It's a cold, gray, rainy Thursday when I arrive at the Jack Daniel's Whiskey Distillery in Lynchburg, Tenn. It's the kind of night that screams out for a fireside and a warming shot of brown liquor. And, just as I begin considering where I can get my first swig, I catch a whiff of the smoke trail I've been following for miles. It isn't just any fire, either, but the powerful scent of some 50 charcoal burners and wood smokers being coaxed to life by people who know how to use them better than anyone else on earth. Over the hill, behind the visitors' center that has just supplied me with a fresh bottle of Jack, the early arrivals for the Jack Daniel's World Championship Invitational Barbecue have begun staking their claims and stoking their pits.
I follow my nose over to the gathering area. By the time I arrive, the rain is falling steadily again and the straw-strewn fields are beginning their weekend-long descent into a state that can only be described as "Woodstock muddy." Only, in this crowd, the longest hair is sprouting from chins, not heads. Big, bearded men in camo are trudging through the muck with all manner of drinking receptacles in their hands, from plastic cups to glass steins to personalized, keg-shaped mugs. Meanwhile, ATVs and souped-up golf carts are rutting up the grassy fields and pebble roadways as overly official looking men in Jack T-shirts and hats try their hardest to organize the pandemonium.
A stream of enormous motor homes is lined up at the entrance to the mud pit, their drivers fighting for space among the dozens of groups that have already found their weekend homesteads. Full bars, complete with wooden counters and stools, are being spread under tents, crisscrossing the zone between one 40-foot mobile unit and the next, each blasting the other with sound and light from the 50-inch plasma-screen TVs hitched to the sides of these mansions on wheels.
The men setting up shop are just about to prepare their Thursday-night dinner and tie one on with their brethren from the barbecue circuit, a unique society of diehard enthusiasts dedicated to good times, great barbecue, and the thrill of the win. Although the teams may not look any different from you and some buddies hanging out on a Saturday afternoon, each group at this powerhouse tournament has tasted that savory-sweet flavor of triumph before. After all, this is the almighty "Jack"-one of the most prestigious events in all of barbecuing-and only champions are invited to participate. To cook on these grounds, you need to have a major cook-off victory under your belt. Without that on your résumé, you're SOL, 'cause this show is for the big boys. And the big boys play the game, rain or shine.
"You would think that a barbecue cook-off would be pretty casual and low-key," says Robert McWright, who's been competing in cook-offs for almost 20 years. "But these contests bring out some of the most intellectually sharp people I've ever known. They're former CEOs, vice presidents of companies, guys who started their own businesses."