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."
It makes sense, then, that to have made it this far is an honor these teams don't take lightly. Of the thousands of barbecue competitions held each year across the United States (barbecue cook-offs are among the fastest-growing competitive sports in the country), only a scant 200 of them carry the endorsement of the Kansas City Barbeque Society (KCBS), the largest and most well-regarded organization in the world. Founded just 10 years ago, the KCBS, a governing body behind the "Jack," has, in that time, standardized the rules, certified and trained judges to dish out the awards, and found a home for a formerly loose band of grill nuts. "People from all walks of life participate in our cook-offs," says Carolyn Wells, co-founder and executive director of the KCBS. "We have groups of guys, families, multigeneration teams, even kids. Some people enter one cook-off as a lark, and others travel all over the country to participate in as many events as possible." By pulling together the best of the barbecue world, the KCBS has assembled an umbrella organization for some of the most passionate, quirky, and dedicated competitors on the face of the earth.
And from under that umbrella each year emerge the top 50 teams from around the U.S. and a dozen others from nations around the world, all of whom are deemed worthy of a coveted invitation to this small corner of Tennessee. These are the cream of the cook-off crop: teams that have competed in and won not just any KCBS-sponsored event, but the largest competitions. And, if a team pulls off that feat, there's no way they're not showing, no matter how far they have to travel.
But that's just part of the adventure, because, as it turns out, barbecuing is no cheap hobby. While preparing his cook site for the impending day of competition, Rod Grey, from Leavenworth, Kan., explains to me that his setup could have sent a child to college for a year. "I spent over $10,000 on my cooker alone," he laughs. "But this model is custom-built by one of the legends in the business, and he can only make one or two of these in a year, so you know this is as good as it gets."
One-of-a-kind equipment. Travel expenses. Gallon upon gallon of gasoline. Throw in the cost of food, living supplies, and contest entry fees, and things get pricey damn quickly. Scottie Johnson, of cancersuckschicago.com, who cooks to raise funds for cancer research, estimates that he spent $500 on the food for this year's Jack alone. Multiply that by 20 or 30 tourneys a year and you're talking one serious habit.
Some teams manage to defray the cost of equipment by building it themselves. Randy Gille, of Southern California's Team Burbank Bad Boys, for example, is cooking this year's entry on a rig that looks every bit as professional as Grey's, only he was able to build his in his garage. "My team is made up of mechanics," he explains. "We've been putting together hot rods our whole lives-this is just a different kind of heat. And thank God for that training, because we broke down quite a few times on the ride out here-it was good to be able to call in our day-job skills."
Heat is something that would come in handy now. Most of the teams have finished filing in and are now mingling in the mud. This is downtime for the crews, and downtime means hanging around, making friends, and talking shop. Most guys know they have a long, grueling, rainy weekend ahead without much reprieve in sight, so tonight the whiskey flows and the fires burn. "We hit some heavy snow in Cleveland and nearly lost our grill truck," one grinning member of Ontario's Team Cedar Grilling recounts, to which his neighbors from Switzerland buzz back about the difficulty of getting sauces on airplanes these days.
Just down the road from this "international" village, other traditions are being upheld, as well. The guys from Smokin' Clones BBQ are setting up row after row of Jack Daniel's bottles to make their famous "clonesicles," a circuit favorite made up of whiskey bottles frozen in blocks of ice, with the bottle opening still exposed. Teams will take pulls from these ice-cold bottles throughout the coming days. "I take a shot at 8:30 a.m. when the cooking begins and another at 11 a.m., an hour or so before I turn in my first batch of food," says Johnson. From the look of things as the evening progresses, others hit the 'sicles a bit more often than that. But, no, the cook-off's organizers assure me, the crazy assortment of songs, chants, dances, and decorations would be there even if the combatants were sober as priests on Sunday. These are all just different versions of the proverbial rabbit's foot.
As the night wears on, luck is being tested in another form, as well. A dice game that's a traditional time killer on the circuit is being played in circles throughout the grounds. "We call it LCR," one flannel-swathed participant tells me. "You roll a dice that has an L, a C, an R, and an asterisk on different faces, along with two blank spots. Everyone starts with a couple of bucks in their hands-$5 or $10, or whatever you decide on-and takes turns rolling the dice. If you get an L, you pass a buck to your left; R is to your right; C is the pot; and an asterisk is $2 to the pot. If you get a blank, you do nothing. Last guy standing with money in his hand wins the pot."
By now, it's nearing midnight, and the party shows no signs of stopping. Plenty warm from the booze in my system and more than a few dollars poorer, I begin the trek to my bed. When I return to the campsite the next morning, the scene could not be more different.
Despite Thursday night's revelry, the Jack is not just some big riverboat gambler's slosh-fest. Rules and regulations for the cook-off are surprisingly regimented and strictly adhered to. The first hurdle for every team to jump is the meat inspection, which takes place first thing Friday morning. While many teams are shaking off their hangovers and starting to get serious, representatives from the KCBS visit each homestead to check the vittles. The purpose of the visit isn't necessarily quality control (teams can use meat they've slaughtered themselves or bought from the local supermarket), but really to make sure that all meat is "virgin."
Ron Harwell, the president of KCBS, explains it simply: "No marinade, spice, or any other foreign body may be present on the meat before inspection." This is to make sure all spicing, rubbing, and cooking is done by an individual team on the contest grounds. Once inspected, the game is on. And this particular Friday, the game seems to be favoring the racehorse equivalent of mudders due to a torrential downpour that starts in the morning and keeps grills popping and sizzling all day long. Not that it matters to the competitors.
"Friday you get your mind in the competition, so to speak," says Byron Chism, whose Santa Rosa Beach, Fla., team goes by the none-too-subtle name of buttrub.com. "It's a fun time, but it's also a marathon from the time you start cooking until you turn your food in to the judges. If you wear yourself out, you won't make the decisions you need to stay in the game."
With fortifying slugs of Jack Daniel's to warm their souls, contestants huddle under plastic tarps, mixing marinades, preparing their meat, and then getting it on the grill for a nice long night of cooking. "I try to get up every hour and a half throughout the night to make sure my fire's going, the temperature's right-all the barbecuing essentials," says McWright.
When Saturday rolls around, teams will compete in seven categories (sauce, cook's choice, chicken, pork ribs, pork shoulder/butt, beef brisket, and dessert), and aggregate scores will determine an overall "best in show" winner. The judging is done by a panel of about 60 judges, who sit side-by-side at tables of six and rate the chow that's plucked from the grills and rushed to their tables in frantic 30-minute intervals.
Of course, as with any sport, it's not always the crowd favorites or the returning champs who eke out the win. And that's part of what makes the competition so exciting-sometimes fate intervenes and things work out as they should. Take the case of cancersuckschicago.com and the team's leader, Scottie Johnson. In 2003, after just his second year of competing on the circuit, Johnson's wife, Corliss, was stricken with cancer and passed away. The young father of two almost hung up his tongs, but instead decided to honor his wife by competing in tournaments and donating all his winnings to a cancer-research memorial set up in her name.
And on this wet weekend in Tennessee, somebody seemed to be smiling down on Scottie, who was awarded the championship trophy for best overall performance. His aggregate score was the highest of any team in the tourney, earning him a $30,000 check for his wife's foundation. "I was just pleased to participate this year. Winning is an unexpected bonus. The teams out here are all like family to me-most would be willing to give you the shirts off their backs."
After spending a weekend among these teams, that may be the perfect way to encapsulate the spirit of the barbecue circuit. Yes, they want to win, but there's more to it than that. "I love everything about the competition," says Chism. "I love the adrenaline. I love the challenge of always trying to improve your cooking, of competing against 50 or 60 other chefs. But I guess my favorite thing about it is the friendships you make and the feeling of camaraderie you get." Make no mistake, these guys are serious competitors-but more than that, they're out here for the fun. The fun, the pork, and the booze.
"One of our first winners put it the absolute best," says Wells. "You can enter a barbecue cook-off for the competition, or you can enter one because it's just a good excuse to sit around with your friends, drink a lot, and watch a hunk of meat cook."