The whiskey engineer

At that time Jackson was even shorter on options. It is part of one of the most musical areas on earth, located on the music highway, which connects the birthplace of Rock ‘n’ Roll with the home of Country music. “Memphis is known for blues and rock and Nashville is known for country but Jackson is home to rockabilly,” says Arnett. “It’s where country and rock collided.”

So if you lived in Jackson in the early 90s and you couldn’t tap out a tune, there’s a decent chance you’d end up making Pringles. “There’s a small plant in Belgium but [otherwise] every Pringle you’ve ever eaten likely came from Jackson Tennessee,” says Arnett. Procter & Gamble, which owned Pringles, were the biggest industrial employer in Jackson, so with the automobile options shrinking, Arnett decided to join its ranks. 

Potato chips would come later. First up was making coffee for Procter & Gamble’s Folgers brand – America’s biggest coffee company at the time. “They did roasting, grinding and filled the jars at the site [in New Orleans] but also had a classing and grading sensory lab. We evaluated Bean crops from countries such as Nicaragua and Costa - I got exposed to the sensory sciences through coffee. We would have 5-6 beans in the blend, one for acidity, a couple for flavour complexity, one or two for body.”

Coffee’s not whisky, but the principles of blending are the same. “To make coffee you blend the beans so they are better together than they are apart. I learned a lot about the palate and where flavours show up and how you evaluate liquids and beverage drinks.”

From coffee, Arnett stepped into another beverage business, orange juice. Though not a brand known for its craftsmanship.  “Sunny Delight is clearly not orange juice if you’re a purist,” says Arnett, who controlled of a lot of technical aspects of Sunny D that are probably best left on tape. However, his two years with the brand spent in Texas were not wasted. Arnett likes technical challenges but also “learned a lot about brands” whilst there.

Still, as a Tennessee boy the time eventually came when he needed to go home. That meant Pringles and while it’s said once you pop you can’t stop, within two years Annett was headhunted for a job for one anonymous drinks company.

Bizarrely Arnett applied for the job not knowing it was Jack Daniels, and only found out once he reached interview stage. He need only have looked at the fan card in his wallet – Arnett though not a big drinker, was a member of Jack Daniel’s club. He had never imagined he would be qualified to take a job in whiskey – even if it was in his specialist area of quality control. 

In 2001 he took that job at Jack Daniel’s and took to the company immediately. “Whiskey is one of the most fascinating areas. I don’t know that you can read a book and then make the perfect bottle of Jack Daniel’s – it’s a marriage of art and science, particularly distillation and fermentation.” Arnett took seven years to rise to master distiller, earning his stripes in warehousing, maturation, distillation, charcoal mellowing management, barrel quality and bottling and even tasting. 

Finally, in 2008 Arnett was ready. He may not have been a whiskey industry Hall-of-Famer but producing a brand with an annual output of 11.5m cases is less about dusty craftsmanship and more brand stewardship. This is a job for someone that has mastered quality control. It doesn’t sound sexy but when there are tens of millions of people around the world with an expectation of Old No. 7, it’s vitally important that it tastes of Old No. 7.

Arnett, though, was behind the recent Jack Daniel’s Honey, but he’s the first to admit the concept sprung from outside of his office. He says its not his favourite of the Jack Daniel’s range but can understand why people like it.  

Like he has his Jack Daniel’s, Arnett’s talk is served up straight. And it’s good to see that a regular guy that has done regular jobs at regular companies has earned the right to make one of the world’s iconic whiskey brands. In a world of spin and hyperbole, it’s good to know there are some serious men left.