Friday, January 5, 2018

The Roots of Jack Daniel's Lincoln County Process



On New Years Day, we answered once and for all the question "Is Jack Daniel's Bourbon?" There is more to the story, however, going back almost 200 years.

At the heart of the controversy is the 'Lincoln County Process,' in which new make distillate is passed through thick vats of sugar maple charcoal. 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.'

In the 19th century, it was common among Tennessee distillers to run their new make through sugar maple charcoal. For roughly the first half of that century, most whiskey was sold unaged, but improving the flavor of new make continued to seem like a good idea even after aging became the rule.

By the 1950s, Jack Daniel's was the only distillery in the United States still leaching. They wanted to talk about it in marketing because they thought it made their whiskey unique, but 'leaching' didn't sound very appetizing. The process needed a new name.

'Lincoln County Process' was derived from the term 'Lincoln County Whiskey.' From the early 1830s, Tennessee's Lincoln County was renowned as America’s most productive corn cultivation district.

Lincoln County was once much larger than it is now and included the Jack Daniel's Distillery in Lynchburg. Moore County, where Jack Daniel's is today, was established in 1871 from parts of Lincoln and three other counties.

Lincoln County's reputation for fine corn passed on to its whiskeys. Like Monongahela rye, the use of Lincoln County corn was a selling point for middle Tennessee whiskeys. Starting in 1866, distilleries and brokers advertised in newspapers their ‘Lincoln County whiskey,’ specifically to differentiate it from the Robertson County product, Tennessee’s other popular whiskey style, as well as from Kentucky bourbon and other regional whiskeys.

During the early 1900s, the Jack Daniel's label stated ‘Jack Daniel's Pure Lincoln County Corn Whiskey.’ It was never called bourbon. That would have been unthinkable.

That is how the Lincoln County Process got its name, but what about the process itself? Does it disqualify Jack Daniel's from being called bourbon?

People who say it does cite section 5.23 (b), which reads in part: "Extractions. The removal from any distilled spirits of any constituents to such an extent that the product does not possess the taste, aroma, and characteristics generally attributed to that class or type of distilled spirits alters the class and type thereof, and the product shall be appropriately redesignated. In addition, in the case of
straight whisky the removal of more than 15 percent of the fixed acids, or volatile acids, or esters, or soluble solids, or higher alcohols, or more than 25 percent of the soluble color, shall be deemed to alter the class or type thereof."

The only problem is, 5.23 (b) doesn't apply since charcoal leaching occurs before the distillate has been classified. Until it touches an 'oak container,' it is not whiskey, let alone bourbon. You can't change the classification of something unclassified. Section 5.23 very clearly applies only to classified products. If a post-classification process changes the liquid's characteristics, as described in the rule, then reclassification is necessary. Since whiskey must be aged, section 5.23 clearly applies to aged liquid only, not to new make.

Most distillers agree that pre-barrel charcoal leaching functions as a kind of jump-start to the aging process, removing or modifying some of the undesirable congeners that will eventually be removed or modified by the oak barrel's charred interior surface. Jack Daniel's may age a little faster as a result, but that's it. The bourbon gods are not offended.

This got confused when the type of charcoal leaching practiced in Tennessee became less common, because charcoal leaching is also widely employed by rectifiers. In 1868, the Federal Government passed a number of taxation acts, based on the 1864 Special Tax Act and the amended Trades Special Tax of 1866. One of these included a tax on rectifiers.

Rectifiers were defined as: "every person who rectifies, purifies, or refines distilled spirits or wines, by any of process other than the original and continuous from mash, wort or wash, through continuous closed vessels and pipes, until the manufacture thereof is complete, and every wholesaler or retail liquor dealer who has in his possession any still or leach tub; or such keep and apparatus for the purposes of refining any manner distilled spirits (etc.)" 'Leach tub' refers to the process of rectifying a spirit by filtering it through charcoal.

The Rectifiers Special Tax was based on the volume of spirit a rectifier processed. The average tax was $4 a barrel. A spirit barrel was defined as 40 gallons at proof strength (i.e., 50% alcohol by volume).

The Tennessee distillers lobbied the IRS and gained an exception to the tax for their ‘redistillation, leaching and vaporising’ methods, which they used to make straight whiskey, not neutral or nearly-neutral spirit as was the business of rectifiers. The Tennessee distillers insisted they were not rectifiers but primary distillers and, as such, they were already paying the Federal Excise Tax on their output. Levying an additional rectification tax on the same liquid would be unfair. In agreeing and granting the exception, the IRS effectively recognized Tennessee whiskey as a distinctive version of straight whiskey, way back in the 19th century.

The new liquor laws passed right after Prohibition did not include a contingency for Tennessee’s charcoal leaching method. This may be because no one in Tennessee was distilling at the time due to Tennessee's state Prohibition laws remaining in effect after 1933. When distillation finally became legal again in 1937, only Jack Daniel's came back in a meaningful way. They resumed making 'Lincoln County Whiskey' the way they always had, using Lincoln County corn and charcoal leaching of new make before barreling. Because so few distilleries came back after Prohibition, a once common practice was nearly extinct. Only one distillery, Jack Daniel's, was still doing it.

When the time came to start selling their whiskey, Jack Daniel's sought an exception similar to the one granted in 1868. They wanted to be acknowledged as distillers of a straight whiskey product, but one that was distinct from bourbon or rye. They wanted the feds to create a Tennessee whiskey classification but settled for 'whiskey.' Then they put 'Tennessee' in front of it as a truthful statement of product origin, which was permitted under the new rules.

That is how the designation 'Tennessee Whiskey' was born.

From reading Deputy Commissioner Berkshire's letter, I think what went down in 1941 was on the order of an accommodation, a simple solution to a unique problem. Because only Jack Daniel's had this issue, the exception would affect only them, so why formalize it? (George Dickel was still 20 years in the future.)

The fact that Jack Daniel's was accepting a lower classification and rejecting a higher one also suggested a one-off proposition, an anachronism unlikely to recur. Writing a letter is much more efficient, administratively, than undertaking the rule change process. The fact that this occurred almost 80 years ago and hasn't caused any problems (other than confusing a few obsessives) means it was probably a good administrative decision.

Chris Middleton, the former Global Brand Director for Jack Daniel’s, helped a lot with this post.

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

Sadly Chuck there is no limit to what a brand ambasador will say, to try and make a point, be it correct or not. There are about 4 things wrong that immediately jump out, and I will take them one at a time if I get time.

You are using a lot of circular "illogic" . For example you state that whiskey can't be whisky until it touches oak. Somehow you have forgotten that Corn Whiskey can't touch charred oak, nor does it even need to touch oak at all. But worse than that you totally misunderstand the whiskey process when you say that you can't change the classification of something that is not yet classified. I'm not going to get into the CFR's on how and when a product is changed, but consider that the mash made from 51% to 100% corn can after distillation (provided that it was distilled below 160proof) be changed to: Corn Whiskey, Whiskey made from Grain, Tenesee Whiskey or Bourbon, depending on what is done to it in process.

Just think about this of you will: JD talks about how they called it corn whiskey by design, but in fact the CFR's specifically prohibits Corn Whiskey from touching charcoal made from wood. So because they were filtering it through charcoal made from wood, they were not allowed to call it corn whiskey, and because they stripped a significant amount of flavor out of it (as determined by the letter from the Treasury) they could not call it Bourbon. (Forget about NAFTA and the Tenn legislative attempt to call it Biurbon, as that means nothing to the TTb or consumer.

JD is a great product, but it is not and can not be corn whiskey, and it can not be Bourbon. I was at a Pappy tasting abut a year ago, and I had to explain to thier "Ambasador" how they make Malt! So it's nice that your guy helped, but he is clearly not a distiller.

Chuck Cowdery said...

The only difference between corn whiskey and Jack is the aging, because Jack is aged in new, charred barrels, but it has a corn whiskey mash bill (>80% corn).

Thomas Fondano said...

Now I want to know about Robertson County whiskey.

Chuck Cowdery said...

Talk to the Nelson Brothers. Nelson's Green Brier was the leading Robertson County distillery.

Anonymous said...

Blogger Chuck Cowdery said...
The only difference between corn whiskey and Jack is the aging, because Jack is aged in new, charred barrels, but it has a corn whiskey mash bill (>80% corn

No, no, no.


c 5:22. (ii) “Corn whisky” is whisky produced at not exceeding 160° proof from a fermented mash of not less than 80 percent corn grain, and if stored in oak containers stored at not more than 125° proof in used or uncharred new oak containers and not subjected in any manner to treatment with charred wood; and also includes mixtures of such whisky

If JD used charcoal made from (coconut husk) which is standard in the becerage industry, then yes their Corn whiskey could have been legally called Corn Whiskey. But they don't and they can't. Period, you can't change history, or fact. Especially when they are written down, no matter how much they would like to control the dialogue in this.

Erik Fish said...

"Anonymous said...

No, no, no.

c 5:22. (ii) “Corn whisky” is whisky produced at not exceeding 160° proof from a fermented mash of not less than 80 percent corn grain, and if stored in oak containers stored at not more than 125° proof in used or uncharred new oak containers and not subjected in any manner to treatment with charred wood; ...."

Yes, yes, yes, actually. You seem to have convinced yourself to a high degree of certainty of your idiosyncratic interpretation; however, I see no evidence in either the text of the law nor your explanation that this section has anything to do with filtration.
The sequence of the wording makes it quite clear that this is about storage, as the lack of a comma before the "and not subjected..." ties it grammatically to the conditional "if stored in oak containers". The law intends to prevent folks from using alternatives to achieve the effect of charring barrels. If you think the authors of the law missed the comma accidentally, maybe you should take it to court; cases have been won on that basis :)

Anonymous said...

The Ethan Smith Blog has a nice article today on a similar situation with Michter's Original Sour Mash Pot Still Whiskey:

https://theethansmithblog.blogspot.com/2018/01/youre-disqualified.html

Billy Reis said...

Great post Chuck. This is why I love reading your books , blogs and articles. Although some people, usually named anonymous, like to argue, contradict, or discuss varying points, most of which is good for this is a forum, there is no disputing history and historical facts. I love these old stories and it gives me a greater appreciation for our Bourbons, Ryes, and Whiskeys.

Jim Laminack said...

Hi Chuck
As usual, thank you for keeping the history alive. In your research, when and where does Nearest Green factor into the leaching process? It is my understanding that he worked for Dan Call, and Nearest is the one who taught Jack how to make whiskey. Unfortunately there is very little archival history with any detail.
From some of the photos at JD there is speculation that Nearest's son worked for Jack after he moved to Lynchburg.

Chuck Cowdery said...

I don't have any information about Green that isn't readily available on the internet. Leaching was common practice among distillers in that time and place, even before the era of Daniel and Green.