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Uncovering the Sweet Truth: Why is Tennessee Whiskey Not Bourbon?

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Last Updated on February 20, 2024 by Lydia Martin

As a whiskey aficionado, I always thought Tennessee whiskey was just a fancy type of bourbon.

After all, they both come from the same state, undergo similar manufacturing methods, and share the same rich flavor profile.

However, during a recent visit to a distillery in Lynchburg, I discovered that there’s more to Tennessee whiskey than meets the eye.

In fact, Tennessee whiskey is not bourbon at all, and the reasons why may surprise you. So, why is Tennessee whiskey not bourbon?

Buckle up and get ready to sip on some knowledge because the answer might leave you with a new appreciation for the spirit that hails from the Volunteer State.

a glass of whiskey served a the table

Why are Tennessee whiskey and bourbon often confused?

Tennessee whiskey and bourbon are often confused because they share many similarities in terms of ingredients and production methods, such as:

  • Both Tennessee whiskey and bourbon are types of American whiskey.
  • Both are made from a mash bill that is at least 51% corn.
  • Both are matured in new, charred oak barrels.
  • Both are subject to specific legal requirements and regulations.
  • Tennessee whiskey is made in Tennessee, which is geographically close to Kentucky, where bourbon is traditionally made.
  • Both are associated with Southern culture and the American whiskey industry.
  • The Lincoln County Process, a specific filtration method used in making Tennessee whiskey, is unique to Tennessee whiskey and not required for bourbon, leading some people to believe that Tennessee whiskey is a type of bourbon or vice versa.

Legal Requirements

What are the legal definitions of Tennessee whiskey and bourbon?

The legal definitions of Tennessee whiskey and bourbon are outlined by the United States government through the Alcohol and the Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) and are as follows [1]:

Tennessee whiskey

According to the State of Tennessee and the TTB, Tennessee whiskey is defined as a straight bourbon whiskey produced in reputable Tennessee whiskey distilleries and made from a mash bill of at least 51% corn.

It must be distilled to no more than 80% ABV and matured in new, charred oak barrels for at least two years.

Additionally, it must undergo the Lincoln County Process, which involves filtering the whiskey through charcoal made from sugar maple trees before aging.

Bourbon

According to the TTB, bourbon is a type of American whiskey made from a puree bill of at least 51% corn.

It must be distilled to no more than 80% ABV and matured in new, charred oak barrels for at least two years. There are no further requirements for filtration or other production methods beyond these.

To be labeled as “straight bourbon,” the whiskey must have been aged for a minimum of two years and must not contain any added colors, flavors, or other spirits. Additionally, all bourbon must be made in the United States.

How do they differ from each other?

Tennessee whiskey and bourbon differ from each other in various ways, including:

  • Filtration process: As mentioned earlier, Tennessee whiskey must undergo the Lincoln County Process, which involves purifying the whiskey through charcoal made from sugar maple trees before aging. This process is not required for bourbon.
  • Geographical location: Tennessee whiskey must be produced in the state of Tennessee, while bourbon can be made anywhere in the United States.
  • Aging: Both Tennessee whiskey and bourbon must be aged in new, charred oak barrels, but Tennessee whiskey must be aged for a minimum of two years, while bourbon has no minimum aging requirement. However, to be labeled as “straight bourbon,” the whiskey must have been aged for a minimum of two years.
  • Mash bill: Both Tennessee whiskey and bourbon must have a mash bill that is at least 51% corn, but the remainder of the mash bill can vary. Other grains commonly used in bourbon include rye and wheat, while Tennessee whiskey often uses small amounts of malted barley.
  • Production method: Both Tennessee whiskey and bourbon must be distilled to no more than 80% ABV, but the production methods can vary beyond this. For example, some Tennessee whiskey producers use a sour mash process, while this is not required for bourbon. Additionally, Tennessee whiskey must be bottled at no less than 40% ABV, while the minimum bottling strength for bourbon is 40% ABV for regular bourbon and 50% ABV for “bottled in bond” bourbon.

a glass of whiskey with orange on the side

What are the key requirements for making Tennessee whiskey?

The key requirements for making Tennessee whiskey are:

· Mash bill: The mash bill for Tennessee whiskey must be made from at least 51% corn, with

the remainder of the mash bill made up of other kernels such as rye, wheat, and

malted barley.    

Fermentation: The mash is then fermented with yeast to convert the sugars into alcohol.

Distillation: The fermented mash is then distilled in a pot still or column still to create a clear spirit with an alcohol content of no more than 80% ABV.

Aging: The clear spirit is then placed into new, charred oak barrels and aged for a minimum of two years. Tennessee whiskey is typically aged for longer than two years.

Filtration: After aging, Tennessee whiskey must undergo the Lincoln County Process, which involves filtering the whiskey through charcoal made from sugar maple trees. This step is not required for bourbon.

·Bottling: The whiskey is kept at no less than 40% ABV and can be sold as Tennessee

whiskey.

What are the key requirements for making bourbon?

The key requirements for making bourbon are:

· Mash bill: The mash bill for bourbon must be made from at least 51% corn, with the remainder of the mash bill made up of other grains such as rye, wheat, and malted barley.

Fermentation: The puree is then fermented with yeast to convert the sugars into alcohol.

Distillation: The fermented puree is then distilled in a pot still or column still to create a clear spirit with an alcohol content of no more than 80% ABV.

Aging: The clear spirit is then placed into new, charred oak barrels and aged for a minimum of two years.

 Bottling: The whiskey is kept at no less than 40% ABV and can be sold as bourbon.

Production Methods

What is the Lincoln County Process?

The Lincoln County Process is a filtration method used to produce Tennessee whiskey. After the whiskey has been distilled and matured in new, charred oak barrels for at least two years, it is filtered through charcoal made from sugar maple trees before being bottled.

This filtration process is named after Lincoln County, Tennessee, where it is believed to have originated. The process involves dripping the whiskey through several feet of charcoal, which removes impurities and adds flavor to the whiskey.

This filtration method also mellows the whiskey and gives it a smoother taste. The charcoal used for the filtration must be made from sugar maple trees and can be either burned to create charcoal or made using a process of heating and cooling the wood.

While the Lincoln County Process is not required by law to make Tennessee whiskey, it is a traditional method used by many Tennessee whiskey producers, and it is often seen as a defining characteristic of the style.

How does it affect the flavor of Tennessee whiskey?

The Lincoln County Process, which requires filtering Tennessee whiskey through charcoal

made from sugar maple trees, can significantly impact the whiskey’s flavor. During filtration, the charcoal removes impurities from the whiskey, such as fatty acids, esters, and congeners, giving the whiskey a harsh or bitter taste. The charcoal also adds flavor and character to the whiskey, as the wood from which it is made can impart its unique flavors and aromas to the whiskey. As a result, Tennessee whiskey that has undergone the Lincoln County Process is generally considered to be smoother and more mellow than other styles of American whiskeys, such as bourbon. It can also taste slightly sweeter, with caramel, vanilla, and maple syrup notes.

Why is the Lincoln County Process controversial?

The Lincoln County Process is controversial for a few reasons:

1.  Some people argue that the filtration process strips away some of the flavor and character of the whiskey, resulting in a less complex and interesting product than other types of American whiskey.

2.  The Lincoln County Process is not required by law to make Tennessee whiskey, but it is often seen as a defining characteristic of the style. As a result, some distilleries that produce Tennessee whiskey choose not to use the process, and this has led to debates over what should or should not be considered Tennessee whiskey.

3.  There are debates over what type of charcoal should be used in the filtration process. Some producers use charcoal manufactured from sugar maple trees, as is traditional in the Lincoln County Process, while others use other types of wood or even artificial charcoal. This has led to arguments over whether or not a whiskey that has not been filtered through sugar maple charcoal can be considered true Tennessee whiskey.

Regional Identity

How does Tennessee whiskey contribute to the identity of the state?

Tennessee whiskeys are important to the state’s identity and cultural heritage. Tennessee has a long history of whiskey production, dating back to the early days of the American frontier. Tennessee whiskey is seen as a symbol of the state’s history, culture, and heritage. The Lincoln County Process is a unique and distinctive method that sets the style apart from other types of American whiskey. The use of locally gathered ingredients, such as the limestone-filtered water found in Tennessee, also helps to reinforce the connection between whiskey and the state. Tennessee whiskey also plays an important role in the state’s economy, providing jobs and supporting local businesses. Many of the state’s whiskey producers offer tours and tastings, which attract visitors from around the world and help boost tourism in the region.

How does bourbon contribute to the identity of Kentucky?

Bourbon is an iconic symbol of Kentucky’s cultural and historical identity. The state has a long history of bourbon production, dating back to the late 18th century. Bourbon is considered by many to be Kentucky’s official state spirit, and the state is sometimes referred to as the “Bourbon Capital of the World.” Bourbon had played an major role in shaping the state’s economy, with many of the world’s leading bourbon brands headquartered in Kentucky. The industry reinforces thousands of jobs and generates millions of dollars in revenue for the state. Bourbon is also a key part of Kentucky’s tourism industry, fascinates visitors from around the world to explore the state’s distilleries, learn about the history of bourbon, and sample some of the world’s finest whiskeys. The Kentucky Bourbon Trail, a multitude of distilleries offering tours and tastings, is a popular tourist attraction that draws hundreds of thousands of visitors annually. In addition to its economic and tourism importance, bourbon is also deeply rooted in Kentucky’s cultural heritage.

The state’s bourbon industry has been shaped by generations of distillers and their families, and the culture of bourbon-making has become a source of pride for many Kentuckians. The state’s unique climate, soil, and water resources contribute to the distinct flavor profile of Kentucky bourbon whiskey, which is recognized and celebrated worldwide.

Why do some people prefer Tennessee whiskey over bourbon and vice versa?

The preference for bourbon and Tennessee whiskey primarily comes down to personal taste and preference. Both whiskey styles have unique flavor profiles and characteristics, which appeal to different palates. Some people drink Tennessee whiskey as they prefer its smoother and sweeter taste, which is often attributed to the Lincoln County Process and maple charcoal filtering. Tennessee whiskey is also known for its mellow, slightly smoky flavor, which can be attributed to the aging process in charred oak barrels. On the other hand, some people prefer the bolder, spicier flavor of bourbon, which is often attributed to the higher percentage of corn in the puree bill. Bourbon is also known for its vanilla, caramel, and oak flavors, which develop during aging.

How do other factors such as terroir, climate, and cultural traditions influence the taste of Tennessee whiskey and bourbon?

Terroir, climate, and cultural traditions can all significantly shape the taste of Tennessee whiskey and bourbon.

· Terroir refers to the environmental factors, such as soil, water, and climate, that influence the flavor of crops. In the case of Tennessee whiskey and bourbon, the grains used in the production process are heavily influenced by the terroir of the regions where they are grown. For example, the limestone-rich water of Tennessee is believed to contribute to the unique flavor profile of Tennessee whiskey.

The climate is also an essential factor in producing Tennessee whiskey and bourbon. The hot, humid summers of the American South promote faster maturation of the whiskey, which can contribute to the development or more complex flavors.

 Cultural traditions also play a role in shaping the taste of Tennessee whiskey and bourbon. The processes and techniques used in producing these spirits have been passed down through generations of distillers, each adding its unique twist to the process. These traditions often involve specific yeast strains, mash bills, and aging techniques, which can all influence the final flavor of the whiskey.

FAQs

Why is Jack Daniels not considered bourbon?

Jack Daniel may have the characteristics of bourbon or rye whiskey, but it is not called bourbon because it is produced using the Lincoln County Process, which involves filtering the whiskey through maple charcoal before it is aged in barrels.

While bourbon can be made in any state in the United States, Tennessee whiskey, which includes Jack Daniels Tennessee Whiskey, must be:

  • Produced in Tennessee and must meet the specific requirements set forth by the Tennessee whiskey statute, which includes the use of the Lincoln County Process and;
  • Have a mash bill that provides for at least 51% corn, along with other requirements.

The use of the Lincoln County Process, in particular, sets Tennessee whiskey apart from bourbon and is a key factor in why Jack Daniel’s Tennessee whiskey is not considered to be bourbon.

References

  1. https://www.ttb.gov/images/pdfs/spirits_bam/chapter4.pdf
  2. https://www.tnvacation.com/articles/tennessee-whiskey-lincoln-county-process
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