Being the first woman to make it to the top of your industry makes you a pioneer. But to do it in the alcohol beverage industry makes you something even better: the torchbearer for all the other whiskey-making women watching you. That’s the case for Lexie Phillips, who was named assistant distiller in early 2020, and has since cemented her status as a woman who knows Jack.
Every single bottle of Jack Daniel’s is made in Lynchburg, Tennessee, and there are a lot of bottles. Last year alone, the company sold 126,000,000 liters of the whiskey throughout 170 countries. And Phillips is the first woman in the distillery’s 150-year history to helm the ship.
While Phillips was earning her college degree in agribusiness—because, as she tells SUCCESS, without agriculture, the world would stop turning—she signed up for a class called Chemistry and Wine. “We saw all the ins and outs of the process: using yeast, converting sugars into alcohol, and that’s where I kind of fell in love with the process. So that brought Jack Daniel’s back to my mind,” she recalls now.
Find out how Phillips went from learning about the process to running it.
SUCCESS: I’m guessing you’re not the first person in your family to work at Jack Daniel’s.
Lexie Phillips: I’m the fourth generation. That started with my great-grandfather in the 1940s and then trickled through the family from there. My great-aunt was working in bottling and helped me get my foot in the door. After bottling, I moved into quality control on the finished product side, where I got to work with several past whiskey makers. And there was one woman, Jessica Hartline, who inspired me to go to the stillhouse. She told me, “Lexie, it is hot, dirty work. You have to be very mechanically minded. It is right up your alley.”
So you knew that’s where you wanted to be, but how did you make it happen?
LP: In 2014, I had my first big-girl interview. I was in a roomful of people from human resources, the distillery managers and the master distiller. I told them, “I’m dressed very nice for y’all today, but I’m a jeans-and-T-shirt kind of girl. I can work on John Deere lawn mowers without a YouTube video. I change my own oil.” And my manager said that’s when they knew that I was ready for the stillhouse. That was my dream. I became the sixth whiskey-making woman—as a distillery operator—to ever work at Jack Daniels. People think it’s a boys’ club, but that’s not the case at all. The work is hard manual labor, and just one of those things that not a lot of women want to do.
Then came your job as Jack Daniel’s very first female distiller. That must be an honor.
LP: When I first got this job in 2020, part of the world was shut down. It was a weird time to be coming into this role. But one of our tour guides came up to me at a local concert venue, and she said, “Girl, I’m so proud of you for what you’re doing for women at Jack Daniel’s.” That’s when it sunk in that I am the first woman to hold this job. I was on cloud nine. I’m still on cloud nine. It’s very humbling to feel like a trailblazer for women who will come after me. I sure as heck will not be the last.
What are some of the responsibilities that you have as assistant distiller?
LP: You become a brand ambassador, so you travel around and tell people how the whiskey is made. And I still get to spend time in the stillhouse, because that’s what I absolutely love.
Without getting too detailed about how Jack Daniel’s is made, can you explain the basics?
LP: Every bottle starts with the ingredients. Our mash bill [mix of grains used] is 80% corn, 12% malted barley and 8% rye. Our grains are the highest quality. Then comes the water. Every drop of water we mix with those grains comes from our cave spring hollow. It pulls 800 gallons of water from miles below the earth’s surface every minute. And our strain of yeast can be traced all the way back to prohibition.
So the recipe is grains, spring water and yeast. Then is it Jack Daniel’s?
LP: Not yet. Once we bring all of those ingredients together, it ferments, and that is where your spirit is born. We have a three- to seven-day fermentation, and then we put it through stills made of 100% copper. That produces a cleaner spirit, holding onto the sulfurs that are naturally produced during fermentation. Then we distill off at 140 proof, and then it filters through 10 feet of sugar maple charcoal.
When does the whiskey you’ve made go into the barrels to age?
LP: First we have to make the barrels. Ours are toasted and charred. The toasting heats up the oak, breaking down a lot of those wood sugars that make up wood. Then we fill the barrels and put them up in the barrelhouse, which is where they live the entirety of their lives.
It sounds like so much work goes into just one barrel of Jack Daniel’s, and you aren’t exactly running a small-batch operation.
LP: The distillery owns about 3,000 acres. And about 300 of those make up the main distillery and the cave spring. How much we make on any given day changes, but our maximum is 2,500 barrels filled in a day.
When you think about the success you’ve had in the decade since you started in bottling, is there one thing that you’re most proud of in your Jack Daniel’s history?
LP: One moment that stands out is when my husband—who also works at Jack Daniel’s—and I did a Distillery Series. That’s our experimental line that we sell just in Tennessee. So about a year ago, we both had a bottle with our name on it. They were both rye whiskeys, but they were finished in two separate kinds of barrels. Mine was a high-toast oak barrel, his was a high-toast maple barrel. The whole experience really represented the family feel of Jack Daniel’s.
Are there other ways that the company makes you feel seen as a leader?
LP: We have an event called Women of the Grapes and Grain. We bring together women from within Brown Forman who hold positions similar to mine, and we talk about the women who’ve mentored us, the ones we’ve mentored and how we came into our jobs. We all have different stories. None of us ever dreamed we would be in the leadership positions in the alcohol beverage industry.
When you’re on brand ambassador trips, you must meet so many Jack Daniel’s loyalists. What have you learned that stays with you?
LP: My favorite part of talking to consumers is hearing how Jack has touched their lives. Like, “I met my husband over a Jack Daniel’s at a bar.” Or, “Let me tell you about my first Jack Daniel’s tattoo.” Or, “I used to sip Jack Daniel’s on the back porch with my grandpa.” I get hard chills when I hear that. Because we’re here in this small town making whiskey and you forget how big it is. There’s so much more to Jack Daniel’s than just the whiskey, and hearing those people’s stories proves it.
Photo courtesy of Jack Daniel’s Distillery.