Once you’ve been the master distiller for Jack Daniel’s—one of the best-known (and loved) whiskey brands on the planet—it’s hard to imagine a second act. But Jeff Arnett, who held that role for nearly 20 years and saw the brand through numerous new releases including Tennessee Honey, knew he wasn’t done distilling when he left in 2020. What he really wanted, he says, is ownership, which he found after partnering with two other distillers and launching Company Distilling, which produces a wheated bourbon, as well as their Ghost Rail gin, and several flavored spirits under the label Ace Gap.
This summer, Company Distilling opened a tasting room in Townsend, Tennessee, and there are plans for a large distillery and campus to open in nearby Alcoa. We sat down with Arnett to learn more about his bourbon and how Company Distilling came to be.
Jeff Arnett Shares the Story Behind Company Distilling
Tell us about the genesis for Company Distilling:
The seeds of it started about seven years ago. Besides being the master distiller at Jack Daniel’s, I was also the vice president of the Tennessee Distillers Guild, which is made up of the twenty-five or so distilleries across the state who would meet on a regular basis and discuss the issues of our industry. (Over about a three- or four-year period, we introduced eleven different pieces of legislation—we were looking at legislation that was written back in the 1930s and updating things.)
That’s how I made friends with Heath Clark, who had H Clark Distillery in Thompson Station [south of Nashville] and Kris Tatum, who was part of Old Forge Distillery in Pigeon Forge. We started doing the Grains & Grits Festival in Townsend, Tennessee in 2016. [After several years of doing it], I could see the opportunity that Townsend presented—it was a shame it didn’t have a distillery when Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge did nearby.
I was like, you know, there’s no reason why we couldn’t have a premium whiskey brand based right here. Heath had founded H Clark in 2014, and had Company Distillery under that label. I came to him in 2020 and Heath, Kris, and I partnered to rebrand Company Distilling and launch a bourbon whiskey in 2021.
How did things get off the ground?
I didn’t have a room full of my own whiskey so I had to go and find some. But I wasn’t necessarily happy with the options I first came across. One of the things that I’ve said in the past so many times is that whiskey is no better than the barrel you put in. I mean, this is critical. It’s all your color, it’s over half of your flavor. You’ve got to get it right.
So, I was talking to my partners and I’m like, you know, if we’re going to be serious about this, if we want to make an award-winning, top-notch liquid, we’re going to have to find somebody who’s going to make us a better barrel than just the commodity standard.
I’d met a guy working through Brown-Forman [Jack Daniel’s parent company] named Darren Whitmer who ran Speyside Bourbon Cooperage, who had made barrels for Brown-Forman in the past. I went to him and toured his facility and in the process, he shows me a few barrels that had been holding whiskey for about three years. He’d done an array of toasts on them and loaded them with whiskey made at a facility down the road.
Did I want to try any? What I tasted was better than anything I’d tried from the usual suspects and I’d never heard of them before. I got their contact info, we flew up there as a team, and asked if they’d be willing to partner. We agreed to doing so many barrels with them over a four or five-year plan until we get our distillery on its own feet.
What sets your bourbon apart?
Ours is a wheated bourbon that’s maple finished. I had done some wood finishing, similar to this style, at Jack Daniel’s and I really wanted maple to be a feature of this bourbon—and with that, you don’t want a liquid that is super imposing, which got me thinking about wheat.
I got to thinking about other wheated bourbons out there, you know, Pappy [van Winkle] and Weller. And I think wheated bourbons have done a really good job of positioning themselves—and they tend to be soft and approachable. Plus, I felt like I could create more character with the maple finish. I wanted approachable complexity—something that doesn’t run off a new drinker, but it still satisfies a mature drinker.
Tell us about the name:
This is a bottle you can gather around. One of our taglines is: “Gather around good company.” We all want to enjoy one another’s company, right? It’s the people that you break bread with. The three of us were friends, all three with different distilleries, who decided to push our chips together and to become a full portfolio spirits company. It’s the company we keep.
What can we expect down the road?
We now have tasting rooms open in Thompson’s Station, Tennessee, as well as Townsend—both are high-end tasting rooms where you can try bourbon, gin, and our flavored spirits. We’d like to start brewing beer in Townsend, too. One of the things about Jack Daniel’s was that it was all about Tennessee whiskey. Here, I get to experiment and play with all these other spirits.
We also have 31 acres in Alcoa, which we’re working to develop into a large-scale distillery and campus. It’s kind of funny because Alcoa was founded in 1919. And ironically, that was the year of prohibition. I’ve told people the first barrels that we mature out of there, it’ll be the prohibition series. How cool is that?