Tennessee whiskey for beginners: Eight to try


image of a glass of whiskey on the rocks

When it comes to American whiskey, it’s hard to deny the popularity of bourbon. But it’s a Tennessee whiskey – specifically Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7 – that is the most drunk whiskey in the world. So what exactly is Tennessee whiskey? Let’s take a look at its history…

‘Generally speaking, as settlers ventured west into America from the eastern coast, into states like Kentucky and Tennessee, so did whiskey making,’ explains Nelson Eddy, chief historian for Jack Daniel’s. ‘This was hastened by events like the government defeat of the Whiskey Rebellion [in 1794] near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. But the western venture into whiskey making had a foothold even prior to this,’ he adds.

‘The American palate would follow the western expansion,’ continues Eddy. ‘The comparably softer, sweeter, more refined character of bourbon and then Tennessee whiskey would supplant the eastern dominance of rye whiskey, with bourbon leading the way,’ he explains.

‘From a cultural context, Tennessee whiskey reflects the agricultural traditions of Middle Tennessee, as well as the heritage of the people. The abundance of corn and spring water filtered through limestone provided important ingredients to whiskey making,’ Eddy says. ‘The Scotch and Irish whiskey tradition – and the particular know-how of those enslaved in the area – provided the necessary expertise for nurturing and expanding the craft.’

Charcoal mellowing vats at the Jack Daniel’s distillery. Credit: Jack Daniel’s

The role of charcoal and the Lincoln County Process

The production processes for bourbon and Tennesse whiskey are nearly identical. However, Tennessee whiskey has a regional ingredient that makes it unique: charcoal mellowing. This process is done once the spirit is distilled and is known as the Lincoln County Process. It was first attributed to the Alfred Eaton Distillery in 1825. It involves the whiskey being either steeped in or filtered through charcoal, which is made from the wood of local sugar maple trees.

‘The utilization of the Lincoln County process gives producers of Tennessee whisky an additional tool beyond distillation to craft the final flavours of their spirit,’ says Nicole Austin, general manager and distiller at George Dickel. ‘I categorize the Lincoln County Process as a continuation of the distillation process. We do less separation in the still, finishing the separation in the charcoal. Because of that additional complexity, Tennessee whiskey can be even more widely varied in style than “traditional” bourbons.’

Egyptians were using charcoal for smelting as early as 3750 BCE and discovered it had medicinal properties a few thousand years later. Archaeological discovery of charcoal filtration in Egypt, as well as more nomadic cultures, dates to around 400 BCE. So, how does it end up as an important part of Tennessee whiskey?

Historians believe this process of filtering the newly made distillate before putting it into the barrel was likely first introduced by enslaved African-American workers. Enslaved distiller Nathan ‘Nearest’ Green worked with the young ‘Jack’ Daniel and taught him about distillation and the role of the Lincoln County Process. Daniel hired him as his first head distiller in 1866 after the American Civil War.

What makes whiskey a Tennessee whiskey?

The State of Tennessee has created legal regulations for what can and cannot be labelled ‘Tennesse whiskey’, and these are largely outlined in Tennessee Code Title 57, Chapter 2 passed in 2013.

With a couple of caveats, they are very similar to the rules stipulated for bourbon. The exceptions are:

  • Tennessee whiskey must be distilled in the state of Tennessee. Bourbon on the other hand can be made in any state in the US.
  • Tennessee whiskey must have a ‘mash bill’ (grain composition) of 51% corn. While the same stipulation is made for bourbon, in reality bourbons are typically made from 70% corn. As a grain that was indigenous…
Source : https://www.decanter.com/spirits/tennessee-whiskey-for-beginners-eight-to-try-518176/