Over the years, sneakers have evolved from a niche obsession to a lucrative industry. While exclusive drops and collaborations garner massive headlines, another avenue that continues to push the culture forward is customized kicks. At the forefront of this specialized category is a man named Dominic Ciambrone. Known professionally as The Shoe Surgeon, the Santa Rosa, California native makes his living by transforming footwear into stylish works of art.
“I never knew how big it was going to get,” says Ciambrone, who started remixing kicks in high school. “I always had big dreams and aspirations, but I didn't know how big or who I was going to collaborate with. I just knew I was passionate about what I was doing.”
That passion has led to a list of clients and partners that runs the gamut from professional athletes and entertainers to die-hard sneakerheads and established brands. One of Ciambrone’s current collaborators is Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey, who, after partnering with The Shoe Surgeon on a custom pair of sneakers last year, raised the stakes even higher for 2019 by commissioning seven original shoe designs—each based off different aspects of the popular whiskey maker’s unique distillation process.
“The difference between working with Jack Daniel’s last year and this year was night and day,” says Ciambrone, who always looks to challenge his creative process. “Last year it was one amazing shoe, but this year we wanted to make things even bigger. We wanted to show more of the process; show more of what the brand is about.”
Creatives thrive on inspiration and to ensure that Ciambrone had that in abundance for this project, he and his team flew out to the Jack Daniel Distillery in Lynchburg, Tennessee to see firsthand how Jack Daniel’s is made. Over the course of several days, Ciambrone fully immersed himself in the brand’s distillation process, which included visiting Jack Daniel’s cave spring water source, making his own barrels and charcoal by hand, and staying overnight on the distillery grounds.
“For me, energy is huge and being in an actual place where you’re pulling information from is important. I want to actually feel, see, touch, and smell it,” Ciambrone explains. “There’s so many senses people miss by just designing from their thoughts. We actually got to be there and touch the water [in Lynchburg]. We got to feel how cold it was. We got to see old writings in the cave... It’s very important to live that moment and put that energy and passion into a product.”
Returning from the trip fully inspired, Ciambrone immediately started working with his team to create designs that would both bring his experiences to life and capture the essence of Jack Daniel’s. The end result was “The 7,” a collection of Shoe Surgeon originals that includes customized sneakers dubbed Grain, Cavespring, Distilled, Charcoal, Barrel, Honey, and Bottle. Unveiled during ComplexCon Chicago, the seven prototypes are currently open to the public to vote for their favorite pair. The winning design will have a limited run and be available through a series of exclusive giveaways. Read on to hear Ciambrone’s breakdown of the inspiration for “The 7” and all of the intricacies that went into making each pair.
The key to the smooth taste of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey is its original family recipe, which consists of a delicate mix of grains—including quality grade corn, barley, and rye. Seeing firsthand the detail that goes into this foundational flavor, Ciambrone found inspiration for the Grain shoe.
“With this design we wanted to make it something that was really natural—something that felt and looked natural,” he explains. “So we used the hairy suede to kinda showcase the different textures that were used and leather wrapped the midsole to really showcase the handmade feel and the craft that goes into making the whiskey.”
That same attention to detail went into the Grain shoe, a hi-top sneaker that was constructed from a combination of premium leathers that incorporate subtle grain-inspired details, like barley brown highlights and a custom barley embroidered swoosh on the side. “This shoe took quite a bit of work to make,” Ciambrone explains. “We really wanted to elevate it and showcase that embroidery so that when you look at it you see the grain coming through.”
To complete the look he added a laser engraved Jack Daniel’s filigree to the sole and had the laces hand waxed. “The laces have a nice sheen to it but it’s not over the top. We really wanted to keep this one real minimal and not too shiny,” Ciambrone says. “We just wanted to show the different grains and the natural part of the process. That’s why the iconic filigree is there, because if you actually look closely it kinda looks like a grain, so we wanted to add it as part of the finished product along with the leather sole.”
At the heart of the Jack Daniel Distillery is the Cave Spring Hollow, a natural water source that remains a constant 56-degrees. The limestone in the cave not only keeps the water free of impurities but also removes all iron, which can ruin any good whiskey. That’s why the cave spring is such an essential part of the Jack Daniel’s process, and one of the first places Ciambrone and his team visited when they got to Lynchburg.
“Just being inside that cave and listening to the water flowing, seeing the algae on the walls, the build up of the rocks coming down… It was just cool to be inside of a cave that was hundreds of years old that had actual markings that came from a long time ago,” Ciambrone remembers. “We got to see and feel the clear water and the green algae. So, you know, after visiting that, the shoe design kinda just came together based off of the photos and notes we took.”
The resulting Cave Spring shoe is a striking silhouette that calls back to the natural elements of the actual cave spring. With a limestone, slate and green algae colorway, the kicks also feature a white TPU cage backed with vinyl on the side panel. “We did that to show how clear the water was,” Ciambrone says. “For the silhouette we wanted to use something that could showcase the algae throughout the entire product and we wrapped the sole unit with the same material. It also helped that the sole has a bubble so you can actually see through it. So again that just reminded us of the water and how clear it was. When I look at the shoe, I feel cold even though it’s not cold right now [laughs].”
One of the more striking elements of the Jack Daniel Distillery are the stills themselves. Comprised of copper, these massive columns both heat and cool the sour mash during the whiskey-making process. They were also direct inspiration for the Distilled shoe.
“The materials we chose for this shoe were influenced by the distillery,” Ciambrone explains. “Normally, you don't see many copper shoes, but that's what sets Jack Daniel's apart from the rest—they use copper stills while most everyone else uses regular steel or metal.”
“The copper [metallic leather] is like the pipes in the distillery, and the sour mash is like this nice veg tan that we used,” he continues. “We really wanted to do something that gave it more of a handmade feel so that's why we have this leather-wrapped midsole. This whole midsole is fully custom built with the welted construction.”
With the Distilled, Ciambrone wanted to create a low-top sneaker that really stood out. A key part of achieving that goal was fully deconstructing the shoe—including the sole which was redone in layered leather for a smooth look and feel. “It’s a technique they’ve been doing with dress shoes for a long time and we thought it was righteous to have this hand-finished leather sole,” he explains. “We just wanted to create something that reminded us of the distillery, the sour mash going through the copper pipes, and for a low top it made more sense. This silhouette just reminds you of a long pipe.”
Charcoal’s importance in the Jack Daniel’s distillation process is that it works as an additional filter that adds even more smoothness to the whiskey. Acknowledging the brand’s commitment to this technique, Ciambrone wanted the Charcoal shoe to be something unique in its own right.
“These shoes are done by a similar process to charcoal mellowing,” he explains. “We used this tectonic leather that kind of looks like charcoal and it has all these imperfections—you can see it throughout the shoe. This is actually done with heat in different types of chemicals and materials to give it this unique handmade look. It's a smooth finish with this bronzy-gold smoke coming through.”
One of the main takeaways Ciambrone got from his time in Lynchburg was how much detail and effort goes into the craft of making Jack Daniel’s. A prime example of that was when The Shoe Surgeon and his team saw that workers actually make their own charcoal by burning crates of wood.
“That was by far the most impactful moment of the trip for me,” he says. “I remember seeing two Jack Daniel's team members burning the wood and actually putting it out with a hose. I wound up talking to those guys and discovered that they had been there for over 30 years. Just seeing how passionate they were about what they were doing, was inspiring because they knew that part of the process is for the bigger picture.”
“That experience made me think of charcoal differently. Every part of the mellowing process was so detailed and that [attention to detail] is why the collaboration with Jack Daniel’s happened in the first place,” Ciambrone continues. “Because just like designing a shoe or designing a product or a flavor, so much goes into it. So, that's why we don't take any shortcuts and we want to go above and beyond and make something so unique that no one could even replicate.”
While the use of barrels is par for the course when creating whiskey, Jack Daniel's is one of the only brands that makes their own. Ciambrone actually went through the barrel-making process himself to get a better understanding of the craftsmanship that goes into it.
“To see a brand like Jack Daniel’s actually hand making their barrels was a step above anyone else and that's where I hold integrity to my brand,” he says. “No matter how much more it costs or how much more you have to put into it, it's about the end product.”
“The whole process of barrel making is what really tied me to Jack Daniel's,” Ciambrone continues. “The fact they make their own barrels was instantly what got me interested in the first collaboration. So what better way to [evolve the partnership] than by making a shoe inspired by it?”
The resulting Barrel shoe features hand-painted wood grain leather that took a full day to complete, as well as touches of metallic and smooth black leather that wraps around the midsole. “The silver is to really showcase the steel that goes around each barrel, which we wanted to showcase in a minimal way,” Ciambrone explains. “Breaking up the sole is just a part of good designing taste. If it was all white, the portions would look off, so we wanted to do something that was never done before.”
When asked about the Honey shoe, Ciambrone says, “Technically, this is kind of what started it all. Jack Honey is what introduced the first collaboration, so it was only right to pay homage to that with this new shoe.”
In designing the low-top silhouette, Ciambrone looked to create something that was a little bit different and unique. He accomplished that by incorporating various shapes and playing with the placement of details. For instance, the shoe features a honeycomb leather pattern, an inverted swoosh, and a gold foil filigree on the back.
“This honeycomb leather is a custom leather that we had developed for the project,” Ciambrone explains. “You can't really tell but some of them are slightly smaller and the other ones are bigger. So it's not exactly the same but it’s the perfect honeycomb shape.”
As far as the colorway, The Shoe Surgeon wanted to make sure he represented Jack Honey by sticking with mostly white, tan, and gold hues. “Developing leather is an art in its own and it takes a lot of work. So, it's just material design and being fascinated with material, learning so much about it—from lasering it to hand engraving it,” Ciambrone says. “The leather making processes is a whole other industry that ties into shoemaking and we really wanted to develop something that's unique for the shoe, and pay homage to our honey.”
“It's not about the finished shoe for me. It's about each process and making that better every time,” he continues. “So this collaboration isn't about alcohol. It isn't about shoes. It's about everything that goes on behind the scenes to make these products such an amazing thing that people love.”
Beyond its undeniably rich flavor, Jack Daniel’s is also known for its trademark bottles. The square-shaped containers served as yet another inspiration for Ciambrone, who modeled the Bottle shoe after the brand’s classic silhouette.
“Their bottles are unique because you don't really see square bottles very often. It's actually more expensive to produce bottles like this,” he says. “Everyone has a round bottle, but Jack Daniel’s stand by the first bottle they made. You can see the evolution of their bottle, but it's always been this signature square bottle.”
Although Ciambrone admits that trying to incorporate or emulate glass into his design was initially considered, he ultimately thought it best to focus on the shape of the bottle and its signature label. “We wanted to really translate what a bottle would look like into a shoe,” he says. “So the leather wrap mid-sole, the black leather bottom... It's just to really to showcase how we envisioned the bottle coming to life.”
And it wasn’t just the exterior elements of Jack Daniel’s packaging that went into the design, Ciambrone explains how the actual product played into the Bottle shoe as well. “This shoe is unique because it has the brown leather that is supposed to resemble the actual whiskey in the bottle, while the black and white resemble the label,” he explains. “We also did a deboss detailing so instead of it protruding, you can actually feel the texture of the different logos just like you can feel on the bottle. My favorite part, though, is the diamond perforation [in the toe box] and the leather bottom, so you can dance.”
“Working with Jack Daniel's has been amazing,” Ciambrone adds. “To find a brand that holds such a high integrity to the end product—from the labeling process to the water [they use]. You don’t find that a lot of the times. You find shortcuts. You find people trying to make the quickest, fastest thing. It’s not about that. It's about something that lasts forever. That's why Jack Daniel’s is such a powerful brand because they love their product and it shows through the process. There was so much inspiration that technically we could’ve made 1,000 shoes. But I think there’s something right about really tying into that number seven. We wanted to tap into seven different parts of the process and I think it was the perfect number.”