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Is Tennessee Whiskey Bourbon? Answered (2022 Updated)

Last Updated on August 25, 2022 by Lydia Martin

Bourbon and Tennessee whiskey are almost identical, and most people, especially those new to the whiskey world, can confuse Tennessee whiskey with bourbon. 

Well, no one can blame them because these spirits have a fair share of similarities. 

So, let’s clarify one thing – is Tennessee whiskey bourbon? 

Tennessee Whiskey: Bourbon or Not? 

Tennessee Whiskey on desk with glass

Technically, yes. Both are American whiskeys that follow certain regulations when it comes to the production process. However, many Tennessee whiskey producers do not want to call their spirits bourbon.

There’s a big similarity between the two distilled spirits because they both use the same grain bill, distillation, and maturation in oak barrel type. However, their differences in tasting notes, filtration procedure, and production location set them apart. 

Tennessee whiskey production follows a strict state law rule [1]; however, bourbon is a few steps away from the whiskey category as it is protected at the Federal level [2]. 

Tennessee whiskeys go through a special charcoal filtering process to mellow out the whiskey’s flavor profile. Hence, bourbon is relatively bolder and spicier.

Tennessee Whiskey vs Bourbon 

Differentiating Tennessee Whiskey & Bourbon 

Differences

Tasting Notes

Jack Daniel's Tennessee Whiskey on table with box and glass

Tennessee whiskey is often referred to as a lighter version of bourbon because the maple charcoal filtering helps remove the harshness of the whiskey. The hint of burned wood is evident with some caramel, sweet cereal, vanilla, citrus, and toasted oak notes.  

Bourbon can be a little spicy and rich in baking spices like cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, and anise. Also, it has upfront notes of burnt caramel, sweet vanilla, honey, oak, and some white pepper. 

Filtration Process

Filtration Process

Tennessee whiskey must undergo the filtration procedure using a burned wood filtering process. It will help the distillers remove impurities and mellow the taste of the whiskey. 

On the other hand, bourbons are not required to undergo the filtration procedure, but some whiskey makers prefer to undergo the filtering procedure after aging.

Chill-filtration is a refining procedure that will help remove chemical compounds that may create haze and cloudiness in the alcohol.

Using Additives

If filtration is a big difference between the two spirits, bourbon has a bigger difference because the Federal Law is clear about not allowing additives in bourbon. 

However, Tennessee whiskey does not state any regulation about additives and flavorings. With this, they can use additives and flavorings in their alcohol.

Jack Daniel’s uses sugar maple charcoal in its filtration procedure, so you may wonder if it is an additive.

However, based on the official website of Jack Daniel’s, they don’t add any flavorings or coloring, and all are drawn from the oak container. 

Where It Should Be Made

Where It Should Be Made

Distilleries should manufacture Tennessee whiskeys in Tennessee, while bourbon can be made anywhere in the United States. 

Can you make bourbon in Tennessee? Technically, you can make bourbon in Tennessee because Tennessee is a US state. However, to be called bourbon, it should follow the strict regulation of bourbon production.  

Similarities

Similarities

Mash Bill

Both Tennessee whiskey and bourbon share the same grain bill. Based on requirements to be called bourbon, the liquor should be made with at least 51% corn, and it applies to the other liquor, too. 

How about the other grains? Well, you can use ryes, wheats, or malted barleys on both spirits. 

The primary grain gives the alcohol its sweetness, so you will notice that they share some similarities in flavor profile but not quite identical. 

Distillation

Distillation

Both distilled spirits should undergo the distillation procedure, so after the fermentation process, they go through distillation in not more than 160 proof or 80% ABV.

However, you should note that the distillation procedure should be held in its designated location. For instance, the whiskey should undergo distillation in Tennessee whiskey distilleries.   

Maturation & Barrel Type

Both whiskeys are matured spirits. Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey should be matured for two years in a new oak container (charred).

Moreso, based on Tennessee law, after the liquor is charcoal filtered, it must be aged in new charred oak barrels.

The charred oak container will give the whiskey its identity and additional flavor before it is bottled. 

What’s the Lincoln County Process? 

What's the Lincoln County Process? 

The Lincoln County Process is a requirement to be considered a Tennessee whiskey. The white dog will undergo charcoal mellowing to filter the whiskey from any impurities before aging. 

The filtering procedure (burned maple wood) is believed to add sweetness; however, it was used only used because hardwood was readily available in the early 20th century.  

Tennessee Whiskey & Bourbon Requirements 

Tennessee Whiskey & Bourbon Requirements 

Category Tennessee Whiskey Bourbon 
Location of Production Tennessee only Anywhere in the United States
Grain Bill At least 51% maize At least 51% maize
ABV Before Distillation Maximum of 80% Maximum of 80%
ABV Before Aging Maximum of 62.5% Maximum of 62.5%
ABV Before Bottling Minimum of 40% Minimum of 40%
Additives Non-Stated Not Allowed
Maturation New oak barrels (charred) New oak barrels (charred)
Filtration Before Aging Required Non-Stated

FAQs 

Which came first, bourbon or Tennessee whiskey?

Bourbon came first before Tennessee whiskey. Bourbon was first created by Master Distiller Elijah Craig in 1789, while Tennessee whiskey was first created in 1825 by Alfred Eaton in Tullahoma. 

Is bourbon smoother than Tennessee whiskey?

No, bourbon is not smoother than Tennessee whiskey. The Lincoln County Process makes the spirit smoother to drink than bourbon. 

Final Thoughts 

Tennessee whiskey is technically bourbon. However, since the TTB allows the label “Tennessee whiskey” on spirits that meet a more specific standard of identity like bourbon [3], distillers are exempted from labeling it as one.  

On a side note, you can easily differentiate between bourbon and Tennessee whiskey.

Unlike bourbon, every Tennessee distillery must have their alcoholic beverage filtered with burned wood before aging. 

References:

  1. https://law.justia.com/codes/tennessee/2014/title-57/chapter-2/section-57-2 
  2. https://www.law.cornell.edu/cfr/text/27/5.143
  3. https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2018/11/26/2018-24446/modernization-of-the-labeling-and-advertising-regulations-for-wine-distilled-spirits-and-malt#p-474

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