Tennessee Whiskey is probably one of the most popular styles around the world. The unique flavor and the rich history of whiskey making have made Tennessee Whiskey a prime choice for enthusiasts from around the world. Whether you’re a social drinker or a regular, if you’re willing to know about how it’s made and what makes it unique, this is the place for you to be.
What is Tennessee Whiskey?
In very simple terms, Tennessee Whiskey is a form of whiskey produced in Tennessee, US. We could end the post right here and call it a day. But the legacy of Tennessee Whiskey is far richer than you would think. Let’s dive deep.
Tennessee Whiskey is known for its unique charcoal flavor. The whiskeys are made mostly from corn, barley, and rye. And the process of infusing the charcoal flavor is known as the ‘Lincoln County Process’ or LCP. All brands under the Tennessee Whiskey except Benjamin Prichard’s must use the process of filtering by law to be labeled as ‘Tennessee Whiskey’.
Just to give you an idea, Jack Daniel’s is the most popular entity in the Tennessee Whiskey realm. All brands of Tennessee Whiskey are straight whiskey.
The types of whiskey require its separate post because it’s a vast topic to cover here. But let’s talk about straight whiskeys briefly. The parameters for straight whiskey are determined by the laws of the United States.
A straight whiskey must be distilled from a fermented cereal grain mash and the alcohol concentration must not exceed 80%. The whiskey should be aged in wooden barrels made from charred oak for a minimum of two years. The concentration of alcohol should be below 62.5% when the aging process has started.
That’s about it for straight whiskey. In a lot of international agreements, Tennessee Whiskey is labeled as ‘Bourbon’. But the brands in Tennessee don’t agree with the fact and don’t label Bourbon in any of the product’s packaging.
The Difference Between Tennessee Whiskey and Bourbon
For people who don’t know, it’s very easy to confuse between Tennessee Whiskey and Bourbon because a lot of references on the internet tend to label this whiskey as Bourbon. Both of these have similar properties but they are not the same.
Both Bourbon and Tennessee Whiskey are produced in the United States. While the latter is exclusive to Tennessee, Bourbon can be produced anywhere in the United States. The initial distillation is the same. Both use corn as the primary grain.
That’s where the similarities end. The ultimate difference comes from the flavor.
While both of the whiskeys have the same corn percentage and processing, Tennessee Whiskeys go through the extra filtering process known as the Lincoln County Process. Tennessee Whiskey is very mellow in flavor when compared to Bourbon whiskey. Both of these are whiskeys, just not the same.
The Lincoln County Process
The Lincoln County Process is proprietary to the Tennessee Whiskey production. It’s a filtering process that mellows out the flavor and gives it the signatory smokiness. All manufacturers based in Tennessee must go through the process. The only exception is Benjamin Prichard’s.
Different manufacturers use different methods to flavor their whiskey. Jack Daniel’s uses sugar maple timbers to make the charcoal. Its wood is burned right on the facility. The timbers are broken into two-by-two-inch ricks.
Jack Daniel’s uses large hoods to prevent the timbers from sparking. Once the wood is charred, it’s sprayed with water so that it doesn’t combust entirely. The charcoal then goes through a grinding process to it small enough for filtering.
Then, it is packed into 10-foot vats to filter out the contaminants from the whiskey. It’s the Jack Daniels the signature flavor. Jack Daniel’s uses 140 proof whiskey, one of the highest in this category.
George Dickel, on the other hand, uses 13-foot vats to filter its 135-proof whisky. ‘Whisky’ is used by George Dickel instead of whiskey. The whiskey is chilled to 5 degrees Celsius or 40 degrees Fahrenheit to prevent it from trickling.
Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery uses the same process for its 108 First and white whiskey.
And for Collier and McKeel based in Nashville, it uses a pump instead of gravity to steep the whiskey.
As previously stated, the charcoal is derived from selected sugar maple trees. Most manufacturers burn the tress on their premises during the season and store it in vats for preservation. The charcoal filters the Tennessee Whiskey and reduces the bold flavor. Hence, the Lincoln County Process is often called a ‘charcoal mellowing’ process.
How Tennessee Whiskey is Made
To label a product as Tennessee Whiskey, the distilleries must follow a protocol. No random whiskey is called the Tennesse Whiskey. It’s particularly known for its signature taste and filtration process.
The Lincoln Country Process is only part of the equation. The corn concentration, the alcohol concentration, the proof, aging duration, etc. goes into making a fine bottle of whiskey.
Starting with the corn percentage, Tennessee Whiskey must contain 51% corn at the minimum. Other grains can include barley, wheat, rye and they make the rest of the proportion. The alcohol percentage must be below 80%. The proof must be at least 80 while barreling and some go as high as 140.
The first step is distillation. The grains like corn, barley, rye, etc. are fermented to create the alcohol. Then, the alcohol is separated from the grains and the liquid goes through distillation to matured into whiskey. The stills (heating pots) are heated with steam rather than direct fire because fire can burn the alcohol.
The Lincoln Country Process is done before the aging and after the distillation. It’s a good middle ground to infuse the smoky flavor. Other whiskey manufacturers use the same filtration process after aging but they are not labeled as ‘Tennessee Whiskey’ because time is a key factor.
The richness of the whiskey is achieved through filtration. The whiskey is very slowly dripped through vats of sugar maple charcoal where the spirit from the distillation is mellowed out. Any impurities a.k.a congeners are removed in the same process. Tennessee Whiskey is very light in flavor and doesn’t produce the burn while going down, thanks to the Lincoln County Process.
The next step is aging. It’s done in oak barrels. No minimum requirements go into the aging process. But to be a straight whiskey, which Tennessee Whiskeys are, it must be aged for 2 years in a barrel. And to be labeled ‘Bottled-in-Bond’, it must go through a four-year aging process.
What Does Tennessee Whiskey Taste Like?
Tennessee Whiskey is most known for its mellow flavor. It’s very smooth and has a touch of charcoal due to the filtration. If you have experience with Bourbon, you know how harsh the tone can be.
Tennessee Whiskey takes away the harshness from Bourbons and masks the bold flavor. You can feel and taste all of the other notes like vanilla, toasted oak, caramel, etc.
How to Drink Tennessee Whiskey?
There are no established rules that you must follow to drink the whiskey. But as it has its own style of manufacturing, you can do some experiments with the taste. If you can handle the burn, you might as well drink it raw.
Tennessee Whiskey and blocks of ice go hand in hand. The ice tones down the boldness of the whiskey, making the sips more enjoyable. Also, you can reduce the whiskey with water if you want a long drinking session. A lot of people like whiskey with soda or lemonade.
If you want the experience of whiskey on rocks without mellowing the flavor than it already is, you can invest in some metal ice cubes. Just put the cubes in the freezer and reuse them as you go.
Some of the Most Popular Tennessee Whiskey Brands
Now that you have quite a good idea about Tennessee Whiskey, we can keep it aside and shed some light on some of the iconic Tennessee Whiskey producers.
The name that goes around the world. Jack Daniel’s is the most popular whiskey brand with the highest number of sales. It’s owned by Brown-Forman Corporation and has been around since 1875. Distilled and blended liquors are their specialty.
Old No.7 Bottle is the finest production from Jack Daniel’s. It’s also called the Black Label for its iconic black packaging. It’s probably the most popular whiskey in the world. Bartenders around the world instantly know what a ‘Jack and coke’ is, all thanks to this particular Tennessee Whiskey.
Gentleman Jack, Tennessee Honey, Tennessee Fire, Single Barrel Select, etc. are some of the other entries in Jack Daniel’s lineup.
You already know that this is the only brand that doesn’t follow the Lincoln County Process and still labels its products as Tennessee Whiskey. It specializes in Bourbons and rye whiskey. The irony here is that Benjamin Prichard’s has a product called the Lincoln County Lightning. The distillery is also based in Lincoln County, the only one in the area.
Thanks to the unique grandfathering exemption of the Tennessee Law, Benjamin Prichard’s can label its whiskeys as Tennessee. The brand was founded by Phil Prichard, the current master distiller. It’s named after an ancestor of the founder, Benjamin Prichard who owned a distillery in Tennessee in the early 1800s.
Prichard’s Tennessee Whiskey, Prichard’s Double Barreled Bourbon Whiskey, Prichard’s Double Chocolate Flavored Whiskey, Prichard’s Rye Whiskey, Prichard’s Tennessee Malt Whiskey, and Prichard’s Lincoln Country Lightning Corn Whiskey are some of the finest Tennessee whiskeys that you can get from Benjamin Prichard’s.
George Dickel’s name comes right after the legendary Jack Daniel’s. It’s second-largest in terms of production scale in Tennessee. The brand started its journey back in 1964 and is owned by Diageo PLC based in Cascade Hollow, Tennessee. It’s the only one in the state that uses the spelling whisky instead of whiskey.
Some of the fan-favorite products from George Dickel would be Old No. 8, Superior No. 12, Barrel Select Tennessee, George Dickel Distillery Reserve Collection 17 year Tennessee Whisky, George Dickel Rye Whiskey, No. 1 Foundation Recipe, George Dickel Tabasco Barrel Finish, George Dickel Bottled-in-Bond.
Collier and McKeel
Based in Nashville, Collier and McKeel is a very popular brand of Tennessee Whiskey in the united states. It was reinvented by former state representative Mike Williams under the Tennessee Distilling Company. The brand was later sold to North Coast Spirits. Although the new owner is based in California, the operations of the distillery remained in Nashville, Tennessee to take the legacy of Tennessee Whiskey forward.
The history of Collier and McKeel dates back to 1794 when William Collier and James McKeel moved to Tennessee from Virginia and California respectively after the Whiskey Rebellion in Pennsylvania. They used their knowledge of Scottish whiskey and Irish whiskey and blended them into their own formula.
Collier and McKeel Tennessee Whiskey is the signature product from the brand. It uses 70% corn, 15% malted barley, and 15% rye mash to make the whiskey. The Lincoln County Process is done with a tweak of using pumps to steep the whiskey.
Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery
A brand with a dark history surrounding it. The Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery operated from 1870 to 1909 until the prohibition took place. It was closed for over 100 years before it was reopened by the predecessors in 2011. The operations started in 2014. The brand is now operated by Charlie and Andy Nelson, the great-great-great grandsons of Charles Nelson, the founder.
Nelson’s First 108 Tennessee Whiskey and Nelson Green Briers Tennessee White Whiskey are two of the signature products. It also has the Belle Meade Bourbon, Belle Meade Sherry Cask Finish, Belle Meade Cognac cask Finish, Belle Meade Madeira Cask Finish, and Belle Meade Single Barrel Bourbon.
The history of Tennessee Whiskey sometimes date back hundreds of years. The unique charcoal filtration process makes them unlike any other whiskey in the world. Names like Jack Daniels or George Dickel are know all over the world for their signature flavor and tone. Tennessee Whiskey is a term cherished by whiskey lovers all over the world.