Friday, May 26, 2017

A Tennessee Whiskey History Lesson

In the beginning, there were hundreds of small, farm-based distillers in the land that became Tennessee in 1796 (four years after Kentucky statehood). If they made whiskey, it was 'Tennessee whiskey,' because it was whiskey and it was made in Tennessee.

As whiskey-making matured into a real industry after the Civil War, major producers emerged there as they did in Kentucky and elsewhere. The distillery established by Jack Daniel was one of them. Another was Cascade Hollow, which was sold by a Nashville merchant named George Dickel. Another large Nashville merchant, Charles Nelson, owned a distillery in Greenbrier, Tennessee.

They all called their products Tennessee whiskey because they were proud of their home state and because bourbon seemed like a Kentucky thing, although it was also made in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and other places. Nobody was particularly concerned about definitions and the Federal 'Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits' didn't exist. By the end of the century, producers and politicians were still arguing about the definition of 'whiskey.' They weren't yet concerned about whiskey types.

Statewide prohibition of alcohol came early to Tennessee (1907) and stayed late (1938). Of the major pre-Prohibition distillers in Tennessee, only Jack Daniel's came back in a big way. Cascade Hollow Tennessee Whiskey became Cascade Hollow Bourbon, made at the distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky, now known as Buffalo Trace. Nelson's Green Brier Distillery would not be revived until the 21st century.

So as the industry developed after Repeal, only one brand represented Tennessee: Jack Daniel's. The legend of the 'Lincoln County Process,' the filtering of new make spirit through sugar maple charcoal, was promoted as the brand's primary point-of-difference. And Jack Daniel's became pretty successful, so successful that by the mid-1950s, the Motlow family could no longer afford the capital required to keep the brand growing. They decided to sell, but they wanted to sell it to someone who would allow the family to keep running it and keep things in Lynchburg more or less unchanged.

One of the bidders was Schenley, by then one of the 'Big Four' companies that dominated the distilled spirits business. Schenley's owner, Lewis Rosenstiel, went after Jack Daniel's hard. Another bidder was Brown-Forman, a much smaller company. Although Schenley offered more money, the Motlows chose Brown-Forman because it was family-controlled and because they had not enjoyed their previous dealings with Rosenstiel.

In retaliation, Rosenstiel decided to repatriate Cascade to Tennessee, building a new distillery there, and calling it George Dickel Tennessee Whiskey. The first batch went on sale in 1964. It used a similar, though not identical, charcoal filtering process, because imitating and eventually beating Jack Daniel's was the whole point of the exercise.

The intention was to compete head-to-head, but although the Dickel brand was successful, it never got close to beating Daniel's. Today, Jack outsells George about 100 to 1. For all intents and purposes, Jack Daniel's is Tennessee whiskey. Jack Daniel's always has maintained that while it adheres to the legal standards for bourbon, it is different (better?) because of the 'Lincoln County Process.'

In recent years, micro-distilleries have begun to appear in Tennessee, as they have in the rest of the country. Because there was nothing to prevent them from doing so, some of these new, small producers decided to make and sell 'Tennessee whiskey' that didn't use the 'Lincoln County Process,' reasoning that it being whiskey made in Tennessee was sufficient.

The folks at Jack Daniel's, naturally, decided this was bad for the 'Tennessee whiskey' brand and, of course, they had the most to lose if that 'brand' became diluted or meaningless. So they proposed a law to the Tennessee legislature, which passed in 2013. The law defined 'Tennessee whiskey' using the legal requirements for bourbon with two additions: (1) the whiskey had to be made and aged in Tennessee and (2) it had to be filtered through maple charcoal.

Leading up to the new law's passage, Jack Daniel's folks conferred with all of the new Tennessee distillers, most of whom saw the benefit of preserving the traditional meaning of Tennessee whiskey. Most of them supported the law. After the fact, Diageo (successor company to Schenley) tried to get the law repealed or changed for fairly nefarious reasons of their own. They failed.

Many people incorrectly assume that Jack Daniel's is not called 'bourbon' because it cannot be for some reason. They will solemnly explain to you why it cannot be called bourbon. They are wrong. The sole reason Jack Daniel's is not called bourbon is because its owners, from Jack himself, through the Motlows, and since 1956 Brown-Forman, prefer to call it Tennessee whiskey.

So now you know the truth, but if some blowhard in a bar wants to fight you about it, don't bother. It's not worth the trouble.


Anonymous said...

I agree with your comments in the last two paragraphs, but not sure all of our friends over on the SB forum would concur.

Chuck Cowdery said...

Like I said, fighting about it is not worth the trouble.

Reel CWizzle said...

I find myself in these weird conversations with Scotch & Bourbon snobs that feel like they are too good to be classified with TN Whiskey. For whatever reason they hate the idea of being whiskey siblings with us.

Carlton said...

I have noticed the same phenomenon. That just leaves more Jack Daniel's Single Barrel and George Dickel Barrel Select/No.12 for the rest of us. I enjoy all types of whiskey, but a good Tennessee Whiskey is one of my favorites.

Eric Wilson said...

Spot on Chuck, from a Tennessean.

Punter said...

"Reel CWizzle said...
I find myself in these weird conversations with Scotch & Bourbon snobs that feel like they are too good to be classified with TN Whiskey. For whatever reason they hate the idea of being whiskey siblings with us"

If that bothers you at all, just remind yourself that, every day, year after year, they have to face the fact that the best-selling American whiskey in the world is NOT a bourbon. And Scotch is bigger solely due to blends, which we shall not discuss further. So let them be snobs; all just a coping strategy :)

greggbc said...

It's the Filtering through Maple charcoal that ruins what otherwise might be perfectly good Bourbon.

Billy said...

Hey Chuck, just what is the charcoal filtering differences between GD and JD? I remember in the GD tour seeing the sugar maple filtering prior to barreling which I believe is the same at JD.

Chuck Cowdery said...

The charcoal beds at JD are about 10 feet thick. They are about 3 feet at GD. GD also includes a thick wool blanket as part of the filtering material. Both filter before barreling.

Brian (AKA The Dean) said...

"Daniel’s drips its new make whiskey into 10-foot deep vats of maple charcoal, allowing it to slowly filter through for collection at the bottom and drainage. By contrast, Dickel chills their new make to 40 F (4.4 C) before filling 13-foot deep vats with it. The whiskey sits in the vat with the charcoal for a week before it is drained out."

The charcoal used by Jack Daniel's is created on site, from stacks of two by two inch sugar maple timbers called "ricks". They are primed with 140 proof Jack Daniel's, and then ignited under massive hoods that help prevent sparks. Once they have reached the char state, the ricks are sprayed with water to prevent complete combustion. The resulting charcoal is then run through a grinder to reduce it to consistent bean-size pellets. These are then packed into 10-foot (3.0 m) vats, where they are used to filter impurities from the 140 proof whiskey, after which the whiskey is reduced with water to 125 proof for aging.

The George Dickel distillery uses deeper (13 foot) vats and distills only to 135 proof. Dickel also chills its whisky to 40 degrees F (5 °C) before it enters the vats, and allows the whiskey to fill the vats[1] instead of just trickling it through.

I hope this sufficiently rebuts the argument made by one poster (in another thread), that the charcoal for the Lincoln Process is burned in a kiln.

The comment asserting filtering simply ruins bourbon, is really not worth dignifying. (But I sorta guess I just did it. Damn!)

Billy said...

Thanks for the replys Chuck and Brian. Brian, I have heard that argument before about Tennessee Whiskey and filtering and the resulting loss of flavor, probably from Kentucky Bourbon drinkers, but it does make sense in light of GD chilling their juice prior to charcoal filtering and filtering through a material. Is this not like chill filtering in Kentucky Bourbon which many claim take away flavor in terms of (fusal oils)? Does this mean JD has more flavor than GD?

Mr. Sausage said...

The Lincoln County process giveth and...

I'm not interested in an 80 proof JD, Dickel #8 nor the Gentleman. I do enjoy the GD #12, though. A bit thin on the palate but there's a lot going on in the nose. That week long maceration with the charcoal really adds some lovely dark notes but sure, it strips the body.
More often than not, I go full fat Kentucky but I do support my neighbors nearby in Tullahoma. A handle of the #12 is $30 around here. You won't find a whisky with a better nose at that price.