The fine state of Tennessee isn’t just the birthplace of country music or one of America’s most influential hubs for blues, rock and soul. For all of us who love a good drink, it is also the home of the one and only Tennessee whiskey. This unique spirit is exclusive to the Volunteer State but odds are you’ve already tried it at some point. Jack & Coke, anyone? If you’ve ever wondered what makes Tennessee whiskey so special, stay tuned. The answers lie ahead.
In short, Tennessee whiskey is a type of straight bourbon. Like bourbon, it goes through sour mashing. Leftover mash from the previous fermentation is used to kick-start the new one as a form of quality control. By using old mash material in each new batch, distillers get a consistent product. And yes, sour mash does make the resulting booze a bit sour, although just how much can vary. Made up of a minimum 51 percent corn and aged in new charred oak for at least two years, the final product comes in at around 40 percent alcohol.
In addition to adhering to the above criteria for straight bourbon, there are two major requirements that need to be met before distillers can slap ‘Tennessee whiskey’ on the label. You can probably guess the first one; it has to be made in Tennessee. The second is the Lincoln County Process. This mandatory filtration is performed by every Tennessee whiskey producer in the state bar one.
Benjamin Prichard’s was granted an exception to the law. Ironically, this distillery is one of the few Tennessee whiskey distilleries still operating in Lincoln County, thanks to ever-shifting county lines. Once upon a time, Jack Daniel’s also called Lincoln County home, but a couple of redrawn borders later and suddenly, Jack Daniel’s became a Moore County whiskey. But more about the Process.
Once distilled, but before it’s sent off to age in cask, the whiskey is filtered through charcoal. And not just any charcoal will do. The 2013 law stipulates it must be Tennessee-sourced sugar maple or bust. This charcoal mellowing removes impurities from the whiskey and yields a smoother spirit. Jack Daniel’s is the largest producer and also lays claim to the title of top selling whiskey in the world – no small feat. Its major competitor is George Dickel and both of these Tennessee whiskey giants started in the 1800s. While there aren’t as many Tennessee whiskey options for the discerning lover of American brown spirits as regular bourbon or rye, one thing is for certain – the drinking sure is good.
Hankering for a more in-depth look at the differences between whiskey and bourbon? Find out more here.