Is Tennessee Whiskey Actually Bourbon? We Have the Answer

·9 min read
George Dickel Bourbon Whisky
George Dickel Bourbon Whisky

The only time I’ve ever been thrown out of a bar was because of Jack Daniel’s. And I didn’t even get a drink!

I was at a bar in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, with my buddy Sam. We rolled in looking for a couple belts of whiskey, and I asked the bartender a simple question: “What bourbon do you have?”

He answered: “We’ve got Jack.”

And without thinking, being a younger, brasher man in those days, I replied, “Jack Daniel’s isn’t bourbon.”

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Sam doubled down. “Yeah, Jack’s not bourbon, it’s Tennessee whiskey.”

The bartender got stubborn and we went back and forth a bit. Then his partner picked up the bottle of Jack. She looked at it and said, “You know, they’re right, it doesn’t say ‘bourbon’ anywhere on the label.”

That’s when he said, “I don’t care what the label says, you two are outta here!” So we went and found a bar with Knob Creek, and were treated like gentlemen.

Anyone who has ever visited a Facebook or Reddit bourbon group has probably seen something very similar to this exchange. Someone innocent—or a troll—will ask, is Jack Daniel’s or George Dickel actually bourbon? It usually starts an argument, with statements brasher than mine flying about.

“You’d be surprised, but people are mean on the Internet,” remarked Nicole Austin when we recently chatted. Austin knows this controversy all too well. She is the master distiller and general manager at the Cascade Hollow Distillery in Tullahoma, Tennessee, which is home to George Dickel. And she’s got a sharp sense of humor. You might suspect that she was slyly poking fun at this bar debate by deciding to release George Dickel Bourbon Whisky, but she’s completely serious about the category.

It’s for real, and I’ve been drinking it with pleasure over the past several weeks. The new bourbon is going to be a regular bottling, not a one-off like the excellent bonded bottlings of Dickel Tennessee Whisky she released the past three summers. It’s 90 proof, 8-years-old, at a suggested retail price of $33. As Austin said, “you’re welcome, world.”

But where did a Dickel bourbon come from? Has this been a secret project that’s finally coming to fruition?

No, Dickel Bourbon comes from the same mashbill, yeast strain, distillation, filtration and aging regimen that produce Dickel No. 12 Tennessee Whisky.

So what is the difference between this bourbon and the brand’s signature No. 12 Tennessee whisky?

Essentially whether the brand calls it bourbon or Tennessee whiskey is Austin’s call. She explained that the No. 12 is “the most classic Tennessee whisky at Dickel. The boldness and the waxy fruit character and big oak. Dickel 12 is a complex blend, and some of it’s pretty old. The waxy fruit really comes out in those older barrels.”

“The barrels I was choosing for the bourbon dialed those [characteristics] back, or even down all the way,” she noted. “These barrels express vanilla, fruit, the light oak notes you’d want from a bourbon. We had a lot of them; to blend them away to make Tennessee whisky would have been a shame. What’s the best thing you could do with them? This.”

<div class="inline-image__credit">George Dickel Bourbon Whisky</div>
George Dickel Bourbon Whisky

This Dickel Bourbon is made the same way as Dickel Tennessee whisky. Same mash, same fermentation process, same aging protocol using the the same barrels in the same warehouses. The difference, as Austin emphasizes, is choosing particular barrels to create a particular style of whiskey.

The question remains, though, because people keep asking it: is Tennessee whisky bourbon or not?

The heart of the question is the Lincoln County Process, the essential, required-by-Tennessee-law difference. Jack Daniel’s and George Dickel each meet all the federal “standards of identity” requirements to be called bourbon: more than 50 percent corn, distilled to less than 160 proof and put in a new, charred oak container at 125 proof or less...all that jazz. But before they go into the barrel, they are “mellowed” (or filtered or “leached”) by passing through ten feet of sugar maple charcoal (and a wool blanket, which folks usually forget).

If it’s filtered, does that mean stuff is being taken out of the spirit? Or, as was the popular opinion in the 1990s when I was learning about whiskey, is there also an addition of flavor, a vague “sooty” sweetness, from the maple charcoal?

Chris Fletcher, the master distiller at Jack Daniel’s, has something to say about that. “The only thing that would be added is trace amounts of minerals found naturally in the charred wood (such as calcium),” he said. “The more impactful action is removal. The charcoal absorbs most of the grainy/corn quality of our new make whiskey. This is really the magic of mellowing for Jack Daniel’s. By absorbing that corn aroma and mouthfeel, it allows the complexity of fruit and barrel to really drive our profile.”

I can confirm that effect. About 20 years ago, former Dickel distiller John Lunn sampled me on three stages of new make: right off the beer still, after the doubler and after the charcoal leaching. The final stage was clean, focused and singing a pure note compared to the muddled first stage and still rough second.

Then the question becomes whether the filtering, the mellowing, takes some essential “bourbonness” out of the whiskey; if it somehow “unbourbons” it.

It’s not likely, considering that there are Kentucky bourbons that are charcoal filtered; Evan Williams Bonded says “CHARCOAL FILTERED” in large letters on the label. But this is a light filtering post-barrel, essentially pouring the whiskey through accumulated barrel char bits as the casks are dumped for bottling, not the pre-barrel Lincoln County Process with its ten feet of charcoal bed. Does that make a difference?

Bourbon writer Chuck Cowdery made some very sharp points about that in 2018 in two posts on his blog. For one thing, he points out, “Although the process is very old, the term ‘Lincoln County Process’ is of recent coinage, the 1950s, shortly before the Motlow family sold the company to Brown-Forman. Up until then, most people just called the practice ‘leaching’ or ‘charcoal leaching.’”

That’s not just a technicality, but an indicator of how the Motlow family (who owned the Jack Daniel distillery from 1907, when Jack gave it to his nephew, Lem Motlow, until they sold to Brown-Forman in 1956) worked diligently on the image and idea of Jack Daniel’s as a whiskey apart from other American whiskies like bourbon, rye and corn whiskey.

The Motlows were of the opinion that the process didn’t make their whiskey less than bourbon; it made it better than bourbon. After Repeal they were determined to secure an exemption from the federal labeling requirements that a whiskey essentially made like a bourbon had to be labeled as bourbon.

Cowdery writes that around 1940, Lem’s son, Reagor Motlow, “made several trips to the government office in Louisville to argue his case. Tests were conducted in the government laboratory there. In the end, the government concluded that Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey had ‘neither the characteristics of bourbon or rye whiskey but rather is a distinctive product which may be labeled whiskey.’”

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Cowdery then further argues in a follow-up post that the Process can’t change Jack or Dickel from bourbon to Tennessee whiskey, because according to those standards of identity, it isn’t even “whiskey” yet, because it hasn’t been stored in a new, charred oak container. If it hasn’t become bourbon, it can’t be changed into something else. Arguments like this remind me that although Cowdery has never practiced, he does have a law degree...

That would seem to settle it. Tennessee whiskey isn’t bourbon. Only…

“If you’ve done all that stuff, you’ve made bourbon,” said Austin. “Making it in Tennessee and using the Lincoln County Process makes it a Tennessee version of bourbon. It is its own thing and it is also bourbon. Both can be true...Tennessee whisky is a regional distinction of bourbon. Like Islay Scotch.”

Bold words. But this is the Dickel distiller and manager, and let’s be honest: it’s in Dickel’s interest to stir things up. They’re the underdogs. Jack Daniel’s, the whiskey that means Tennessee, surely isn’t bourbon.

“Tennessee Whiskey does completely qualify as bourbon,” affirmed Fletcher, the man who makes Jack Daniel’s. “So, the option would be up to the producer to list that on the label. We, along with other distillers in Tennessee, believe the charcoal mellowing process is a long-standing tradition that deserves its own designation, which is what the Tennessee Whiskey Law passed in 2013 does. In short, charcoal mellowing doesn’t prevent us from labeling our whiskey as ‘bourbon whiskey’—it allows us to label it as ‘Tennessee Whiskey.’”

If the makers of both Dickel and Daniel’s agreeing that Tennessee whiskey is indeed bourbon—it’s both, as they each say—doesn’t convince you, there’s also another Tennessee distiller saying the same thing. Ole Smoky in Gatlinburg has just released their James Ownby Reserve Tennessee Bourbon, and yes, it’s also Tennessee whiskey.

“The James Ownby whiskey that we developed is both a straight bourbon whiskey,” explained Ole Smoky CEO Robert Hall in an email, “because its mash is primarily corn and it has been charred new oak barrels; and a Tennessee whiskey, because it has been mellowed through the Lincoln County filtering process. Consequently, the James Ownby product is of exceptional quality, as it fulfills all the requirements of both bourbon and Tennessee whiskies.”

So despite the cynical assumption that if a headline asks a question, the answer is always no…Yes, Tennessee whiskey is bourbon. The people who make it agree. It’s both Tennessee whiskey and bourbon...and it’s uniquely up to them what to call it, a little loophole in the regulations carved out by the very determined Motlow family more than 60 years ago.

My apologies to that bartender in Wilkes-Barre. Seems like we were both right!

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