James H. “Jimmy” Bedford

Jimmy Bedford,

Guardian of Jack Daniel’s, Dies at 69

By Dennis Hevesi

Jimmy Bedford, a lean, laconic Tennessean who for 20 years held what he considered one of the most enviable jobs imaginable — making sure Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7 Tennessee Whiskey tasted just the way it had since 1866 — died Friday on his farm, two miles south of the distillery he used to run in Lynchburg, Tenn. He was 69.

The apparent cause was a heart attack, said Phil Lynch, a spokesman for Brown-Forman, the parent company of Jack Daniel’s, based in Louisville, Ky.

Mr. Bedford was the sixth master distiller in the 143-year history of the Jack Daniel’s distillery — a network of open-top stainless steel fermenters, steam-heated stills, huge vats and copper pipes in a cluster of buildings in the hills 65 miles south of Nashville.

His job was to oversee the entire whiskey-making process of milling, yeasting, fermenting and distilling. But Mr. Bedford took it far beyond the hollows of Tennessee. He traveled the world as something of an ambassador for Jack Daniel’s. He led tasting seminars, signed bottles and appeared in television commercials and print advertisements, including one in which he stood, arms folded, with whiskey bottles before him and photographs of the first five master distillers behind him.

Lynchburg is a famously unlikely site for a distillery that dispatches 9.5 million cases of whiskey a year to 135 countries. It sits in Moore County, one of the last dry counties in the country.

“The biggest constant in Lynchburg is Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7, and it’s my job to see that it never changes,” Mr. Bedford said in a company profile of him. “If it does, I’m in trouble.”

Actually, Mr. Bedford did make a few changes. Jeff Arnett, the seventh master distiller, said on Monday that his former boss “introduced the first new brands to Jack Daniel’s in over a century” — Gentleman Jack, which is charcoal mellowed twice, and Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel, for those who want to some variation from the slightly sweet and faintly smoky taste of Old No. 7.

In 2007, Whisky Magazine presented Mr. Bedford with its Icons of Whisky Lifetime Achievement Award.

James Howard Bedford was born in Franklin County, Tenn., on Jan. 30, 1940, one of three children of Jim and Wilma Limbaugh Bedford. He grew up on the family cattle farm in nearby Lynchburg. Mr. Bedford graduated from Tennessee Tech University in 1962; there he met his future wife, Emily Gregory.

Besides his wife, he is survived by a daughter, Alice Bedford Pleming of Norfolk, Va.; a brother, Bill, of Lynchburg; a sister, Sue Galbreath of Cookeville, Tenn.; and a grandson.

After college, Mr. Bedford and his wife returned to his hometown, where he went to work at the distillery and, over the next 20 years, learned all aspects of the process. After being named master distiller, he said, sipping became one of his most important tasks — comparing new batches of No. 7 with old batches to ensure consistency. But he was not allowed to swallow.

“People tell me I have more will power than anyone they’ve ever known,” he said.