One Small Step

November 1, 2021

In my office, there is a bottle of Jack Daniel’s. It’s autographed by the late Master Distiller Jimmy Bedford. It’s really one of my most prized possessions. On the bottle, it says “Tennessee Whiskey”. I have never really given those two words much thought. It’s whiskey, and it’s made in Tennessee. Or is it?

The Tennessee part, yes, but is Jack Daniel’s really whiskey…or bourbon? Let’s look at the difference between Tennessee Whiskey and bourbon and try to figure this out! There probably wasn’t a single inventor of bourbon. Lots of folks from Elijah Craig to Jacob Spears were distilling and refining all the way back to the 1700s. But what sets bourbon apart is its strict set of rules. The distillate has to be at least 51% corn, if it goes to 80%, then it’s no longer bourbon but “corn whiskey”. It has to age in new American Oak barrels, no exceptions. And bourbon can be produced anywhere in the United States. As long as it meets the requirements, it’s called bourbon.

So when I looked at how Jack Daniel’s is made, to my surprise, it follows all of the strict bourbon rules! So why is it called “Tennessee Whiskey” and not “Tennessee Bourbon Whiskey”? It’s all because of one extra step called the Lincoln County Process. After Jack Daniel’s is distilled by following all the rules that are in place to make bourbon, it’s filtered through maple charcoal chips and then placed in the barrel to age. Gentleman Jack is run through this process twice. That’s why it’s called “Tennessee Whiskey”. But to be clear, or really to add more to the confusion, not all whiskey made in Tennessee is Tennessee whiskey (but all Tennessee whiskey has to be made in Tennessee.) Unless the distillate goes through the Lincoln County Process, it cannot be called Tennessee whiskey.

And to add one more interesting take on this, there is only one whiskey still produced in Lincoln County. It’s called Prichard’s, and they don’t use the Lincoln County Process. But they get to call their whiskey “Tennessee Whiskey” because they were grandfathered in before the Tennessee state laws started defining the process. It’s just confusing enough to make you want a drink.