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Tennessee whiskey for beginners: Eight to try

Find out more about the history and production of this celebrated American whiskey from the state of Tennessee with Decanter’s guide, including recommendations of great bottles to buy. 

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 to the Americas, the use of corn differentiates both Tennessee whiskey and bourbon from Scotch whisky and Irish whiskey.
  • Tennessee whiskey must be filtered through maple charcoal before going into barrel. There is one exception to this: Pritchard’s Distillery claims an exemption as its founder Benjamin Pritchard was making Tennessee whiskey prior to the introduction of the Lincoln County Process to Tennessee.
  • Tennessee whiskey must be aged in new, charred oak barrels. It is typically aged in white oak barrels, which are native to the southeast of the US.
  • Tennessee whiskey may not contain any additives for flavour or colour. All of the flavours and colours in the whiskey must come from the spirit and the barrel. (In comparison, Scotch for example, can contain ‘caramel colouring’.)Water may be added throughout the production process to lower the ‘proof’ (alcohol by volume or abv).

In addition there are three different stipulations for Tennessee whiskey’s alcohol content throughout its production.

  •  It must not be distilled at higher than 160 proof or 80% abv.
  • It must not be higher than 125 proof (62.5% abv) when barrelled.
  • It must be 80 proof or higher (40% abv) when bottled.

George Dickel’s general manager and distiller, Nicole Austin. Credit: George Dickel

How is Tennessee whiskey aged?

Tennessee whiskey is said to have a sweeter flavour profile than bourbon, as the charcoal filtering process mellows the spirit’s harsher tones. This mellow character contributes to the signature sweet flavours even further. Prior to barrelling, the distilled spirit is clear. It contains the flavours of the grains and has been ‘mellowed’ by charcoal filtration. Unlike wine, all whiskies stop ageing once they are bottled.

Ageing requirements are not stipulated for Tennessee whiskey. However, making a whiskey smooth and drinkable requires enough time in an oak barrel to round out the alcohol and impart the sweet, darker characteristics the whiskey is known for. Four years is a general practice for most producers of Tennessee whiskey. Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7 is aged for four years in barrel before release for example.

The Bottled in Bond Act of 1897 is a US Federal law that stipulates quality control elements of whiskey production. It was established at a time when whiskey production was seeing rampant issues with production quality.

It states that a Bottled-in-Bond labelled whiskey must be made by a single distiller at a single distillery in one distillation season. Distillation seasons are considered either January to June or July to December. It must be aged in a US Government bonded warehouse for four years and then bottled at precisely 100 proof or 50%abv.

The weather in Tennessee helps to increase respiration in the barrels, so that the whiskey ages more rapidly than in cooler climates such as those found in Scotland or Japan. The weather is fairly mild in winter, with hot and humid summers. This means that the respiration in the barrels is constant – except when it gets abnormally cold.

What does Tennessee whiskey taste like?

Tennessee whiskey, much like bourbon, has sweet and toasty elements that are essential to its flavour profile. It has a similar flavour profile to bourbon for a number of reasons. First the corn-based composition of both spirits imparts a sweetness and can also a creaminess to the texture. Second, the oak barrels and their char levels contribute a variety of aromas and flavours, from sweet to spicy, that are a signature of both styles of American whiskey.

Many producers of Tennessee whiskey claim that the Lincoln County Process further filters out some of the harsher elements of pure distilled spirits, resulting in a smoother or more mellow style of finished whiskey.

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The Rickyard at Jack Daniel’s, where charcoal is prepared for the Lincoln County Process. Credit: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Tennessee whiskey for beginners: eight to try

Recommendations by Clive Pursehouse and Richard Woodard

George Dickel Single Barrel 9 Year Old

This (at least) 9-year-old whiskey from George Dickel has a mashbill of 84% corn, 8% rye and 8% malted barley. This blended mashbill does a nice job of balancing the soft, caramel notes from malted barley with the spice that comes from rye grains. Aromas of sweet apricot, maple and toasted biscuit. A smooth, fruity palate and strong caramel flavours, with vanilla sweetness a streak of minerality. Aged nine years. CP Alcohol 42.3%

George Dickel Bottled in Bond 13 Year 

With the exact same mashbill as the 9-year-old – 84% corn, 8% rye and 8% malted barley – this Bottled-in-Bond whiskey is aged for 13 years. It delivers a really harmonious sweetness. Aromas of warm scone, maple candies, candied orange peel and spice. The palate offers a syrupy maple character, sweet spiced apples and roasted corn flavours. CP Alc 50%

Jack Daniel’s 10 Year Old Tennessee Whiskey

From Batch 2 of the 10-year-old release. Aromas of sweet pipe tobacco leap from the glass with this decade-old take on the JD recipe, which is aged at different locations throughout Jack Daniel’s barrel house to capture the diversity of various barrels. Flavours of spicy clove, maple syrup and vanilla bean. CP Alc 48.5%

Jack Daniel’s 12 Year Old Tennessee Whiskey

This is the first batch of the 12-year-old bottling from Jack Daniel’s. Aromas of smoky clove and spiced orange, sweet tobacco leaf and cinnamon. Rich caramel flavours are lifted by bright spices. Cinnamon and orange notes, vanilla and burnt cream finish the palate. CP Alc 53.5%

Jack Daniel’s Distillery Series Straight Tennessee Whiskey Finished in Oloroso Sherry Casks

An extremely limited bottling, and only at 375ml, the Distillery Series follows the well-known Jack Daniels approach, including the mash bill of 80% corn, 12% malted barley, and 8% rye. Once the whiskey has completed its typical barrel ageing, this 12th edition spends three years in oloroso Sherry casks. Bright floral aromatics are complemented by candied citrus, nutmeg and cinnamon. The palate is incredibly smooth, with sweet maple sugar, bruised apples and caramel cream candies. CP Alc 45%

Jack Daniel’s Gentleman Jack

Gentleman Jack undergoes a double dose of the Lincoln County Process – filtration through sugar maple charcoal – which brings a softer, gentler and more rounded character to the spirit. Plenty of vanilla, a touch of maple syrup and dark honey, then appetising flavours of apple pie, creamy custard and cinnamon. A nice interplay between sweet and dry nuances on the short-ish finish. Alc 40%

Uncle Nearest 1820 11 Year Old

This is a glorious aged whiskey, tasted from barrel US-57. Sweet caramel notes are followed by roasted pecan and pie crust aromatics. The palate exudes a smooth, sweet creaminess and a long finish. Flavours of Madagascar vanilla bean, toasted biscuits and caramel cream pass across the palate. There is no faster-growing whiskey brand in the US than Uncle Nearest (Green), named for Nathan Green, the enslaved man who taught Jack Daniel how to make whiskey. A recent brand – founded in 2017 –it sources its aged whiskies from other Tennessee producers. But the blends that Master Blender Victoria Eady Butler is dialling up are pure magic. She also happens to be Nathan Green’s great-great-granddaughter. CP Alc 55.2%

Uncle Nearest 1856

Bottled at 100-proof, the 1856 is what launched what has become American whiskey’s hottest brand, Uncle Nearest (Green). A wonderfully tuned blended whiskey that leans into the sweetness and notes of creamy, classic corn-based whiskey. Notes of rich crème brûlée, Tahitian vanilla and caramel corn mark the aromas. A creamy smoothness is accented by roasted sweet corn, caramel and white pepper. The whiskeys that Master Blender Victoria Eady Butler is putting together are some of the category’s most popular right now. She also happens to be Nathan Green’s great-great-granddaughter. CP Alc 50%

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