WHISKEY ACORNS: Jack, UT celebrate 25 years of distillery seed orchard program

seed orchard luncheon on Lynchburg
The University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture’s Keith Carver and Scott Schlarbaum (far left) pose with former and current Jack Daniel’s general managers Tommy Bean and Melvin Keebler during the 25th anniversary of the Tree Improvement Program at the distillery. The event was recently held on BBQ Hill. (Photo Provided)

If you know anything about the whiskey-making process, you know that trees make up a considerable part of the natural resources needed to transform corn, rye, and barley into our local product. From the sugar maple charcoal used during The Lincoln County Process to the white oak barrels the raw whiskey is aged in, trees are essential. On any given day, over 20,000 barrels of whiskey sit in white oak barrels in rick houses spread across Moore and Lincoln counties. If demand were to ever outpace supply, bad things could happen.

In 1998, the University of Tennessee’s Institute of Agriculture (UTIA) approached then Jack Daniel’s General Manager Tommy Bean and Production Manager Doug Clark with a proposition. They had a plan to ensure the future of sugar maples and white oaks in the state but they needed funding.

“We knew what we needed to do, but we did not have the means to do it until Jack Daniel’s stepped in,” stated UT Professor Scott S. Schlarbaum during last week’s luncheon. “Some seeds take over 25 years to produce, and we can’t meet our tree-planting goals without seeds.”

So on a sunny spring morning, Schlarbaum and Beam as well as former Jack Daniel’s Distillery Manager of Maintenance and General Services Mike Womack and current Maintenance Supervisor Dale McGee picked a little over two dozen acres of unblemished Moore County pasture to launch a seed orchard. Now, that seed orchard produces not only sugar maple and white oak seedlings but also baldcypress, black walnut, and five other oak species.

“Mike would really baby these trees like they were his own kids,” stated Schlarbaum. “Week after week, he insisted that the grounds crew carefully mow around the area to avoid destroying any seeds.”

Well-aged partnership

Initially it started as a 27.5 acre sugar maple genetics test. From there, they expanded to white oak preservation.

Their program, the Tree Improvement Program, serves as a shining example of what collaboration between a private company and a public institution can accomplish. Jack Daniel’s provided the land, labor, and money and UTIA provided the necessary technical expertise to ensure the project’s success. It worked. Since 1998, over 3,000 trees and grafts have been planted here in Lynchburg. And they’ve expanded. Where once sat a flat piece of Moore County farmland now sits over 65 acres of young forest. The program also inspired other organizations like TVA and the Margaret Finley Shackleford Trust to launch similar projects.

“Our intention is for it to exist as long as Jack Daniel’s is a brand,” Keebler said during the luncheon.

It’s a long term investment. All of Jack Daniel’s and UT’s hard work is only now paying off. The orchard began producing its first signs of reproductive maturity in 2017.

Keebler says the orchard is a popular spot at the distillery with everyone from Brown-Forman Board of Directors members to the local leadership team eager to check its progress. Local operations team members also often volunteer their time at the orchard.

“I can’t think of anything I’m more proud of,” Tommy Bean stated at the conclusion of the luncheon. •

{The Lynchburg Times is an independently-owned, community newspaper located in Lynchburg, Tennessee the home of The Jack Daniel Distillery. We focus on public service, non-partisan, rural journalism. We cover the Metro Moore County government, local tourism, Moore County schools, high school sports, Motlow State Community College, as well as whiskey industry news and regional and state stories that affect our readers.}