By Rosalind Bentley
Not too long ago, we had our backyard landscaped after years of do-it-yourself attempts to improve its patchwork of mismatched pavers, sparse grass and bald dirt.
Our lot is tiny and our budget for the project modest. At the time, the backyard was a sliver of hard-packed dirt and clay. But the light is good and we wanted to incorporate a garden.
My mother and grandmothers had kitchen or flower gardens back home in north Florida. Their mothers before them grew up on farms. Their green thumbs were legacies passed down from enslaved ancestors. Later, when those foremothers were freed and able to buy their own land, they taught their sons and daughters how to grow beauty and sustenance. No matter how small, there was always room for a patch of zinnias or roses, some blackberries or a cluster of greens and squash.
Looking at our backyard, now professionally refreshed with fancy pea gravel and new patio furniture, we decided there was just enough room for a container garden. But I wanted something substantial, not a few random terracotta pots. Bounty shouldn’t be constrained by space. Whiskey barrels would work.
My partner and I went to a nearby home improvement store and a few feet into the garden center, the scent of Jack Daniel’s smothered us. Stacked high were rows of oak barrels, sawed in half, the sun expressing the sugary sent of whiskey from their charred inner bellies. It was like walking through a cloud of whiskey sours.
Spring water, char and sour mash in the right combination, then aged in those barrels, is the pride and calling card of Lynchburg, Tenn., where the iconic whiskey has been made for 142 years. We bought several of the half barrels, drilled drainage holes in the bottoms and placed them in our backyard. We filled them with compost, organic fertilizer and soil, vessels to continue a tradition that stretches back past my own family’s period of enslavement.
At that point, I had no idea a formerly enslaved black man had taught the original Jack Daniel how to make whiskey.