No Bottlenecks Here

By Edward Cone  |  Posted 2003-04-17 Print this article Print

Jack Daniel's bourbon touts an old-fashioned style, but deft marketing and distribution keep the company off the rocks.

No Bottlenecks Here

A visit to Lynchburg (population 361, as they never tire of telling you) might leave the impression that Jack Daniel's is bottled in a tiny brick building and then, perhaps, delivered by mule cart. The distillery tour winds through an old warehouse stacked high with whiskey-filled wooden barrels, and ends in a bottling room the size of a high-school cafeteria. The real action, though, is at a highly automated bottling plant less than two miles away, where a custom-built system automates every step of the bottling process, from cleaning the glass containers through filling, labeling, and capping them, then heat-sealing the bands around the bottlenecks.

And then there are those terminals in the visitor's center, and the top-end Web site. The Web has a special role in marketing liquor, which is not advertised on the major U.S. television broadcast networks. The Web is seen as particularly useful at reaching committed consumers—people who are loyal to a brand and know a lot about it. "Jack Daniel's has a cult following, and these people engage in information sources such as the Web site," says Brian Sudano, a senior vice president at Beverage Marketing Corp., a consulting and information firm. "Within their consumer base, the Web site is a very important tool for maintaining interest."

The Web site includes a virtual tour of the distillery, history and trivia, as well as the postcard function available on the physical tour. The database fed by the site lets Jack Daniel's contact customers to invite them, for example, to an event promoting the product. "There is evidence that increasing awareness by reaching out to trend-setters with parties works within the spirits business," says Sudano. One recent promotion pushed over the Internet was the search for the best food at tailgate parties at professional football games, with the season-long contest ending at the Super Bowl in January.

The Web site was built with the help of contractors, including ad agencies Dye, Van Mol & Lawrence of Nashville and Dallas-based Slingshot LLC, but Brown-Forman has beefed up its own Web management abilities. "In the past couple of years they have really strengthened and grown their in-house abilities, and they have taken a lot of things in-house," says Valerie Mangrum, an account executive at Dye, Van Mol & Lawrence.

Vendor jcSys.com of High Point, N.C., which developed the postcard engine for the site, also worked on a large online training system that supports all the Brown-Forman lines.

"Selling alcoholic beverages is a very complex job, with a lot of regulatory and international trade issues to understand, and there is a lot of emphasis on protecting the brands," says jcSys.com President Carl Stewart.

For the actual production of its Tennessee whiskey—bourbon that is filtered through charcoal—Jack Daniel's makes use of process-control machinery from vendors including Intelligent Products and Systems, Inc., of Birmingham, Ala. If you look carefully on the tour, you can see engineers monitoring production on computer screens in the mash house.

"Making whiskey can be controlled with the same general kinds of technology you see in a chemical plant, or pharma, or paper-making," says John Croft, a chemical engineer with ABB in the United Kingdom, who has worked on process systems at Scotch distilleries. Yet for higher-end products, such as single malt scotches, says his colleague Robin Cooper, "There remains the perception that it's made by some sort of black art."

When it comes to making whiskey, there can be return on investment from what you don't buy, and Jack Daniel's isn't about to kill its golden goose for a few pennies worth of efficiency. The whiskey is still tasted by humans, for example, although chemical analysis of the product's nonalcoholic components are being run to better understand what gives whiskey its flavors.

The production process is shrouded in secrecy to protect the brand. "You have to be careful about telling people how modern you are," says John Rhea, a programmer at the Four Roses bourbon distillery in Lawrenceburg, Ky. Rhea helped customize a process-automation system from Siemens that has increased efficiencies and consistency at the facility.

Jim Rutledge, Four Roses' chief operating officer and master distiller, says old manual processes like valve adjustments are now computer-controlled. The distillery's former owner, Seagram, was a leader in automation, but other whiskey-makers have caught up. "I think we are all at pretty much the same place now," he says.

Rhea is adamant that technology does not change the things that matter. "It's still the way whiskey was made 100 years ago, but it's become highly automated," he says.

What automation delivers is consistency of product. "We have homed in on the exact processes that use the old ways to give us the best-flavored bourbon, day after day, with very little variation," says Rhea.

Timelessness that's bottled and delivered in a timely manner, and marketed in the most up-to-date ways, is the real secret recipe at Jack Daniel's.

Senior Writer and author of the Know It All blog

Ed Cone has worked as a contributing editor at Wired, a staff writer at Forbes, a senior writer for Ziff Davis with Baseline and Interactive Week, and as a freelancer based in Paris and then North Carolina for a wide variety of magazines and papers including the International Herald Tribune, Texas Monthly, and Playboy. He writes an opinion column in his hometown paper, the Greensboro News & Record, and publishes the semi-popular EdCone.com weblog. He lives in North Carolina with his wife, Lisa, two kids, and a dog.

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