New South Cocktail: The Terroir of the Jack and Coke

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Some call it a Jack & Coke. I like to think of it as a “Chattanooga.”

Chattanooga sits at a gap in the Appalachians on Interstate 24, just southeast of the Cumberland Plateau. Balanced on the Georgia-Tennessee border, Chattanooga was once known as Ross’s Landing, a site where Cherokee Chief John Ross operated a ferry across a turbulent spot on the pre-TVA Tennessee River. A railroad and manufacturing city, Chattanooga was located at a crucial spot in the Dixie Highway. The Dixie Highway was a North-South transcontinental highway network built by early-1900s good-roads proponents who wanted to give northern tourists greater access to the South. Flanked by fading “See Rock City” barns, this stem of the old Dixie Highway is numbered U.S. 41. Dickey Betts famously invoked Route 41 in the Allman Brothers’ 1973 Hit “Ramblin’ Man,” wherein the singer proudly sited his Dixie nativity “in the backseat of a Greyhound bus” heading down that southernmost of highways.

Chattanooga is about halfway between Atlanta, Georgia, and Lynchburg, Tennessee. The so-called “Scenic City” is thus the geographical midway point between the birthplaces of Jack Daniel’s and Coca-Cola. A trip to these historic beverage producers’ visitor centers exposes the paradoxes of the New South—and helps us place the terroir of one of our most famous mixed drinks.

The Jack Daniel’s distillery is located in Lynchburg, Tennessee, about 90 miles from Chattanooga. Although the famous black label touts a population of 361, Lynchburg now boasts over 6,000 souls—a number that counts every last person in Moore County, one of the most rural and least populous of Tennessee’s 95 counties. One senses the isolation after turning off of Route 41 at Manchester and passing miles of wooded hills. A short walk from the distillery is the county square with its quaint red-brick courthouse and various shops catering to distillery tourists. They all close at 5:00pm, so there is no nighttime revelry in the home of Tennessee whiskey.

Lynchburg Square

Lynchburg Square

Moore County, in a supreme twist of irony, is dry. Yes, the place that makes the world’s best-selling whiskey brand does not allow alcohol distribution. Tennessee succumbed to temperance in 1909, ten years before national Prohibition. Since then, there have been no legal liquor sales in Moore County, except for the distillery bottle shop that in recent years has sold “souvenir” bottles of the local product. But don’t worry, to thirsty tourists those souvenirs taste just like the drams purchased in Tullahoma or Murfreesboro—even if they coax a few extra dollars out of your pocketbook.

Non-tasting tours are complimentary, and the guides gladly show off the premises: The spot where the maple charcoal is made, Jack’s office and the heavy iron safe that supposedly led to his death, and the cave from which the water is sourced. After learning that the limestone-filtered water emerges from the ground at a constant, cool temperature, one is invited to take a picture next to the statue of Mr. Jasper Newton Daniel himself, standing on a group of stones. It’s the only place in the whole county, one learns, where you can find Jack on the rocks.

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After that, it’s inside to see and smell the brewing of “distiller’s beer” from the corn-barley-rye “sour mash”; the distilling through four massive copper column stills; and the filtering of the “new make” (or “white dog”) through oaken vats filled with ten feet of maple charcoal. This step, which hearkens to a time when Lynchburg belonged to another county, is dubbed the “Lincoln County Process.” It is this filtering that, according to current Tennessee law, distinguishes Tennessee whiskey from Straight Bourbon whiskey. After the filtering, then it is on to the barrelhouse for aging and the bottling line for commodification. Finally, one ends the tour at the bottle shop for some legal “yellow dog” (lemonade).

The Jack Daniel’s distillery does a fine job of showing that its beverage possesses a distinctive terroir, meaning that the character of the land infuses the product. Like a fine French wine that tastes like sandy, Mediterranean-kissed soils, or a Scotch whisky that has soaked up the tarry and salty North Atlantic, Jack Daniel’s tastes like Tennessee. Limestone-filtered cave water, locally sourced grains, charred white-oak barrel staves, freshly made maple charcoal, and the Tennessee River Valley’s changing seasons combine to make something distinctive. The whiskey is a product of the Highland Rim, the beautifully hilly escarpment linking the Cumberland Plateau and the Central Basin.

Jack Daniel registered his distillery with the federal government in 1866. This was the year after the Civil War, at a time when Reconstruction began and the former Confederacy stepped out on its existential journey to the New South. Lynchburg’s famous-label Tennessee Whiskey displays a long history of existing in modern times yet positioning itself as a product of the ancien regime. Early-1900s newspaper advertisements touted Jack Daniel’s as “The Link between the Old South and the New,” calling the “Old Time Distillery” the “Home of Pure Whiskey for More than a Century.” Not to be left behind in the past, though, such ads also boasted world-class medals earned at St. Louis in 1904 and Belgium in 1905.

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Another beverage with a similar New South pedigree—yet a phenomenally different terroir—is Coca-Cola. As the story goes, the fizzy brown liquid originated in downtown Atlanta of the 1880s. When Fulton County briefly went dry in 1886, pharmacist John Pemberton whipped up a concoction that he marketed as a temperance drink. With sugar and cocaine, the beverage provided the pick-me-up that some thought necessary now that alcohol (then thought to have stimulating qualities) was banned. The shape-shifter soda has notoriously swapped formulas over the years and no longer contains cocaine, but it is still the same brand that began colonizing the world’s palates from the post-Civil War New South.

Visiting the “World of Coke” in downtown Atlanta—just a few blocks from U.S. 41, the old Dixie Highway —is an experience vastly different from visiting Jack Daniel’s. Atlanta was the virtual capital of the New South, a railroad hub destroyed by Union forces in 1864 and then rebuilt from the ashes, Phoenix-like, by the sheer will of capitalism. The metropolitan area is now the nation’s ninth largest, with over 5.6 million residents. It is a very real and thriving city placed at a very artificial site. Initially, the city’s only raison d’être was the web of railroads that converged there in the 1840s, linking interior cities like Memphis and Nashville with coastal ports such as Savannah and Charleston.

ATLANTA, US - OCTOBER 21: The World of Coca-Cola on October 21, 2011 in Atlanta, US. The World of Coca-Cola it's a a 20-acre (81,000 m2) complex that welcomes over 1 million guests each year

The Coca-Cola visitor center sits on the edge of Centennial Olympic Park, a remnant of Atlanta’s global coming-out party, the 1996 summer Olympiad. It is also adjacent to the massive Georgia Aquarium. There is something odd about a huge building filled with marine wildlife sitting in the heart of a landlocked city, but it makes sense once one realizes that early-2000s corporate sponsorship and transportation hubris built this showcase of the world’s aquatic fauna. The World of Coke seems less incongruous sitting next to the towering skyscrapers lining the Peachtree Ridge, but it similarly demonstrates global capital’s power. The exhibits stretch from Coca-Cola’s early history in Atlanta to its spread around the world. Tourists view advertisements, a bottling line, and even get to sample varieties of Coke-branded fountain beverages presently marketed throughout the twenty-first-century globe.

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At the heart of the World of Coke tour is a massive, stainless-steel vault purportedly containing the original 1886 formula. The handwritten recipe is a highly guarded secret to which only a few Coke executives are privy. Visitors quickly discover that if they get too close to the door, an alarm sounds and a robotic voice warns them to move away from the vault.

This is the terroir of Coca-Cola. The secret is not the rocks, soil, or flora of the Georgia Piedmont—it is a list of ingredients, devised by John Pemberton and then sold to Asa Candler in the 1880s. Unlike Jack Daniel’s, which markets itself as a local product rooted in the peculiarities of an old-time rural backwater, Coca-Cola sees itself as a global product based in the universality of a modern urban center. The secrecy surrounding the original formula belies a tangible fear that the beverage can apparently be mixed up by anyone, anywhere. Coke boasts of its global adaptability for good reason. Born in a railroad hub, its terroir is the landscape of any place that can receive shipments of the proper ingredients.

Although they seem so different, both Jack and Coke display the late-1800s New South mentality: Sell non-southerners something evoking the spirit of the exotic, formerly distant region. Either a whiskey distilled in Tennessee’s rural wilds or a fountain drink concocted in the nerve center of the southern railroad network. Whether consumers think they taste the Old South or the New, profits will be made.

The Jack & Coke is the quintessential New South cocktail. It is a mixture representing the rural-urban paradoxes of the post-Civil War South. At the same time the Jack & Coke exhibits the sweet and spicy nose of forward-thinking urban capitalism, it also hopes you detect earthy notes of rural, backwoods nostalgia on the finish. The cocktail’s spiritual home is located midway between Atlanta and Lynchburg, in the vicinity of the Georgia-Tennessee border and the once-wild river named after the Cherokee village of Tanasi. Its terroir is located at the heart of the Dixie Highway, the birthplace of southern modernity.

Drink up. This “Chattanooga” is on the house.

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Comments

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