The number one selling whiskey in the United States and the number one selling American Whiskey in the world is a Tennessee Whiskey: Black label, Old No. 7, Jack Daniel’s. They must be doing something right.
But what is a Tennessee Whiskey, exactly? What makes it different from bourbon, or Scotch or plain old whiskey? There’s a history, a process, and finally a law that dictate what allows fermented and distilled grain to carry the words “Tennessee Whiskey” on the label.
What is A Tennessee Whiskey?
To start, it must be whiskey and it must be made in Tennessee. For a while, those were the only legal requirements, as the Feds have rules about what constitutes whiskey and require place-of-origin statements to be true. But Tennessee Whiskey has always been more than that. And in 2013 the state of Tennessee made it official.
As it stands, Tennessee Whiskey must follow the requirements for bourbon (51% corn in the grain mix, aged in new charred oak barrels, with minimum proof requirements) plus there’s an additional step that separates Tennessee Whiskey from the crowd: The Lincoln County Process.
What is the Lincoln County Process?
When you ferment alcohol, there are byproducts, one of which is fuselols (from the German word for rotgut). Getting rid of these is done in a few ways, including repeated distillation, ageing, and filtering. Filtering is the cure the Lincoln County Process offers.
By running the alcohol through charcoal made from the wood of maple trees before putting it in the barrel for aging, many of those undesirable compounds are removed, resulting in a smoother, mellower whiskey. And maple charcoal filtration is now a legal requirement for Tennessee Whiskey.
The process is said to be invented in 1825 by a Tennessean named Alfred Eaton who used the process in his Tullahoma distillery. (Some have suggested the process was invented in Kentucky ten years earlier, but we’ll let that go.) Jack Daniel’s has used the process since its founding in 1866, as did many other Tennessee distilleries at the time, including the Cascade Hollow Distillery, makers of George Dickel.
The Exception To The Rule
Now that there’s a Tennessee law dictating the use of the Lincoln County Process, every bottle bearing the name Tennessee Whiskey will have been run through (or steeped in) maple charcoal — except one.
Prohibition was a big blow for whiskey makers everywhere. But it hit Tennessee even harder. In 1909, Tennessee was the first state to enforce statewide alcohol prohibition, a full ten years before national Prohibition. When Prohibition was repealed in 1933, many counties in Tennessee stayed dry (ten still are), and only three counties in the state again allowed the distillation of alcohol: Lincoln, Moore, and Coffee.
Happily, Moore county is where Jack Daniel’s operates and George Dickel is made in Coffee county. So in the 1940s and 50s those two distilleries got going again, bringing fine Tennessee Whiskey back to the world. But they were the only ones. Just two distilleries the entire state until 1997 when Phil Prichard opened a distillery in Lincoln county called Prichard’s Distillery, named for his fifth generation grandfather, a Tennessee distiller from the 1800s.
That brought the number of Tennessee distilleries to a sum total of three. Prichard’s also makes a Tennessee Whiskey, but doesn’t use the Lincoln County Process. When Tennessee passed the 2013 law outlining what makes a Tennessee Whiskey, a special clause was added to exempt Prichard’s from the requirement.
What Does Tennessee Whiskey Taste Like?
Today, thanks to a 2009 push to reform Prohibition-era laws on the Tennessee books, over forty counties can distill in the Volunteer State, and many of the legal barriers to licensing have been eased. Instead of just three distilleries in Tennessee, you’ll now find around thirty.
By law, every distillery putting out a Tennessee Whiskey (except one) will have run that clear, unaged whiskey through maple charcoal before aging it in oak. The result is a mellow whiskey, with any “harsh” edges rounded off. The maple can sometimes impart a hint of sweetness, a bit of smoke. Overall, it’s an easy-drinking whiskey, very good on ice, best sipped outside somewhere as you watch the sun go down and the stars come out.