Saturday, February 21, 2009

Tennessee Whiskey Versus Bourbon Whiskey

Jack is bourbon in all but name.
The differences between Tennessee Whiskey and Bourbon Whiskey are similar to the differences between "whiskey" and "whisky," in that there is much less to both of those dichotomies than most people think.

People will sometimes get all high-and-mighty about how Jack Daniel's isn't a bourbon, and it isn't, but as a practical matter the difference is merely technical. For all intents and purposes, Jack Daniel's and George Dickel are bourbon in all but name. If they taste different, it is because each maker crafts a slightly different flavor. Those differences in flavor have nothing to do with them being a different type.

The primary effect of the charcoal filtering process used in Tennessee is to jump-start aging. Many bourbon makers say it removes too much flavor, but that is inside baseball. It is fair to debate that point, but it is a very small difference. Tennessee Whiskey is within the profile of Straight Bourbon Whiskey. As far as the whiskey in the bottle goes, there is no practical difference.

The fact that both Jack and George have very little rye in their mash bills probably has more to do with their similarity than the Lincoln County Process does, and the fact that modern Dickel was created in imitation of Jack has more to do with their similarity than does their type designation.

Like whiskey/whisky, this is one of those essentially trivial issues that ignorant people pontificate about and newbies agonize about unnecessarily. Whiskey/whisky is two different spellings of the same word. You're welcome to pick one and stick with it. Likewise, "bourbon whiskey" versus "Tennessee whiskey" is a distinction without a difference for all practical purposes.

Also like the spelling issue, the Tennessee/Bourbon thing creates myths, some quite persistent, about what the real differences are. Many people think whiskey and whisky are two different words, not just different spellings of the same word. Likewise, you hear all sorts of rumors, usually about Daniel's and almost always false, based on the fact that Tennessee whiskey isn't bourbon. It also leads to people assuming that bourbon must be made in Kentucky, also false.

I am one of those people who believes that Jack and George could be labeled "straight bourbon" if they wanted to be. Reasonable people can disagree about this, but that is how I interpret the regulations. You're welcome to have an opinion, but an acquaintance with the facts might be helpful in formulating it. Just a suggestion.

As you will discover, "straight bourbon whiskey" has a lot of requirements under the law. Jack and George meet every single one of them. "Tennessee whiskey" has no requirements, except the very limited ones to merely use the term "whiskey." So, in that sense, the regs are irrelevant.

A lot of people make assumptions about why Dickel and Daniel's aren't labeled as bourbon and all of those assumptions are wrong. They aren't labeled as bourbon because they choose not to be. There are other terms about which the same thing is true, such as Kentucky whiskey, Alabama whiskey, and Small Batch whiskey. The regs are silent as to all but the term "whiskey."

UPDATE: In 2013, Tennessee passed a law that defines Tennessee whiskey.


Unknown said...

Hi Chuck:

Do you think Daniel's and Dickel take such pride in being "Tennessee Whiskey" merely to carve out their market segment apart from bourbon? Like so many other things in business, is their labelling simply a function of marketing?

Chuck Cowdery said...

Short answer: yes.

However, it evolved at a time when people weren't as particular about type names as we are now.

In the modern era (post-Prohibition), George just does whatever Jack does, and that was Jack's assessment. Tennessee whiskey is distinctive and saying you are different is the first step to saying you are better.

Chuck said...

I'd even go so far as to say that under the regs, Jack and George should both be REQUIRED to label themselves as bourbon. "Tennessee Whiskey" has no legal significance, letter from some bureaucrat a long time ago notwithstanding. Inasmuch as Jack is the commercial monolith it is, and nobody having any burning interest in fighting about it, I think things have just been allowed to go along the way they are---the whiskey industry is nothing if not traditional.

Unknown said...

Other than the regulations mandating that certain whiskies (of which Jack is arguably a part) "shall" be designated as straight bourbon whiskey, is there any other reason you think Jack should be distinguished as a bourbon? Does it come down solely to a matter of definitions? Or, does it have more to do with dispelling all the ideas and/or mistruths that Jack is an entirely seperate creature than bourbon? Just curious.

sku said...

Great post Chuck! Interesting stuff.

Davin de Kergommeaux said...


Whew boy, you're on a roll! And, once again, you're right.

But just as producers are not forced to state the age of a whisky, I'm not convinced they have to call bourbon, bourbon either. Woops, sorry, the correct spelling is Bourbon. . . . Or is it?

Given that I have expounded so extensively on spellings, perhaps I should state for the record that how one spells whisky is really a non-issue that, as you say, is only of interest to newbies, those without an acquaintance with the facts, and may I add, those who backed themselves into a corner by publicly taking a strong position when they were newbies and without an acquaintance with the facts. My argument is with those pretentious folks who tell others they are wrong when they themselves don't have a clue.

I just loved Jason Wilson's disdainful comment in the Washington Post: "For instance, if you type a line that reads, "All the world's dictionaries
should place a photo of a White Horse bottle next to the words 'Blended Scotch Whiskey,' " some Scotch enthusiast will leave a nice comment online
that reads, "But they'd spell it Whisky, wouldn't they?" That comment will be below the one that calls you "so uninformed I wonder how much actual
knowledge you have" but goes on to spell both "Cointreau" and "liqueur" wrong."

Following the recent NYT debacle, a genuine whisky expert whose name all would recognize wrote me to say: "I've got excerpts from the Statistical Account of Scotland, where the same writer spells it 'whisky' and 'whiskey' on the same page. The spelling of the word is really a complete non-issue."

But what has this got to do with Tennessee bourbon whisky? I'm not sure, but looking at older bottles of Irish whisky it appears that in the not-too-distant past there were whisky regions in Ireland too, contrived, almost certainly, to boost reputations through differentiation. You can find lots of Irish labels with the "e-less" whisky on them, but my sample shows at least one region, Belfast, using the term "Belfast Whisky" (no e). Now the Irish did not have nearly the influence on American whisky that they are credited with, but Belfast Whisky is, at least, happily coincidental with the differentiation of Tennessee whisky from Bourbon.

We are forever hearing arguments about "tradition" and what is traditional, but it seems to me that for many tradition started when they first got interested in whisky and believed what the marketers were telling them.

I can hardly wait to read your next debunking!

p_elliott said...

To say that Tennesse whiskey and bourbon are the same is not true. Bourbon can not be flavored Tennesse whiskey is strained through 10 feet of charcoal before barreling. I challenge anyone to say that they can not taste that charcoal in Tennesse whiskey, therefor it's flavored and not bourbon.

Chuck Cowdery said...

This is one of the common myths, but easily debunked. Charcoal filtering is a subtractive process, not an additive one. Most bourbons also have contact with charcoal in their final processing, making the Lincoln County Process only different by degree. Finally, the TTB has never ruled that Daniel's and Dickel cannot be called bourbon, on this or any other basis.

Unknown said...

So based on what I am reading, the only real requirement to be called "Tennessee Whiskey" is that it be made in Tennessee. JD and GD both meet the requirments to be Straight bourbon but in addition are put through the Lincoln County Process and choose to call themselves Tennessee Whiskey because they are made in Tennessee.

There is no standard of identity for Tennessee Whiskey, no aging requirment, no minimum corn requirment, no requirment to use new barrels. Is that right? or am I misready?

Unknown said...

sorry to beat a dead horse.

Chuck Cowdery said...

As far as the feds are concerned, Jack just has to meet the requirements for whiskey. Since the feds also require that place of origin statements must be truthful, it has to be made in Tennessee.

Of course, just because they're not regulated doesn't mean they can do whatever they want. They're 'regulated' by the marketplace.

Anonymous said...

You need to taste them again side by side with any bourbon. The Lincoln county process is additive and not the same as the final process (barrel aging) of bourbon. Bourbon is aged in one use American white oak. Lincoln county process is charcoal mellowing through Tennessee sugar maple. This 100% adds a flavor not found in ANY bourbon. Does TN whiskey meet bourbon requirements? Yes. Is it the same or even taste close to the same? Love it or Hate it...Absolutely not! TN sugar maple vs American white oak. Not the same. All you gotta do is taste it to know that

Chuck Cowdery said...

Apples and oranges. Tennessee whiskey is aged in new, charred white oak barrels exactly like bourbon. It additionally is filtered through sugar maple charcoal before aging. Yes, they're different, but not in the way you described.

whiskydaily said...


I have couple questions related to regulations of Tennessee whiskey.

You know George Dickel's recent addition to their line called "Cascade Hollow". It was added due to shortage of aged stock. I noticed that it has age statement on the bottle (not very well-read, but it's there). Standard No.8 version doesn't have an age statement. I checked the Cascade Hollow's label, it doesn't claim to be straight whiskey (I'm sure it is straight whiskey but from regulatory point of view - you should follow regulations only if you want carry that name - they don't). So why do they follow labeling regulations for straight whiskey? Who makes them to do this? Is it some manually controlled process in TTB? Is there any other limitations?

Let's say I'll buy a column still and found new distillery in Tennessee and will distill 190 proof-alcohol from mash of grains and age it in used oak barrels for couple years. Does it still fit to the Tennessee whiskey category?

Also everyone forgets that there is another distillery - Pricard's one, who produces and sells Tennessee whiskey. They are small, but still good to notice that their is Tennessee whiskey already on the shelves produced without Lincoln Country Process.

Sergey Bessmertnyy

Chuck Cowdery said...

There are no government rules defining Tennessee whiskey except a very general rule that says place of origin claims have to be true.

Diageo, makers of George Dickel, and Brown-Forman, makers of Jack Daniel's, follow the labeling conventions for straight bourbon whiskey to the letter.

In that regard you make a big, and incorrect, assumption that you shouldn't follow the guidelines unless you want to use the terms. Why not? You can't use the term if you don't follow the guidelines, but that doesn't mean that if you follow the guidelines you must use the terms. The law says nothing of the kind and would be silly if it did.

As far as the law is concerned, Tennessee whiskey is whiskey (as defined by law) from Tennessee, and even the interpretation of 'from' is pretty broad.

It's up to the consumer to determine if any given product called Tennessee whiskey meets their (the consumer's) standard for Tennessee whiskey. As the saying goes, caveat emptor.

whiskydaily said...

Sorry, Chuck, I can't agree on this.
There should be something that makes them to put age statement on the label, otherwise they would drop it without any concerns.

What can it be? I'm still looking for this. I already found trade agreements with other countries which clearly states that Tennessee is "Straight Bourbon Whiskey" produced in Tennessee and nothing else. So if USA makes international trade agreements protecting term "Tennessee whiskey" as type of straight bourbon I hard to imagine it's no so for domestic market.

Quote from Chile's trade agreement:
Section E - Other Measures

Article 3.15: Distinctive Products

1. Chile shall recognize Bourbon Whiskey and Tennessee Whiskey, which is a straight Bourbon Whisky authorized to be produced only in the State of Tennessee, as distinctive products of the United States. Accordingly, Chile shall not permit the sale of any product as Bourbon Whiskey or Tennessee Whiskey, unless it has been manufactured in the United States in accordance with the laws and regulations of the United States governing the manufacture of Bourbon Whiskey and Tennessee Whiskey.

Trade agreement with Mexico:
Annex 313: Distinctive Products

1. Canada and Mexico shall recognize Bourbon Whiskey and Tennessee Whiskey, which is a straight Bourbon Whiskey authorized to be produced only in the State of Tennessee, as distinctive products of the United States. Accordingly, Canada and Mexico shall not permit the sale of any product as Bourbon Whiskey or Tennessee Whiskey, unless it has been manufactured in the United States in accordance with the laws and regulations of the United States governing the manufacture of Bourbon Whiskey and Tennessee Whiskey.

whiskydaily said...

Forgot to put links:


"B.02.022.1. (1) Subject to subsection (2), no person shall label, package, sell or advertise any food as Tennessee Whisky, or in such a manner that it is likely to be mistaken for Tennessee whisky unless it is a straight Bourbon whisky produced in the State of Tennessee and manufactured in the United States as Tennessee whisky in accordance with the laws of the United States applicable in respect of Tennessee whisky for consumption in the United States."

Chuck Cowdery said...

Standards of Identity regulations, which are essentially truth-in-labeling rules, and international trade agreements serve different purposes, bind different entities, and don't lend themselves to a literal, out-of-context reading. You have to consider how those different writings are used and to whom they apply. I have explained my understanding of it as best I can.

Chuck Cowdery said...

I've spend some more time looking into this and, contrary to the post above, Tennessee whiskey isn't any whiskey made in Tennessee. The whiskey must meet all of the requirements for straight bourbon whiskey and be made in Tennessee to qualify.

It does not, however, have to be filtered through charcoal.

This is a back-door way into U.S. law, since it still isn't in the TTB Standards of Identity.


Wow, I never thought I'd see anyone making sense about this issue. But in his post and his comments, Chuck has done so. Quite a feat.

Anonymous said...

@ Commie Buddha,

Actually, he hasn't. If you read the post and the comments, Chunk wants it both ways: Tennessee whiskey is bourbon, but it's also not bourbon. the Lincoln County process matters, but it doesn't matter.

As usual, his thinking is muddled and he is just trying to stir up a tempest in a teapot.

Brother Juniper said...

Tempest in a Glencairn, you mean.

Lee said...

Sorry if this has been addressed, but couldn't the place of origin regulations be construed to limit "Bourbon" to Bourbon County?

Chuck Cowdery said...

I'd say no because 'Bourbon' isn't obviously or exclusively a place name. Certainly more people are aware of 'bourbon whiskey' than are aware that 'Bourbon county' even exists.

Jason said...

The charcoal-mellowing process absolutely adds flavor. It's discussed in this article from the NYT...

Furthermore, your comments don't illustrate the fact that Gentleman Jack is filtered twice...once before AND AFTER the aging process (before bottling). The charcoal absolutely adds flavor. There's a peppery, yet sweetness that is clearly absent in any other bourbon on the market. Well, save for Dickel but even theirs isn't the same.

Edward Brumby said...

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.

Anonymous said...

Exactly, it lets them stand out in a crowded field of brown spirits.