You would think that the words ‘Tennessee Whiskey’ would be pretty self-explanatory right? It’s obviously just Whiskey made in Tennessee… maybe it’s not quite so simple. I was recently asked to present a seminar on American Whiskey at Imbibe Live to a crowd of bartenders and industry experts. It’s a subject I know fairly well from my day job as Brand Ambassador for Four Roses Bourbon, (and a keen imbiber of all types of American Whiskies), so I was confident in terms of subject matter. I thought the research would be brief and that I pretty much knew the story I wanted to tell about how American Whiskey styles have changed over the years, but information that I have discovered since has made me think that maybe I was just a little too cocky!
For the Imbibe seminar I drafted in the help of fellow alcohol geek Stuart Hudson, and between us we came up with the order in which we would tell the whiskey story, deciding to start with Rye Whiskey, as in all likelihood rye would have been the earliest base ingredient for making Whiskey in the US. We thought we’d follow up with Corn Whiskies and moonshines, as they most likely emerged once colonists moved south into the warmer southern states, where corn grows more plentifully; then on to Bourbon as it’s something of a hybrid of Corn and Rye Whiskies. Lastly we wanted to talk about Tennessee Whiskey and what makes it different from Bourbon… and that’s where we ran into a small problem.
For years’ distillers, brand reps and even us brand ambassadors have been telling bartenders that Bourbon and Tennessee Whiskies are two separate spirits. I’ve been told by several people, who I would generally consider experts on the topic, that they’re even subject to different rules and regulations. Given the reasoning behind the argument that they’re different styles of Whiskey, for a long time I took this at face value, but last year when I looked into things more closely for this article about Bourbon, I found that legally Bourbon and Tennessee Whiskey are subject to the same rules and regulations.
I’ll admit that even knowing this I thought that it was really a case of Tennessee Whiskey lacking a proper definition, rather than it being the same as Bourbon. I mean come on, there’s a complex process involved in one style that isn’t used in the other, so surely they must be different products right?
When two geeks end up stuck for a definitive answer to that question you know there’s something not right, but maybe at long last the situation is going to be clarified…
It makes sense to start with the current state of play in the argument about Tennessee Whiskey and Bourbon and their differences. There are two ways of looking at this debate I suppose; firstly you can look at the legal definition of Bourbon and any legislation that refers to Tennessee Whiskey, and see if the two match up. After all, if Tennessee Whiskey follows the rules of Bourbon production, and there’s no legal description of the product that differentiates it, then it must be Bourbon right?
Sticking with this premise for the moment, let’s look at what legal framework there is for considering what Tennessee Whiskey is. The first problem that you run into is that the references to Tennessee Whiskey and Bourbon in legal documents in the US are few and far between, and are governed by different departments who don’t seem to talk to one another. There’s no separate definition for Tennessee Whiskey in The Federal Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits (27 C.F.R. 5.22), in fact there’s no reference to it at all in that document.
Digging a little deeper there appears to only be two references to Tennessee Whiskey in US legal documents (that I’ve been able to find anyway) and both of those are in trade agreements with other countries. Both documents are fundamentally the same, in fact I’d hazard a guess that the trade agreement with Chile was taken word for word from the N.A.F.T.A document, only with Mexico and Canada removed and Chile put in instead, but I digress.
N.A.F.T.A or the North American Free Trade Agreement, to give it it
’s full name, is the trading agreement between Mexico, the US and Canada, and within it there are descriptions of several products unique to each nation. Bourbon is protected as a product that can only come from the US, and a description is given. Tennessee Whiskey is also covered off, but with only this description:
“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.”
So there we have it… an end to the discussion right? Tennessee Whiskey is Straight Bourbon Whiskey produced only in the state of Tennessee! Or maybe not…
Legal definitions are one thing, and while they’re useful to a certain extent, they sometimes have too many grey areas in them. If we look away from the legal documentation
, and listen to the argument that has been put forward over the years by both Bourbon and Tennessee Whiskey producers, we see a different view. Pretend you haven’t read the above description of Tennessee Whiskey and look at the traditions of the two styles of Whiskey instead.
Tennessee Whiskey traditionally employs a process of charcoal mellowing, known as the Lincoln County Process. This involves allowing the un-aged Whiskey to pass through a significant layer of charred Sugar Maple, after distillation and before it goes into the barrel to age. This mellowing process filters out a lot of the impurities from the spirit, softening it and making it smoother. It also softens the flavour making a more subtle Whiskey, which allows the influence of the wood from the barrel aging to come through more than with other Whiskies.
This Lincoln County Process has been employed for generations
, and is a tradition strongly associated with Tennessee. While many argue that changing the flavour profile of the base spirit contravenes Bourbon regulations, it actually doesn’t, as US law says that nothing may be added that will change the colour or flavour of Bourbon. As this is a filtration process it would remove impurities as opposed to adding any flavour or colour.
If this were, for example, happening in France, then Tennessee Whiskey would be granted and A.O.C.(appellation d'origine controlee) protecting where the product was first invented and its unique production processes that have been employed for generations. Unfortunately no such protection has ever been granted to Tennessee Whiskey, despite the efforts of Lem Motlow who inherited the distillery from Jasper ‘Jack’ Daniel, and who petitioned the US government to have Tennessee Whiskey recognized as a distinct and unique style of Whiskey.
In the early 1940s the Treasury Department questioned the labeling of Jack Daniel’s as Tennessee Whiskey, and Motlow petitioned them to have Tennessee Whiskey acknowledged as a different style of Whiskey from Bourbon or Rye, which both had their own classifications. In a letter that can still be seen on display at the Jack Daniel’s distillery, the Treasury Department responded:
“The Bureau Laboratory has analyzed the samples submitted and has given careful consideration to the description of your manufacturing process. In view of the nature of the process and the results of analyses, it has neither the characteristics of bourbon or rye whiskey but rather is a distinctive product which may be labeled whiskey.”
So there you have it in black and white, Tennessee Whiskey is not Bourbon…
But hold on just a second, doesn’t NAFTA say that Tennessee Whiskey is ‘straight Bourbon Whiskey produced in the state of Tennessee’? You see the problem here don’t you?
There’s no doubt that Tennessee Whiskey, produced using the Lincoln County Process, (or similar methods of charcoal mellowing), is a different product from Bourbon. The distillers of both products agree on this, the Treasury Department agrees on this, and most people drinking them do to, and yet the current definition says that they’re the same thing.
It’s easy to think that none of this matters in the slightest, and in fact only complete geeks would even be interested in this level of detail, but actually it’s becoming more and more important. You see the last few years have seen a huge change in the American Whiskey category, with small distilleries opening all over the US, producing different styles of Whiskies. Some are completely new styles, but many use traditional production methods. If there’s no clear definition of what defines the styles of Whiskey then the lines get blurred and traditions and production methods get lost or altered forever.
In the case of the tradition of using a charcoal mellowing process to make Tennessee Whiskies, wouldn’t it be better to protect it, define it, regulate it and have it clearly understood? I mean what would happen for example if someone pushed the issue and took Jack Daniel’s to court to have them cease describing themselves as Tennessee Whiskey based on the fact that there’s proof that they’re not a Bourbon, and yet by law, to be labeled a Tennessee Whiskey they currently have to be Bourbon made in Tennessee? I know it’s a hypothetical, but the fact that there’s room enough to even think that it might be possible to take the word Tennessee off of the label of JD is wrong.
That’s how things stood as far as Stuart and I could tell, until a couple of days ago when Craig Harper (do you need to say who he is?) brought a proposed amendment to my attention. It looks like there is some legislature being put in place that will finally grant a legal definition to Tennessee Whiskey, as a distinctive product. It won’t prohibit other people using the same production methods in other states, but at least the name Tennessee Whiskey will finally have a real meaning.
The bebate may be over at as long last there appears to be a change in the wind, and the US government is finally going to recognise Tennessee Whiskey as a unique product, or at least put some guidelines in place defining what it is and how it must be produced. According to the report a bill is in place (it should have gone live as of July 1st but I have been unable to confirm this) to cover the production rules for anything labeled as Tennessee Whisky.
Those guidelines include all of the standard rules for bourbon production, but stipulating that it must be produced and aged in Tennessee and with the addition of one important line:
(a) An intoxicating liquor may not be advertised, described, labeled, named, sold or referred to for marketing or sales purposes as “Tennessee Whiskey”, “Tennessee Whisky”, “Tennessee Sour Mash Whiskey” or “Tennessee Sour Mash Whisky” unless the intoxicating liquor is:
(1) Manufactured in Tennessee;
(2) Made of a grain mixture that is at least fifty-one percent (51%) corn;
(3) Distilled to no more than 160 proof or eighty percent (80%) alcohol by
(4) Aged in new, charred oak barrels in Tennessee;
(5) Filtered through maple charcoal prior to aging;
(6) Placed in the barrel at no more than 125 proof or sixty-two and one-
half percent (62.5 %) alcohol by volume; and
(7) Bottled at not less than 80 proof or forty percent (40%) alcohol by volume
So it looks like the argument is finally resolved, and after spending the last year telling people that due to a lack of legislation, Tennessee Whiskey is, at least from a legal point of view, Bourbon made in Tennessee, I will have to go back to my original point of view. Tennessee Whiskey and Bourbon are cousins; they share some of the same DNA but have their own distinct differences too.
Of Course there’s nothing stopping a distiller in another state from using the same production methods for their Whiskey, but that’s a whole different kettle of fish. In the meantime I’ll raise a glass of maple charcoal filtered Tennessee Whiskey and celebrate those differences that make two of my favourite Whiskies so good!