There’s a controversy brewing in the whiskey world that needs to be addressed. Perhaps “controversy” is too strong a word, maybe it’s more of a disagreement. Or even more precisely, a technical category classification that only whiskey nerds really care about: Is Tennessee whiskey really bourbon?
Technically, it meets the legal requirements, including being made from a mash bill of at least 51 percent corn and matured in charred oak barrels (legally, bourbon has to be aged in new charred oak “containers,” but this virtually always means barrels). There are some key differences, though.
In 2013, Tennessee House Bill 1084 was signed into law, stipulating that Tennessee whiskey must be “manufactured” in the state (a little iffy whether that actually means distilled), and most importantly, it has to undergo the Lincoln County Process (Prichard’s is the one exception to this rule). This involves filtering the distillate through maple charcoal before barreling, a step which is supposed to remove impurities and “mellow” the flavor, as Jack Daniel’s famously puts it.
Nelson’s Green Brier owners Charlie and Andy Nelson, provided their take on the bourbon debate “One word: yes,” wrote Andy in an email, affirming that Tennessee whiskey qualifies, while “Tennessee whiskey ≥ bourbon” was Charlie’s take. Jack Daniel’s master distiller Chris Fletcher concurs. “This filtering or mellowing process doesn’t prevent us from labeling our product as bourbon,” he wrote in an email. “It allows us to label it as Tennessee whiskey. In short, all Tennessee whiskey is bourbon, but not all bourbon is Tennessee whiskey.”
Jack Daniel’s, owned by Brown-Forman, is a global behemoth, beating out any other American whiskey brand as far as sales. So how do smaller brands and craft distilleries even begin to compete? According to Andy Nelson, there’s still room for the little guys. “There’s no doubt in my mind that the smaller brands of Tennessee whiskey will gradually gain recognition and familiarity, but national distribution is the first key to getting there and there haven’t been many to gain that quite yet,” he said. “There are currently over 30 distilleries in Tennessee, many of which are making Tennessee whiskey on some level.”
Distilleries that use the Lincoln County Process take great pride in it and tout the effects it has upon the whiskey. “If you taste two samples of the exact same distillate side by side,” said Nelson, “with one sample fresh off the still and the other having undergone the Lincoln County Process, you will notice the sugar maple charcoal-filtered spirit [has] less bitterness on the back of the tongue, a cleaner mouthfeel and a more velvety finish.” For Fletcher, it’s about removing some of the corn influence on the palate. “Charcoal mellowing removes most of this character, which contributes to the unique character of Old No. 7, lots of sweet fruit notes and oak barrel character with very little corn influence,” he said. “By absorbing most of this corn flavor, the mellowing process really lets the complexity of the spirit come through.”
Of course, not all whiskey made in Tennessee is labeled as Tennessee whiskey. There’s also bourbon and rye, which may or may not have undergone the Lincoln County Process. Ultimately, the legal designation of the Tennessee whiskey category is important to the people making it, who view it as equivalent to geographical indicators for cognac, scotch, tequila and bourbon. If you’re ready to dive into this world, here are 10 bottles to try now.
Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel Special Release Barrel Proof Rye
Not only is Jack the best known in the category, it’s probably the most recognizable whiskey in the entire world. It’s definitely one of the best selling, although these days many whiskey snobs don’t give it a second thought. This is silly, especially considering some of the newer expressions Jack has come up with. Those in the know don’t skip a chance to try special single barrel releases, like the new Single Barrel Barrel Proof Rye, made from a mash bill of 70 percent rye, 12 percent malt and 18 percent corn. Proof varies from 125 to a hefty 140 depending on the barrel, so consider adding some water when sipping this one. There’s also the Tennessee Tasters’ Selection lineup, 375 ml bottles that showcase some of the experiments going on at the distillery. The most recent was Jamaican Allspice, finished for 180 days with Jamaican allspice wood, and the forthcoming 14E19 “Twin” Blend, combining Tennessee whiskey and rye from specially selected barrels.
George Dickel Single Barrel
Dickel is the other big whiskey (or “whisky,” as the brand spells it) producer in Tennessee, but flies somewhat under the radar compared to Jack. Outside of its core lineup, Cascade Hollow Distilling (where Dickel is made) is the source of a lot of whiskey sold under other brand names. Barrel Craft Spirits, for example, frequently uses Dickel whiskey in its lineup of high-quality bourbon blends. Under the watchful eye of GM and distiller Nicole Austin, Dickel has released some fantastic new expressions over the past few years, in particular, two lauded Bottled in Bond whiskies (the most recent was 11 years old). This winter, a 15-year-old single barrel expression hit the market, available to purchase by the barrel or the bottle, with the ABV ranging from 40 percent to 52.3 percent depending on the barrel.
Cascade Moon Whisky Edition No. 2
There have been two releases so far of this special label from Cascade Hollow, both spearheaded by Nicole Austin. The whiskeys are delicious, particularly the most recent Edition 2. The first was an 11-year-old Tennessee whiskey that was supposed to remind you of gose beer. That may or may not be the case, but it was a light and fruity whiskey that went down pretty easily. Edition 2, however, is a standout. It’s a 17-year-old whiskey, meaning the liquid dates back to 2003 when the distillery got up and running again after being shut down for a number of years. The liquid in this beautiful ceramic bottle is full of rich vanilla, caramel and stone fruit flavors, not overly oaky at all and a shining example of the Dickel style.
Nelson’s Green Brier Tennessee Whiskey
Currently, Nelson’s Green Brier is a blend of contract column still and in-house pot still whiskey made using the same mash bill. This recipe includes wheat, something that is relatively uncommon in the world of Tennessee whiskey. So far, the whiskey has been a bit on the younger side, but the team says everything being bottled will be at least four years old by the end of this year. But there’s really no reason to focus on the age, as this is a vibrant and bright whiskey that works just as well on its own for sipping as it does used in a variety of cocktails. The distillery is also behind the Belle Meade bourbon lineup, a series of sourced whiskeys that are finished in various cask types.
B.R. Distilling Blue Note Small Batch/Riverset Rye
This bourbon is produced by Memphis company B.R. Distilling, which sources its whiskey from both Kentucky and Tennessee distilleries. The flagship Juke Joint bottle is a 3-year-old straight Kentucky bourbon, while the Small Batch is a 9-year-old Tennessee straight bourbon (it does not undergo the Lincoln County Process). It’s a blend of two mash bills: 84 percent corn, 8 percent rye, 8 percent malted barley; and 70 percent corn, 22 percent rye, 8 percent malted barley. Riverset Rye, on the other hand, is a 95 percent rye whiskey, similar to the MGP formula, but made in Tennessee. It’s aged for at least four years and bottled at 93 proof. There’s also a single barrel, barrel proof version of this whiskey available as well.
Sweetens Cove Tennessee Bourbon Whiskey
This is a new Tennessee whiskey release that is also a sports celebrity endeavor inspired by drinking on the golf links. Peyton Manning, Andy Roddick and Jim Nantz are all behind the brand and they hired Marianne Eaves, who previously worked for Brown-Forman and Castle & Key, to blend the whiskey. It’s a sourced bourbon aged for 13 years and bottled at cask strength of 101.4 proof. This is an expensive bottle, priced at $200, so you’re certainly paying a premium here for the names behind it as you can find similar whiskey available for less. But it’s a deep, rich dram with big flavors on the palate, appropriately oaky given its age. Eaves used just 100 barrels for this release, setting aside four of them as single barrel expressions. Look for a new expression from Sweetens Cove this April, as well as broader distribution and a larger release than the original 14,000-bottle launch.
Heaven’s Door Straight Bourbon Whiskey
This whiskey also qualifies as a celebrity brand, with the venerable presence of Bob Dylan as the force behind the concept. He also provides the inspiration for the bottle design, which is a rendition of iron gates he crafted at his metal workshop. Dylan worked with Marc Bushala, one of the founders of Angel’s Envy, to put the brand together with three core expressions to choose from, including a Tennessee straight bourbon aged for a minimum of six years and sourced from an undisclosed distillery. The mash bill is said to consist of 70 percent corn, with the remaining grains presumably a blend of rye and malt. There’s also a limited-release 10-year-old Tennessee bourbon, which builds on the palate of the original by adding layers of caramel, char and vanilla. The Heaven’s Door distillery and Center for the Arts is set to open in Nashville this year, where whiskey will be produced and live performances will take place once it’s safe to do so.
Bib & Tucker 10-Year-Old Small Batch Bourbon Whiskey
Bib & Tucker is a Tennessee bourbon brand owned by Deutsch Family Wine and Spirits, the same company behind Redemption Whiskey. While the latter comes from MGP in Indiana, Bib & Tucker is sourced from an undisclosed producer in Tennessee. The whiskey is double distilled in column and pot stills, aged in level one char barrels and bottled without chill filtration in brown old-timey glass that recalls medicine bottles of the early 20th century. This is labeled as Tennessee bourbon, not Tennessee whiskey, but according to a rep for the brand the Lincoln County Process is used to filter the distillate before barreling. There are three main expressions available: a 6-year-old, 10-year-old and 12-year-old single barrel. Expect prominent notes of all the classic bourbon flavors here, with an increasing oak presence as you taste your way through the older expressions.
Sugarlands Distilling Co. Roaming Man Tennessee Straight Rye Whiskey
Sugarlands Distilling in Gatlinburg is known for making different flavored versions of unaged “moonshine,” often with a NASCAR theme, including cinnamon, apple pie, sweet tea and blackberry. If these are not your thing, the distillery also makes a really excellent young rye whiskey called Roaming Man. It’s bottled at cask strength (the latest batch is 113.8 proof), aged between two and four years in large and small barrels with char levels three and four, and made from a mash bill of 51 percent rye, 45 percent corn and 4 percent malted barley. This puts it more into the Kentucky “barely legal” style of rye, meaning it contains just enough of the grain to be considered as such, with an ample amount of corn to round out the spice. It’s an impressive rye whiskey, and each bottle contains all of these details on the label, a welcome level of transparency for those who are interested in such things. Even nerdier, you can type in your bottle number on the website and you will find a detailed gas chromatograph that analyzes the congeners before and after aging and breaks down the barrels used with info like angel’s share, cooperage and dump proof. According to a rep for the brand, the eleventh batch, due out this spring, will be a bottled-in-bond release, increasing the age to at least four years old.
Uncle Nearest 1884 Small Batch Whiskey
This new whiskey brand has gotten a lot of attention over the past few years. It’s named for the enslaved man, Nathan “Nearest” Green, who is now credited with teaching Jack Daniel (yep, that Jack Daniel) how to distill whiskey (Green is now recognized by Brown-Forman, Jack’s parent company, as the brand’s first master distiller). Fast forward to 2017 when entrepreneur and author Fawn Weaver launched this brand, sourcing the whiskey from, you guessed it, an unnamed Tennessee distillery. There are currently three expressions available: 1884 Small Batch, 1856 Premium Aged (8-14 years old) and the 1820 Single Barrel, aged for a minimum of 11 years with a cask strength above 108 proof. Uncle Nearest actually doesn’t use the “Tennessee whiskey” designation on its label, but it is indeed made in the state and the distillate is filtered using the Lincoln County Process. The brand plans to begin distilling at its own facility in Shelbyville at some point in the future.