LOUISVILLE, Ky. – For lovers of Jack Daniel's Tennessee Whiskey, Jimmy Bedford has the dream job.
As the brand's sixth master distiller, Bedford is responsible for making the world-famous whiskey at the Jack Daniel Distillery, which was registered in 1866. He's been featured as the face behind the product in advertising. And he's traveled from the tiny Tennessee town of Lynchburg around the world to promote the brand.
On Tuesday, the 68-year-old Bedford said he'll retire effective March 31 after working 40 years at the distillery, including the last 20 as master distiller.
"It's been 40 enjoyable years for me," Bedford said by phone in his deep baritone voice, as smooth as the whiskey he makes. "Being part in making a product that's shipped around the world, I've had a lot of satisfaction in doing that."
The job is important for Louisville-based liquor producer Brown-Forman Corp. Jack Daniel's is the company's flagship brand, with yearly worldwide sales surpassing 9 million cases.
"We're going to miss Jimmy here in the hollow and around the world," said Tommy Beam, the distillery's senior vice president and general manager. "We thank him and wish him the best."
Brown-Forman spokesman Phil Lynch said the company has been preparing for Bedford's retirement for several years, including training potential successors. He said the company will announce a successor soon.
F. Paul Pacult, editor of Spirit Journal, said Bedford represents the best of American distilling.
"He's been a creative, insightful force; a stickler for quality; and a fine, thoughtful gentleman to boot," Pacult said. "The success of Jack Daniel's has not been a surprise to the people who know Jimmy and his high standards of excellence."
Bedford grew up on a farm near the Jack Daniel Distillery and worked there as part of the construction crew during his high school and college days. He thought about becoming a veterinarian but was talked into coming back home to work at the distillery. He eventually went to work full time in 1968 as a supervisor-trainee under the tutelage of master distiller Frank Bobo. The trainee designation soon was dropped, and the supervisory role gave him a broad knowledge of the distilling process.
"Back at that time, being a supervisor just didn't mean that much," he said. "I worked with my hands, ran the still, helped in the yeast room, helped in the mash room -- whatever had to be done."
When Bobo retired, Bedford was promoted to master distiller in 1988. He oversees the entire whiskey-making process of milling, yeasting, fermentation, distillation, charcoal mellowing and maturation. As the brand's ads long proclaimed, Jack Daniel's isn't ready for bottling until Bedford says it is.
Bedford has overseen a dramatic surge in production as the brand's popularity soared.
When Bedford started 40 years ago, Jack Daniel's sales totaled fewer than 800,000 cases. Sales had reached 4 million cases when he took over as master distiller. Last year, sales exceeded 9.3 million cases and Brown-Forman predicts sales will approach 10 million cases in 2008. The brand is now sold in 135 countries.
But some things haven't changed through the years.
"We still use the same grain formula, the same process," Bedford said.
In recent years, Bedford took on the added role as a global ambassador for the brand, traveling to every state as well as 40 countries to promote Jack Daniel's.
Once he's retired, Bedford won't be far away. His farm is about two miles from the distillery.
Soon the role of maintaining the whiskey's consistent taste will fall to someone else.
Even while sticking with tradition, that doesn't mean there won't be a few tweaks by his successor.
"The master distiller prior to me didn't do some of the things I'm doing," he said. "Maybe the next person's not going to do exactly the same things I'm doing."