What’s Tennessee Whiskey?

Over the course of the next several weeks, I’m diving head first into Tennessee Whiskey.  There are two giants in the Tennessee whiskey world:  Jack Daniel’s and George Dickel.  I’ll be looking at several of their offerings, and next week I’ll post an interview I recently conducted with Jack Daniel’s Master Distiller Jeff Arnett.  To kick things off, let’s answer the question:  what’s Tennessee whiskey?

Tennessee whiskey has been made with pretty high standards for well over a hundred years, but it wasn’t until recently that it was put into law. In April of 2013, Tennessee passed house bill #1084 into law.  That bill defines rules for a spirit to be called Tennessee whiskey.  There are seven of them.  To be called Tennessee whiskey, a spirit must be:

  1. Manufactured in Tennessee;
  2. Made of a grain mixture that is at least fifty-one percent (51%) corn;
  3. Distilled to no more than 160 proof or eighty percent (80%) alcohol by volume;
  4. Aged in new, charred oak barrels in Tennessee;
  5. Filtered through maple charcoal prior to aging;
  6. Placed in the barrel at no more than 125 proof or sixty-two and one half percent (62.5 %) alcohol by volume; and
  7. Bottled at not less than 80 proof or forty percent (40%) alcohol by volume.

These are the same rules distillers must follow when making bourbon, with a couple of exceptions:  Bourbon can be made anywhere in the United States and doesn’t have to be filtered with maple charcoal prior to aging.  The maple charcoal filtering is generally referred to as the Lincoln County process.  At one point the Jack Daniel’s distillery was located in Lincoln County, TN.  County lines were redrawn and it now resides in Moore County.  The process refers to drip filtering new distillate through maple charcoal (like Jack Daniel’s) or steeping the maple charcoal in vats of the new distillate (like George Dickel).  It’s said this kind of filtration removes the harshness of the new spirit.  Critics say it removes some of the flavor and body of the spirit.

Another difference is that to be called bourbon, a spirit must age at least two years in the barrel.  Tennessee whiskey rules do not cover minimum aging.  However, most Tennessee whiskey out there is aged at least two years, and can technically call themselves bourbon whiskey.

Now Tennessee whiskey is an official sub-sect of American whiskey, along with bourbon and rye. If you haven’t tried Tennessee whiskey beyond Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7, please do so.  That’s just one expression of Tennessee whiskey.  Like bourbon, Tennessee whiskey ranges in flavor between expressions.  You’re still reading?   Get out there and taste some Tennessee whiskey!


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