After so much ‘talking’ about moonshine, vodka, rum and gin, I decided to write a detailed description of what qualifies as Tennessee Whiskey. According to American and international trade agreements, Tennessee whiskey is ‘a straight Bourbon Whiskey authorized to be produced only in the State of Tennessee’. The funny thing is that distillers in the region always try to separate themselves from the notion of ‘bourbon’, which is why producers never label their liquor as one. Tennessee whiskey is just Tennessee whiskey. What makes it so special? An extra step they take in its production process.
Tennessee law has not been easy on distilleries over the years and even following the end of prohibition, TN was a state which took longer to allow distilling of spirits. In 2009, the Tennessee General Assembly amended the statute that had limited the distillation of ‘drinkable spirits’ and the revised law allowed distilleries to be established in 41 additional counties. The change was, of course, favorable to the firing up of a number of whiskey stills just ready to produce Tennessee whiskey. It was only earlier this year that a bill was signed requiring products distilled in the state and labeled ‘Tennessee Whiskey’ to use the Lincoln County Process (which I’ll explain below).
So, as I said, Tennessee whiskey is a bourbon: it is made in the US, from a minimum of 51% corn, it’s distilled (most often in copper pot stills) at 160 proof or less, enters the barrel at no more than 125 proof, it’s bottled at no less than 80 proof, contains no additional coloring or flavorings and is matured in new charred oak barrels. The added element? Once out of the whiskey still, Tennessee whiskey is mellowed through thick layers of maple charcoal, before entering the barrels for ageing. This process of filtering is what constitutes the Lincoln County Process. It got its name from the state’s Lincoln County, where the Jack Daniel’s distillery was located originally. But, in the late 19th century, the boundaries of the county were changed and the distillery became part of the new Moore County. Funny enough, as I found out on the Tennessee Whiskey Trail, the only whiskey produced in Lincoln County today is the one made by Pritchard’s Distillery which in fact does not use the Lincoln County Process as it managed to get an exception from the bill, blaming its introduction on its ‘famous neighbor up the road’. So, even if Pritchard’s isn’t a charcoal mellowed whiskey, it’s still officially considered a Tennessee whiskey. Jack Daniel’s, George Dickel and Collier & McKeel all use the maple charcoal filtering for their Tennessee whiskey.
As flavorings and colorings are not allowed, the liquor gets its distinct flavor from the barrel, which is why they need to be new, in order for the whiskey to absorb as much of the aroma as possible. Jack Daniel’s, for example, take pride in making their own barrels and Pritchard’s even take their whiskey from 120 to 95 proof and re-barrel it in a second round of charred oak barrels to reinforce the barrel notes. Also, the smaller the barrel or the greater surface area to liquid there is, the stronger the flavor.
Each Tennessee distillery has its own story, recipe and methods though. Some distill the alcohol at a lower proof, for more flavor. Others make their mash from white corn, rather than yellow, as they claim it contains a higher percentage of sugar. Even more, the George Dickel Distillery, uses a personalized mellowing process called the chill mellowing, by chilling the whiskey once it’s out of the whiskey still and before the filtration process. They explain their choice by the fact that the founder, George Dickel, discovered that the batches of whiskey he tasted during the winter were noticeably smoother than those he tasted during warmer weather.
Another thing that’s’ worth mentioning: not all whiskey that comes out of a Tennessee copper whiskey stills is ‘Tennessee whiskey’. Many are still in the ageing process to earn that name and some just remain moonshine: Ole Smoky or Popcorn Sutton Distillery produce liquor which is labeled as Tennessee moonshine or corn whiskey. Goes without saying that rye whiskeys the distilleries in the state make are also just labeled as Tennessee Rye or rye whiskey.