Tennessee Whiskey Defined

by
May 20, 2018

We’ve covered whiskey production as well as specific whiskey categories such as single malt, blended whiskeys, and bourbon. But one we have yet to tackle is Tennessee whiskey. Aside from it being made in Tennessee, what else is required for a whiskey to be deemed “Tennessee whiskey”? Before we cover this topic, it is helpful to get a quick refresher on bourbon whiskey.

WHAT IS BOURBON WHISKEY?

In terms of production, Tennessee whiskey is made exactly like bourbon with one notable addition. We’ll get to that difference in just a second. For those of you unfamiliar with bourbon’s requirements, here they are.

Tennessee Whiskey: George Dickel RickhouseGeorge Dickel Rickhouse / Photo Credit: George Dickel

Bourbon:

– Must have a mash bill of at least 51% corn
– Must be aged in new, charred oak containers
– Cannot be distilled over 160 proof
– Cannot enter a barrel over 125 proof
– Must be bottled at 80 proof or higher

And lastly, bourbon whiskey can be made anywhere in the United States. Even in Tennessee.

Note: The minimum length of aging is not dictated EXCEPT if the product is classified as either straight (two years) or bottled-in-bond (four years). Also, the type and size of the oak container are not dictated other than that they be new and charred. Standard bourbon barrels are new, charred 53-gallon American white oak barrels.

LINCOLN COUNTY PROCESS

Just to reiterate, Tennessee whiskey must be produced in Tennessee. That said, we mentioned a difference between bourbon and Tennessee whiskey. Here it is.

Tennessee Whiskey: George Dickel WhiskeyGeorge Dickel Whiskey / Photo Credit: George Dickel

After distillation, but prior to barreling, the new make spirit (a white dog, if you will) will be filtered through maple charcoal. This filtering is best known as the Lincoln County Process. This charcoal mellowing removes some impurities after the distillation process, but before aging.

It is important to note that many whiskeys are filtered through charcoal. But that step is usually done after aging. In fact, bourbon regulations do not prohibit filtering prior to barreling, and thus, the argument is that Tennessee whiskey is also a bourbon whiskey.

But, and this is a huge BUT, Tennessee whiskey makers (Jack Daniel’s in particular) don’t want to call their whiskey “bourbon”. They could. But they won’t.

EXCEPTION TO THE RULE

We must mention Prichard’s Distillery in Kelso, Tenn. which is allowed to sell “Tennessee Whiskey” without the whiskey having to go through the Lincoln County Process. They are the sole distillery in Tennessee exempt from complying with these regulations. Hat tip to them for bucking the system.

NOT JUST JACK AND GEORGE

There are two big players in Tennessee whiskey production. Jack Daniel’s owned by Brown-Forman is by far the industry leader. In fact, Jack Daniel’s is the best selling whiskey brand globally. But don’t forget about Diageo’s George Dickel brand based in Tullahoma. For that matter, you should get yourself acquainted with the couple of dozen distillers in the state, many of them making Tennessee whiskey.

Tennessee Whiskey: Jack Daniel’s WhiskeyJack Daniel’s Whiskey / Photo Credit: Jack Daniel’s

In fact, there’s even an official Tennessee Whiskey Trail to help you get started, modeled after the successful Kentucky Bourbon Trail. Launched in mid-2017 by the members of the Tennessee Distillers Association, the site offers information about the distilleries, offers guidance on trip planning and more.

TENNESSEE MAKES OTHER WHISKEYS

You may have seen Jack Daniel’s release in late 2017 of a Tennessee Straight Rye. Or maybe you got your hands on the (already sold out) first batch of Short Mountain Tennessee Bourbon made in Nashville. Tennessee can and does make other types of whiskeys. So read your labels closely to make sure you know what you’re getting.


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