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