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What is the Difference Between Bourbon and Tennessee Whiskey?

banner shot of bottles of bourbons

Last Updated on August 22, 2023 by Lydia Martin

“What is the distinction between Bourbon and Tennessee whiskey?” If you’ve ever wondered about the nuances between these two remarkable spirits, you’re in for a treat. From the mash bill composition to the charcoal filtering process, Bourbon and Tennessee whiskey diverge in captivating ways. 

Join me as we embark on a flavorful exploration, unraveling the unique qualities that set Kentucky Bourbon and Tennessee whiskey apart. Get ready to savor the distinct flavors and uncover the secrets behind these cherished whiskey traditions.2 glass of whiskey waiting for you

Introduction

What is Bourbon whiskey?

Bourbon whiskey is a type of American whiskey that is primarily made from a grain mixture containing at least 51% corn [1] It is distilled at a maximum strength of 160 proof (80% alcohol by volume) and is aged in new charred oak barrels.

What is Tennessee whiskey?

Tennessee whiskey is a specific type of bourbon whiskey that is made in the state of Tennessee.

It undergoes an additional charcoal mellowing process called the Lincoln County Process, which involves filtering the whiskey through charcoal before aging.

Distilling Process

What are the key ingredients used in Bourbon and Tennessee whiskey?

Bourbon

The key ingredients in Bourbon whiskey are:

  • Corn: Minimum 51% corn in the mash bill, providing a sweet and rich flavor.
  • Other grains: Malted barley, rye, and wheat add complexity and character.
  • Water: Used throughout the production process, impacting flavor and mouthfeel.
  • Yeast: Converts grain sugars to alcohol, influencing the whiskey’s flavor and aroma.

Tennessee

Tennessee whiskey shares key ingredients with Bourbon but has an additional process called the Lincoln County Process. The key ingredients are:

  • Corn: Minimum 51% corn in the mash bill, providing a sweet and rich flavor.
  • Other grains: Malted barley, rye, and wheat add complexity to the flavor.
  • Water: Used in mashing, fermentation, and proofing, affecting the overall taste.
  • Yeast: Converts grain sugars into alcohol, influencing the flavor.
  • Charcoal: Distilled whiskey is filtered through sugar maple charcoal, known as the Lincoln County Process, removing impurities and enhancing smoothness and unique flavor.

How does the mash bill differ between Bourbon and Tennessee whiskey?

In Bourbon whiskey, the mash bill must contain a minimum of 51% corn, while the remaining portion typically consists of barley and rye or wheat.

Tennessee whiskey follows the same requirement but often includes a higher percentage of corn.

How does fermentation play a role in Bourbon and Tennessee whiskey production?

Fermentation is the process in which yeast converts sugars into alcohol.

During fermentation, yeast is added to the mash and consumes the sugars, producing alcohol and other flavor compounds.

The length of fermentation can vary but generally lasts a few days.

a glass of bourbon with red rose petals

What are the differences in distillation methods?

Bourbon

  • Continuous Column Distillation: In this process, the fermented mash is heated, and alcohol vapors are collected as they rise through the columns. It ensures efficiency and consistency in distillation.
  • Pot Distillation: Some craft distilleries use pot stills, where the mash is heated in a copper pot still, and the condensed spirit is collected. This method can yield a distinct character and flavor compared to column distillation.

Tennessee

  • Continuous Column Distillation: Similar to Bourbon, Tennessee whiskey undergoes efficient and continuous distillation by heating the fermented mash and collecting alcohol vapors as they rise through columns.
  • Charcoal Filtering (Lincoln County Process): Unique to Tennessee whiskey, it is filtered through sugar maple charcoal after distillation. This charcoal-mellowing process enhances smoothness and adds character to the whiskey.

Aging Process

How long are Bourbon and Tennessee whiskey aged?

Bourbon

According to the U.S. Federal Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits, Bourbon whiskey has no specific minimum aging requirement.

However, to be labeled as “straight” Bourbon, it must be mature in new charred oak barrels for a minimum of two years. 

Many brands choose to age their bourbon or rye whiskey for longer periods, ranging from four to ten years or even more.

Extended aging allows the whiskey to develop deeper and more complex flavors.

Tennessee

Tennessee whiskey follows the same aging requirements as Kentucky bourbon whiskey. There is no specific minimum aging period mandated by law.

However, Tennessee whiskey is commonly aged for at least four years or longer, exceeding the minimum aging requirement for straight Bourbon.

The longer aging period allows the whiskey to acquire richer flavors and a smoother character.

What type of barrels are used for aging?

Bourbon

Bourbon whiskey must be matured in new seared oak barrels.

These barrels are typically made from American white oak and are charred on the inside.

The charred layer interacts with the whiskey, imparting caramel, vanilla, and oak flavors.

Tennessee

Tennessee whiskey also utilizes new charred oak barrels for aging, similar to Bourbon.

These barrels are typically made from American white oak and undergo charring to enhance flavor development.

The charred oak barrels contribute to the unique characteristics of Tennessee whiskey.

How does the aging process impact flavor profiles?

Bourbon

The aging process plays a crucial role in developing the flavor profile of Bourbon whiskey.

Over time, the whiskey interacts with the charred oak barrels, extracting caramel, vanilla, spice, and oak flavors.

Extended aging allows for more significant color development, increased complexity, and a smoother character.

Tennessee

The aging process also greatly impacts the flavor profile of Tennessee whiskey.

As it ages in charred oak barrels, the whiskey undergoes a maturation process, gaining flavors from the wood, such as caramel, vanilla, and smokiness.

The longer aging period contributes to a smoother and more refined taste.

Legal Requirements and Geographic Indications

What are the legal definitions and regulations for Bourbon and Tennessee whiskey?

Bourbon

To be legally classified as Bourbon whiskey in the United States, the spirit must meet specific essentials set forth by the U.S. Federal Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits. The key legal definitions and regulations for Bourbon include the following:

  • Mash Bill: Bourbon must have a crushed bill that consists of a minimum of 51% corn. The remaining portion can include other grains such as malted barley, rye, or wheat.
  • Distillation Proof: Bourbon must be distilled at a maximum proof of 160 (80% alcohol by volume) and entered into the barrel for fermenting atleast 125 proof (62.5% alcohol by capacity).
  • Aging: Bourbon must be aged in new, seared oak barrels. While there is no specific minimum aging requirement to be labeled as Bourbon, to be designated as “straight” Bourbon, it must be aged for a minimum of two years.
  • Bottling Proof: Bourbon must be bottled at a minimum of 80 proof (40% alcohol by volume).

Tennessee

The legal definitions and regulations for Tennessee whiskey are very similar to those for Bourbon, with one additional requirement specific to Tennessee whiskey:

  • Mash Bill and Distillation: Tennessee whiskey must have a mash bill that includes a minimum of 51% corn, just like Bourbon. It also undergoes similar distillation processes, including continuous column distillation.
  • Charcoal Mellowing (Lincoln County Process): Tennessee whiskey is distinguished by the additional step called the Lincoln County Process [2]. After distillation, the whiskey is filtered through charcoal made from sugar maple. This charcoal-mellowing process is a specific requirement for Tennessee whiskey.
  • Aging and Bottling: Tennessee whiskey, like Bourbon, must be aged in new, charred oak barrels. There is no specific minimum aging period mandated by law, but many Tennessee whiskeys are aged for at least four years. It must also be bottled at a minimum of 80 proof (40% alcohol by volume), similar to Bourbon.

Flavor Profiles

What flavors are commonly associated with Bourbon whiskey?

Flavors commonly associated with Bourbon whiskey:

  • Caramel and Vanilla: Bourbon often exhibits rich caramel and sweet vanilla flavors derived from the interaction between the whiskey and charred oak barrels during aging.
  • Oak and Woody Notes: The charred oak barrels contribute to the presence of oak and woody flavors in Bourbon. This imparts depth and complexity to the whiskey’s profile.
  • Spices: Bourbon can have a spicy character, with notes of cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, and pepper, adding a pleasant warmth to the palate.
  • Sweetness: Bourbon is known for its inherent sweetness, which can range from subtle to pronounced, often attributed to the high corn content in the mash bill.

What flavors are commonly associated with Tennessee whiskey?

Flavors commonly associated with Tennessee whiskey:

  • Caramel and Brown Sugar: If you drink Tennessee whiskey, you will notice similar caramel notes with Bourbon, often accompanied by a distinct brown sugar sweetness. The charcoal mellowing process can contribute to a smoother and slightly sweeter flavor profile.
  • Charred and Smoky Undertones: The charcoal filtering step known as the Lincoln County Process imparts subtle smokey and charred flavors to Tennessee whiskey, adding a unique dimension to its taste.
  • Rich and Mellow: Tennessee whiskey is often described as having a smooth and mellow character, with a well-rounded flavor profile and a hint of sweetness.

What are the notable taste differences between Bourbon and Tennessee whiskey?

Notable taste differences between Tennessee whiskey and Bourbon:

  • Charcoal Mellowing: The most significant difference between Bourbon and Tennessee whiskey lies in the charcoal mellowing process. Tennessee whiskey undergoes this extra step of filtering through charcoal, which can impart a smoother and slightly sweeter taste compared to Bourbon.
  • Flavor Profile Variation: While both Bourbon and Tennessee whiskey share similar flavor profiles of caramel, vanilla, and oak, Tennessee whiskey may exhibit subtle differences due to the charcoal mellowing process and the unique regional characteristics of Tennessee whiskey production.
  • Smokiness: Tennessee whiskey may have a subtle smokey undertone due to the charcoal filtering, whereas Bourbon typically does not possess a pronounced smoky flavor.
  • Individual Distillery Variations: It’s important to note that flavor profiles can vary among different Bourbon and Tennessee whiskey brands. Each distillery may have its own mash bill, aging techniques, and distillation processes, which can contribute to variations in taste within each category.

Popular Brands

What are the well-known Bourbon whiskey brands?

Well-known Bourbon whiskey brands:

  • Jim Beam: Widely recognized, Jim Beam offers expressions like White Label, Black Label, and Jim Beam Single Barrel, catering to various preferences.
  • Maker’s Mark: Known for its red wax-sealed bottles, Maker’s Mark produces a wheated Bourbon with a softer and smoother flavor profile.
  • Wild Turkey: Renowned for robust and full-bodied Bourbons, Wild Turkey’s lineup includes Wild Turkey 101, Rare Breed, and Russell’s Reserve.
  • Woodford Reserve: Focusing on craftsmanship, Woodford Reserve crafts small-batch Bourbons with a rich and complex flavor.
  • Buffalo Trace: A respected distillery, Buffalo Trace produces a diverse range of Bourbons, including Buffalo Trace Bourbon, Eagle Rare, and the sought-after Pappy Van Winkle line.

What are the well-known Tennessee whiskey brands?

Well-known Tennessee whiskey brands:

  • Jack Daniel: Globally renowned, Jack Daniels produces various expressions like Old No. 7, Gentleman Jack Daniel’s, and Single Barrel, recognized by their square bottles and black labeling.
  • George Dickel: George Dickel offers a range of expressions such as No. 8, No. 12, and premium George Dickel Barrel Select.
  • Uncle Nearest: Noteworthy for its history, Uncle Nearest crafts premium whiskeys like Uncle Nearest 1856 and Uncle Nearest 1884.
  • Prichard’s: Prichard’s is a boutique brand with small-batch production, offering diverse expressions like Double Barreled Bourbon and Tennessee Malt.
  • Nelson’s Green Brier: Reviving an old brand, Nelson’s Green Brier produces Belle Meade Bourbon, featuring both sourced and in-house distillate of exceptional quality.

Pricing

What is the price range of Bourbon whiskey?

On average, you can find Bourbon whiskeys ranging from $20 to $100 or more for standard expressions. Premium and limited-edition Bourbons can exceed $100 and reach several hundred dollars or even higher.

What is the price range of Tennessee whiskey?

On average, Tennessee whiskeys typically range from $20 to $80 for standard expressions. Premium and limited-edition Tennessee whiskeys can exceed $80 and reach higher price points, often comparable to high-end Bourbons.

FAQs

Is Tennessee whiskey a special type of bourbon?

No, Tennessee whiskey is not called Bourbon. It has its own distinct characteristics and production process, including the unique step of charcoal filtering known as the Lincoln County Process.

References

  1. https://www.bourboncountry.com/all-about-bourbon/what-is-bourbon/
  2. https://whiskipedia.com/fundamentals/charcoal-mellowing/

 

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