Many people ask me how is Tennessee whiskey different from Bourbon? The fact is there are very few differences. Tennessee whiskey is at least 51% corn. It is distilled at no higher than 160 proof. It is aged in new charred barrels. Tennessee sits above the same ancient sea bed that Kentucky does so it has very similar water sources that are iron free. The climate is slightly warmer than Kentucky but not radically different with hot summers and cool to cold winters. So how is it different from Bourbon?
Historically the state of Tennessee has a rich distilling heritage. They had distillers coming to the state with the first settlers. They were making corn whiskey and fruit brandy just like the early settlers in Kentucky. They were as proud of their distillers as were the Kentuckians. To distinguish themselves in the markets of the south and west, they would refer to their whiskey as Tennessee whiskey in the same way Kentuckians would refer to their whiskey as Kentucky whiskey. Neither term was an “official” term and was more a point of pride and maybe a little business rivalry than anything else.
Early on, before barrel aging was common, distillers would filter their new make whiskey through a barrel of charcoal, usually sugar maple or hickory wood charcoal. This would take some of the rougher edges off the newly distilled whiskey. This was a common practice with many distillers not just in Kentucky and Tennessee but elsewhere. I have seen references to the Canadian distillers doing the same thing in the early years and it was probably a practice brought over from Europe.
According to legend, the distillers in Lincoln County Tennessee decided to take this to an extreme. If a filter made of a barrel with charcoal helped, then how about a filter made of a column of charcoal over ten feet tall. More would be better and that is how the “Lincoln County Process” was born. Several distillers continued to do this even when barrel aging the whiskey became common and they would call their whiskey “Tennessee Whiskey” to distinguish it from “Kentucky Bourbon”. Before prohibition hit Tennessee in 1910, there were several distillers labeling their whiskey as such. The larger firms were Geo. A. Dickel’s Cascade, Nelson’s Green Brier and Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7. This was not an official category in the government books and more of a point of pride and marketing.
When prohibition came to an end and Lem Motlow decided to re-open the Jack Daniel’s Distillery he applied for labels in the Bourbon category. The government sent him a rejection letter saying he could not call his whiskey Bourbon because he was altering the flavor before the whiskey went into the barrel – the Lincoln County Process. It is not allowed to do any altering of the flavor in Bourbon before or after barrel aging.
Lem Motlow decided to take that rejection letter and turn it into a positive marketing tool. He declared that Jack Daniel’s is not Bourbon but instead a unique product called Tennessee Whiskey. There was no official definition of Tennessee whiskey but Jack Daniel’s was the only product coming out of Tennessee at the time and Motlow set the standards. Schenley built the Geo. A. Dickel Cascade Hollow distillery in the late 50s after they lost the bid to purchase Jack Daniel’s. They made their whiskey with the Lincoln County Process as well and hoped to compete with Jack Daniels’s as Tennessee’s leading distillery. They lost that competition but still gained a large following.
It was not until the 21st century that the State of Tennessee decided to define their whiskey. This became important because of the growing artisan distillery movement in Tennessee. Brown-Forman led this movement to protect what they had grown into an international reputation. Brown-Forman wanted to make sure that the quality did not drift away from what the world thinks of when they purchase Tennessee whiskey.
Photos Courtesy of Maggie Kimberl and Michael Veach
September 4, 2017 at 2:53 pm
To my knowledge, Lem Motlow or later Brown-Forman never challenged the letter denying them Bourbon status in the courts. However after 1964 when Bourbon became a product of the United States, Tennessee whiskey was lumped in with Bourbon as far as trade agreements were concerned making in affect Tennessee whiskey a Bourbon as far as foreign markets are concerned. However the state of Tennessee has since provided legislation making Tennessee a separate product again as far as the Tennessee is concerned. I applaud this difference myself. Tennessee whiskey is a fine product in its own right and should stand alone and not in Bourbon’s shadow.
There is a difference in the Lincoln County Process and charcoal filtering after the Bourbon is dumped. Charcoal filtering is simply throwing a handful of activated charcoal into the dump tank and agitating it to catch some of the natural oils in the alcohol before bottling. This does remove flavor from the product but unlike the Lincoln County Process does not alter by adding flavor. It seems that the government regulation is against adding flavor not removing flavor.
September 4, 2017 at 8:52 pm
It seems that the government regulation is against adding flavor not removing flavor.
That seems overly simplistic, no? By that standard, Angel’s Envy, along with every other Bourbon which has been ‘finished’ in a barrel previously used to hold another sort of alcoholic beverage (typically fortified wine, regular wine, or another spirit) would be unable to call itself “Bourbon” and that’s not the case, Certainly, such a product is no longer entitled to be considered a “straight” but it otherwise conforms to the standard of identity.
Plus there’s the old loophole provided by 27 CFR 5.23 which allows certain types of flavorings to be added “in accordance with established trade usage” and which “do not total more than 21/2 percent by volume of the finished product.”
September 4, 2017 at 9:16 pm
(Please note: the first line of my comment is a quote from the previous comment to which I was responding.)
September 4, 2017 at 9:52 pm
I agree about Angel’s Envy. In my opinion finished products are no longer Bourbon but simply American Whiskey.
September 4, 2017 at 10:20 pm
Fair enough. Not the church I go to, but I can respect it. ;->
I think I once read an opinion by someone or other that you can’t “un-Bourbon” a whiskey by putting it in a different sort of container. It’s just no longer a straight. That works for me.
September 5, 2017 at 10:13 pm
This goes back to the argument made many moons ago by Chuck Cowdery: Once the new whiskey becomes Bourbon – it can never become Unbourbon. This argument is also backed by the authorities, as finished Bourbon can still legally call itself Bourbon
September 5, 2017 at 2:16 am
So you are saying the Lincoln County process makes JD, Dickel, etc. definitively *not* bourbon?
(Not sure why the conclusion of the post appears to have been put in the first comment…)
September 5, 2017 at 1:33 pm
Bourbon and Tennessee Whiskey are similar but different products. Just because they are both made in the United States from corn does not make them alike any more than Cognac and Armagnac are the same because they are both made in France from grapes.
September 6, 2017 at 2:02 am
Where in the regs does it explicitly say that the new make cannot be flavored prior to Barrel entry, and that charcoal filtering is indeed flavoring?
September 6, 2017 at 1:59 pm
Depends upon which regulations you are looking at. In the modern regulations you are not going to find it. However in 1940 something was in the regulations to cause Jack Daniels to be rejected in its application in the Bourbon Category. Subsequent applications must hat have also determined that the Lincoln County process was rectifying and denied the use of the term straight as well since neither Jack Daniels or George Dickel were released as straight whiskeys. Interesting enough Lem Motlow never challenged this in the courts and in fact turned it into a marketing point.
The regulations were modified in1964 when Bourbon became a product of the United States and barrel entry proof was raised to 125, but Tennessee whiskey companies, Jack or George still never bothered to get their product listed as Bourbon. The regulations changed again when Regan deregulated many things in the industry and I suspect this is when the preventive language disappeared from the regulations. The Regan administration was beginning to negotiate NAFTA and other trade treaties and since Jack Daniels was even then the best selling American Whiskey around the world they wanted it to be grouped in with Bourbon to gain the protections and advantages the treaty offered. However they still never challenged the 1940 decision. It has not been until recently that this has happened. I suspect the cause is twofold. First Bourbon is gaining popularity around the world and Tennessee wants to be part of that. The second is that if a foreign market decides it is not Bourbon then it does not get the same protections and advantages as Bourbon.
Interesting enough in the official statement from Jack Daniels they admit that they are trying to get Tennessee whiskey as a Federal recognized category for a type of spirit. They have had the State of Tennessee pass legislation defining Tennessee whiskey showing that it is its own category and not Bourbon. I don’t understand why people today want to call it Bourbon. It is a different style of whiskey made from the same ingredients as Bourbon but with a different process. It is fine whiskey in its own right and deserves its own category.
September 6, 2017 at 2:58 pm
I should also point out that since Tennessee whiskey is not a straight whiskey they were often accused of using used cooperage and adding coloring and flavors to their product. That was not true and one of the reasons Jack Daniels worked to get the Tennessee government to define the style legally to prevent new distilleries from doing just that and lowering the quality of the product in their view. Diageo opposed the legislation because they thought it should be able to do so if they chose to do it that way in the future at Dickel.
March 24, 2018 at 2:42 pm
Ah! The Great Bourbon Debate!
There was a wonderful and terrifically substantive debate about this issue in great detail on a FB forum recently, where all the regs were posted and quoted which documented with finality the current state of whether or not The Lincoln County Method was bourbon or not. In the end, it clearly showed (similar to this post):
Legally: Yes. J.D. today is bourbon.
By tradition and intent: Nope
I love this debate.
March 24, 2018 at 3:28 pm
Fact is many Kentucky bourbon are filtered through carbon filtering systems after aging and before bottling. Carbon is ground up charcoal. And char is charcoal. And a 5 char is a lot of char and charcoal and carbon.