably the most rock star rock star to have ever lived, the human embodiment of rock-n-roll excess — drank a bottle every day from 1975 to 2013 and was rarely seen without one in hand. (That is well over half a million units of alcohol, for anyone who’s counting.) Two years after giving up for medical reasons, he died. Makes you think.
Fifteen-year-olds sport Jack Daniel’s belt buckles. Country singers endlessly mention the stuff. Neon signs of the logo, smoke-stained from decades lighting dive bars, change hands on eBay for hundreds of dollars. Frank Sinatra was buried with a bottle. Endless bands, brands and bars have done their own riffs on the branding, and it’s hard to think of a bottle that’s tattooed on more people.
And yet for all the rebellious, iconoclastic, fuck-this-ness of the drink, its namesake may have died in a truly underwhelming way, about as un-rock ‘n’ roll a death as anyone’s ever had.
Jack Daniel was born in Lynchburg, Tennessee, in or around 1849. A lot of details about his early life have been lost due to courthouse fires destroying records, but some things are known: He was the youngest of 10, his mother died shortly after he was born, he ran away from home as a child and he was taught to make whiskey. (For years he was thought to have been taught by a preacher and distiller named Daniel Call, but he was actually taught by an enslaved man working for Call, Nathan “Nearest” Green — only in 2016 was Green’s role officially acknowledged by the company that now owns Jack Daniel’s.)
Daniel went from a teenage moonshiner to a legit businessman, and by the end of his career was a big name, having been awarded the gold medal for best whiskey at the World’s Fair. He passed the business to his nephew, Lem Motlow — a violent, racist piece of shit — who in turn passed it onto his children, who sold it to booze giants Brown-Forman, who still own it today. (Interestingly, Motlow’s third cousin, Asa Griggs Candler, was also in the beverage business, founding the Coca-Cola Company, and so, a Jack and Coke is a very small family reunion.)
When Brown-Forman began promoting the brand, they leaned into the small-town, good ol’ boy origins of the brand with a series of print ads, “Postcards from Lynchburg,” that, among other things, made Jack Daniel himself into the face of the brand. These ads, which can still be found at billboard scale on the London Underground, were based around a kind of folksy nostalgia, telling twee tales of Daniel’s home town.
One of these tales concerned the man’s death. The story goes that Daniel was consistently unable to remember the combination to the safe in his office, an ongoing source of frustration for him. One day he got so annoyed that he kicked the safe, injuring his big toe in the process. The wound turned gangrenous, and he died.
That would be a tragic set of events if it happened to someone you knew and loved, but the distance a century brings — Daniel died in 1911 — means it comes across as amusing, an incredibly famous figure brought down in a pathetically humdrum, completely avoidable way. If he’d chosen a combination that was easier to remember, he’d have been fine, the silly distilly billy!
In addition to being wryly funny — although, being a whiskey man, it’s surely more rye-ly funny (thanks) — there’s an almost parable-like quality to it, a reminder that even legendary names are ultimately human, with all the flaws and foibles involved in that. There’s something in the hubris of it all, being killed by a sore toe caused by being a petulant dick unable to keep his frustration in check.
Advertising has always had a flexible relationship with the truth, however. It’s all part of the myth-making process. Lynchburg is a town of several thousand inhabitants, but in Jack Daniel’s ads, it has a more adorable, quaint population of 361. The “Mr. Jack” of the cutesy promos is pretty much a mascot at this point — more historically accurate and photorealistic than Cap’n Crunch but in the same wheelhouse. And his death (Jack Daniel’s death, not Cap’n Crunch’s death — the world couldn’t handle that) seems to be a similarly massaged piece of history. He kicked a safe, and he died of gangrene, but the two events weren’t related.
As Peter Krass, author of the fastidiously researched unauthorized biography Blood & Whiskey: The Life and Times of Jack Daniel, points out, “He kicked that safe in 1905, 1906. He didn’t die until 1911. That’s a long time for the gangrene to work its way up from his big toe.”
Daniel still died a fairly unspectacular death, but gangrenous blood poisoning was fairly par for the course in 1911, when everyone smoked like chimneys and hygiene was for deviants. Without the element of hubris, it’s just a dude from ages ago dying and hardly a story at all. You can see why they’d print the myth.
And while there’s one argument to be made that jazzing up a few of the narrative elements of Jack Daniel’s life is fairly harmless, we don’t get the stories of people like Nathan “Nearest” Green, or the adoption of some distilling techniques from enslaved moonshiners — or in fact, the extremely entwined nature of the history of both whiskey and slavery — without official narratives being questioned.
It might risk ruining a nice little story, but searching for the truth is a whiskey business.