Tennessee Whiskey – More to It Than Just Jack Daniel’s
Chris Stapleton isn’t the only one who thinks Tennessee whiskey is smooth. Jack Daniel’s, the most famous whiskey to come from the Volunteer State, is the most popular brand of whiskey in the U.S.
What is Tennessee whiskey? There’s more to it than coming from the state of Tennessee. In fact, the rules are so specific that if a whiskey doesn’t meet all the requirements, it’s against the law to call it “Tennessee” whiskey.
Let’s look at what those rules are and some of the stories behind the most popular whiskey in the US.
What Is Tennessee Whiskey – Bourbon or Something Else?
For a whiskey to be called bourbon it has to meet several requirements:
- It is distilled from mash made from at least 51% corn.
- It is aged in new charred oak barrels. The barrels don’t have to be made from American oak (even though they usually are) but they have to be new. The barrels can’t be reused.
- It is distilled under 160 proof and barrelled above 125 proof.
- It is at least 80 proof when bottled.
On top of these requirements, the whiskey has to be made in the United States to be called bourbon. 95% of bourbon is made in Kentucky but it doesn’t have to be, as long as it’s made in the U.S.
Because almost all bourbon is made in Kentucky, people think that’s a requirement and as a result, Tennessee whiskey isn’t bourbon. That isn’t the case, however. Tennessee whiskey has to meet all the same requirements as bourbon, with a couple of extra things as well.
The state of Tennessee enacted a law in 2013 that requires distilleries to use the Lincoln County Process if they want to call their spirits Tennessee whiskeys.
The Lincoln County Process
The Lincoln County Process gets its name from the original home of the Jack Daniel’s distillery, Lincoln County. It’s the process of filtering the distilled whiskey through charcoal before it’s barrelled.
The method of filtering can vary, as long as it happens in some form. For example, Jack Daniel’s filters their whiskey by dripping it through charcoal made from sugar maple wood. They soak it in 140 proof Jack, burn the wood and then drip the whiskey through the charcoal. It’s a similar process to Brita water filters.
George Dickel, another well-known distillery in Tennessee, filters their whiskey by putting it in large vats and soaking the charcoal in it. They keep these vats at 40 degrees during the soaking process because George always said his whiskey tasted best when filtered in the colder months of the year.
However it’s done, this filtering process mellows the flavor of the whiskey, which gives it its distinctive taste. Even when mixed in a cocktail, Tennessee whiskey has a mellower flavor with less of a burn compared to typical bourbons.
The final requirement for Tennessee whiskey is that it must be aged in Tennessee as well. Another state law requires that all spirits made in Tennessee be aged in the state, not just whiskey.
Popular Tennessee Whiskey Brands
Jack Daniel’s is the most well-known brand of Tennessee whiskey. This distillery has been operating for over 150 years and for the majority of that time they had a single recipe – Old No. 7. In recent years, they’ve started branching out, first with their Gentleman Jack offering and most recently, a collection of single-barrel whiskeys.
Jack Daniels also has many pop-culture references that help add to its fame, such as being associated with the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards and Michael Anthony, the original bass player for the band Van Halen. Anthony even plays a custom “Jack Daniel’s” bass on stage.
There are other types of Tennessee whiskey beyond Jack, however.
George Dickel is the second-most well-known brand of Tennessee whisky. No, that isn’t a typo, George Dickel uses the traditional Scottish spelling of whiskey for their spirits. The George Dickel distillery has been operating since 1964 so while they haven’t been around as long as Jack Daniel’s, they got a lot of experience as well.
Popcorn Sutton, named after the moonshiner and bootlegger Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton, is another brand of Tennessee whiskey. Their liquor is unique in that it’s white, not the typical caramel brown color of most whiskeys. The distillery uses the same recipe as Popcorn himself, which was in his family for the last 100 years.
Lesser-Known “Craft” Distilleries
On top of the well-known brands, there are lots of smaller craft distilleries in Tennessee, such as Leiper’s Fork, Nashville Craft, and Nelson’s Green Brier. All told, there are more than 20 whiskey distilleries in Tennessee.
Many of these distilleries offer tours, giving you an up-close-and-personal look at how they make their whiskeys. Most offer tastings as part of the tour as well. If you’re a fan of Tennessee whiskey, these tours can be a great way to sample some lesser-known brands. If you’re in the Nashville area, these beautiful tours are a perfect way to check out your favorite distilleries.
Controversy Surrounds the Law
The Tennessee whiskey liquor law isn’t without controversy. In the few years since it came to be, there have been several issues. One of the biggest is that many distilleries feel it gives Jack Daniels, who fully supports it, an unfair advantage.
The smaller distilleries don’t have as much ability to innovate as they would like because the law is so specific about how a distiller makes its whiskey. This works for Jack Daniel’s because it is essentially the process they have always used.
Even then, it’s not always enforced as written. Pritchard’s distillery has already received a special exemption. They can use the Tennessee whiskey name without the charcoal filtering step.
Tennessee whiskey, especially Jack Daniel’s, is often looked down on by whiskey snobs but it has a lot to offer. If you’re a fan of whiskey, give it another look. Or if you’ve got a whiskey fan in the family, it could make a good gift. Father’s Day is coming up, maybe consider a lesser-known brand as a possible Father’s Day gift.
And what is Tennessee whiskey without some good barbecue? Check out our guide to the best grills under $200 to get ready for the grilling season.