Episode 31 - The Science of Whiskey Making with Kevin Smith


Yeast is the unsung hero of the whiskey-making process. It so important, in fact, that at Jack Daniel’s, we have our own microbiologist committed to looking after our yeast and ensuring that all the conditions are right to make our world-famous Tennessee Whiskey. On this episode of Around the Barrel, we sit down with microbiologist Kevin Smith to get the inside scoop on the science of whiskey making, how we can manipulate yeast in ways Jack could have only dreamed about, and what’s behind the Tennessee Tasters expression Smith helped create.


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Barrel-aged. Charcoal-mellowed. Fermented with proprietary yeast. That last one may not be as catchy, but it’s no less important.

Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey is known around the word for its distinctive flavor, but few people realize that the flavor comes not only from filtering our whiskey through sugar maple charcoal and aging it in our own white oak barrels, but also from yeast that has been carefully cultivated and maintained through several generations. In fact, some might argue that yeast makes the real magic behind our whiskey.

We rely so much on yeast for the consistency and quality of Jack Daniel’s that we employ a full-time microbiologist to maintain the yeast and lactic bacteria production cultures and manage the fermentation and distillation processes. On this episode of Around the Barrel, host Lucas Hendrickson introduces us to this microbial master, Kevin Smith, to explain the huge impact these tiny organisms have.

Smith is the Distillery Manager of Reliability and Technical Services as well as the microbiologist at the Jack Daniel Distillery. He began his career with Brown-Forman in 1995 as a R&D Microbiology Laboratory Technician before transitioning to Jack Daniel’s in 1998. Several years later, he took a detour into the fuel ethanol industry before returning to the distillery in 2007. Today, he is responsible not only for overseeing our yeast cultures and the fermentation processes, but also maintaining flavor consistency in each batch of whiskey.

Since fermentation is a natural process, it takes considerable work to control it and harness consistent flavor profiles. While other distillers opt for commercial strains, we maintain our yeast in a lab setting and have worked for years to isolate different strains with unique characteristics. As the flavor of the grain fluctuates in each batch of whiskey, we can tap into our various strains to adjust each batch accordingly.

With so much knowledge about how fermentation impacts taste, color and aroma, it’s no wonder that Smith is among our Master Tasters, tasked with ensuring that every batch of whiskey meets our high standards. He is the brains behind our limited-edition Tennessee Tasters Barrel Reunion #2, a whiskey that has been extra-aged in Jack Daniel’s barrels that were previously used to finish oatmeal stout from a local craft brewery.


Join us Around the Barrel to learn more about the genesis of this unique Tennessee Tasters expression while also getting a science lesson from an expert who literally wrote the book (or chapter) on yeast practices in the production of American whiskies.

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