It doesn’t get any bigger than Jack Daniel’s. The Tennessee whiskey pioneers hold the title of world’s largest whiskey brand and are one of the most recognizable labels on the planet. As Assistant Distiller, few people have a more profound impact on the Lynchburg-crafted golden liquid than Lexie Phillips.
We sat down with Phillips to get a better understanding of what is involved in her role as Assistant Distiller, how her background shaped her career, and to get a more insightful view of the inner workings of one of America’s most iconic distilleries, Jack Daniel’s.
Spirited Zine: Just to start, can you tell us about your first experience with whiskey and how that moment shaped how you approach Jack Daniels?
Lexie Phillips: Growing up around Lynchburg my first memory of Jack Daniel’s was the World invitational BBQ that Jack puts on each year. My uncle cooked in it, there were always family and friends in town for that week. Even then not knowing what whiskey was, I knew Jack Daniel’s brought people together. That’s something that still holds true today. I met my best friend who is now my husband because of Jack Daniel’s.
SZ: How did you get into whiskey and make your way into the Assistant Distiller position?
LP: I’ve lived near Lynchburg my whole life with dozens of family members working at the distillery past and present. That started with my great-grandfather back in the 1940’s then just trickled through the family from there. Growing up I didn’t think I would work at Jack Daniel’s just because it’s really hard to get a job here, you’re pretty much waiting until someone retires or new jobs are created for a job opening. I went away to college at Middle Tennessee State University to study Agribusiness, and in my last semester there I took a class geared in the Fermentation sciences direction and that was when Jack Daniel’s came to the front of my mind. Luckily my great aunt still worked here and helped me get my foot in the door. I began my journey here at Jack Daniel’s working part time in bottling and quality control in 2013. By the end of 2014 I had been inspired to come up to the Stillhouse to be a distiller. Between the people I worked with and the process that we followed, it became a true passion. Within a couple years I had become one of the Lead Distillery Operators – with a focus on training new employees and ensuring day to day operations ran smoothly. Then I started helping lead Barrel Proof Selections in 2018-19. Chris Fletcher saw my passion for Jack and knew I had deep roots here at the distillery. When Chris was named Master Distiller in 2020 he wanted me to be the Assistant Distiller working side by side with him protecting the traditions of making great whiskey.
SZ: What does an Assistant Distiller do and how do you impact the final whiskey that ends up in bottles?
LP: Across my time here I have helped in testing all aspects of our whiskey to ensure it meets our standards and I have been on the team that mashes and distills every single drop of our whiskey. I share brand and whiskey education by traveling as a brand ambassador and leading VIP tours, tastings and barrel selections. The world of whiskey innovation is another large part of my job; working on what kind of innovation we could do around grain, barrel, proof – all the little changes you can make to create new flavors and aromas for friends to talk about…the fun stuff to a distiller. Every person we have working here at Jack Daniel’s is of utmost importance in crafting the final whiskey that ends up in the bottle, teamwork makes the dream work.
SZ: You travel as a brand ambassador to conduct tasting events and brand education. What are some of the most common misconceptions people have about Jack Daniels?
LP: Two misconceptions that are prevalent that can be solved by one simple trip to little ol’ Lynchburg, TN is that Jack was not a real person and that how far we have grown makes us cut corners in the quality of our whiskey. Jack was real, every drop of Jack Daniel’s in the world is made right here, and our well known name is what allows us to continue on with the same traditional Whiskey making processes that Mr. Jack used back in the day.
SZ: What makes Jack Daniels unique among all the other whiskeys currently available on the market?
LP: We are truly one of the most complete whiskeys on the market. What I mean by that is once the grain is delivered there are no outside influences until it touches the bottle, no one can say that on the same level we can. We use a yeast strain that can be traced back to prohibition, we mash and distill from the highest quality raw ingredients, distill on 100% copper stills then charcoal mellow through sugar maple that we burned down to charcoal on site. The whiskey then goes into one of our handmade toasted and charred American white oak barrels that one of our 2 cooperages raised from staves that were cut from whole logs at one of our 3 stave mills then ages in one of the warehouses on our property in Lynchburg. The level of quality control that we maintain is unmatched in the industry.
SZ: What’s your favorite bottle of Jack Daniels? Why?
LP: It goes by a few names…Black Label, Jack Black, simply put- the Jack that the entire world knows and loves, Old No 7 Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey. This iconic square bottle is recognizable even if the name isn’t on there. It’s been a household name that’s held in the same hand with trusted quality and dang good music for generations. I’m proud to make it, I’m proud to sip it and I’m proud to share it.
SZ: You are one of only a handful of women to have worked as a distillery operator. How do you hope to inspire in future female distillers?
LP: Showing women, well really anyone, that a whiskey making woman from small town Tennessee with a background in agriculture is helping lead the greatest American whiskey brand in the world can offer a reminder to people not to let preconceived boundaries stand in their way. Yes this is a male dominated industry, that’s not a bad thing. Honestly it’s very exciting because that means there are so many opportunities to welcome new perspectives into this world. I love being part of the change. Was it intimidating? Absolutely, but if you’re not just a little scared of your next step then you’re not dreaming big enough.
SZ: Do you feel that whiskey continues to be somewhat of a boys club? If so, how do you look to open this world up to women moving forward?
LP: Yes and no. Statistically there are more men into whiskey than women but it’s not like we’re not allowed. Thank goodness for the women who sat at the men’s table many years ago and broke that barrier. We’re in a time when there is a celebration of innovation within whiskey allowing us to try different grains, proofs, wood finishes and highlight different flavors in our spirit welcoming new adventurers into our brand. Being able to offer a wide range of taste preferences is a really fun part of what I do.
SZ: What is one piece of advice you’d give to anyone looking to get into the whiskey world?
LP: Come on in! People don’t realize how many different jobs are involved in the creation of a spirit, I know I didn’t before I came to Jack Daniel’s. We, as an industry, need farmers, distillers, coopers, barrel rollers, whiskey processors, quality control personnel, microbiologists…just to name a few. There is an unending list of books, podcasts, blogs, and interviews to get a glimpse into the whiskey world. I welcome you to come visit us in Lynchburg to see how we make our whiskey, you will not be disappointed.
For more information, head over to Jack Daniel’s official website.
Recently, we’ve gotten looks inside Old Forester with Master Taster Jackie Zykan and Woodford Reserve with Assistant Master Distiller Elizabeth McCall.