Cranking the siren and banging the bell on an antique fire truck: Those were Chris Fletcher’s favorite things to do as a kid at the Jack Daniel’s distillery in Lynchburg, Tennessee. (He also remembers being terrified he’d fall through the metal-grate flooring in the stillhouse.) Don’t worry; Fletcher had good reason to be hanging around a whiskey factory as a child. His grandfather, Frank Bobo, served as master distiller for Jack Daniel’s from 1966 to 1988, and Fletcher himself is now the brand’s assistant master distiller.
“Coming to the distillery was a time to be with Pawpaw,” says Fletcher, who was born and raised in Lynchburg. “I really didn’t understand the importance of Jack Daniel’s as a kid: Lynchburg’s population is about six hundred, and we employ about five hundred people, so it was pretty normal for a local kid to be visiting a relative there.”
Despite practically growing up in the distillery, Fletcher really didn’t consider making whiskey as a career until he was in college. He liked science and decided to major in chemistry, and during his sophomore year at Tennessee Technological University, he realized just how much chemistry is involved with whiskey-making, from fermentation and distillation to the complex reactions that occur inside the barrel. Fletcher took a part-time job as a distillery tour guide that summer and never looked back.
But it took Fletcher a while to come back to the family business. After college, he headed to Louisville to work in research and development for Brown-Forman, the global liquor giant that owns Jack Daniel’s as well as Woodford Reserve and Old Forester bourbons, Herradura and El Jimador tequilas, and dozens of other brands. For nine years, Fletcher worked in the yeast lab, analyzing barrel samples and participating in “sensory science”—AKA tasting booze professionally. “I got to learn about bourbon, I got to learn about tequila, I got to learn about barrels,” he says. “That’s when it started to click that this was the job for me.”
In late 2013, Fletcher got a call from current Jack Daniel’s master distiller Jeff Arnett, who was looking to hire a second-in-command, and he jumped at the chance to come back to Lynchburg. Today, Fletcher works out of his grandfather’s old office, even using his former desk. (In fact, Fletcher started working at Jack Daniel’s on January 2, 2014—exactly 57 years to the day after Bobo started with the company.)
As assistant master distiller, Fletcher travels frequently to present his whiskies to fans around the world. “Jeff is more tied to production and very focused on that, and I travel quite a bit,” he says, “but every day that I’m in the distillery, I walk through and talk to our whiskey makers and visit the quality-control lab to taste barrel samples—I’m one of eleven master tasters who select the whiskey that becomes Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel.”
When Arnett—just the seventh master distiller in the company’s 151-year history—retires, Fletcher is widely seen as heir apparent for the job, but he’s humble about his prospects. “Fingers crossed, maybe one day I can assume that role,” he says. “For me personally, it’d be even more special, but I will not be the only one considered.”
So, how does Chris Fletcher take his whiskey? “On the rocks is the only way I ever saw anybody in my family drink Jack Daniel’s,” he says. “The only choice for me is two ice cubes or three.” On the rare occasions when he mixes a cocktail, he opts for a classic: an Old Fashioned using the flagship Old No. 7 whiskey. Fletcher’s recipe is dead simple, though he does sometimes indulge in a fancier garnish. “My wife loves those fancy expensive cherries,” he says. “They’re optional though.”
Chris Fletcher’s Tennessee Old Fashioned
(Makes 1 cocktail)
1 dash Simple syrup (one part sugar, one part water)
2 or 3 dashes Angostura bitters
1 Orange twist
1.5 oz. Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7 Tennessee Whiskey
Maraschino cherry for garnish
Preparation: Add the simple syrup, bitters, and orange twist to a rocks glass and muddle briefly. Add the whiskey and several ice cubes, and stir to combine. Garnish with a cherry.