Saturday, February 21, 2009

Tennessee Whiskey Versus Bourbon Whiskey.

Since I'm apparently in a debunking mood...

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.

I recently revisited the whiskey/whisky thing here and here.

Similarly, 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 the aging process. Many bourbon makers say it removes too much flavor, but that is inside baseball. It is fair to debate that point, but it is still a very small difference. Tennessee Whiskey is very much 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.

It is also similar to the whiskey/whisky delineation because it 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. I say you're welcome to pick one and stick with it. Likewise, "bourbon whiskey" versus "Tennessee whiskey" is a distinction without a difference.

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 sort of rumors, usually about Daniel's and almost always false, based on the fact that the 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."

Conecuh Ridge, by the way, is careful not to use the term "Alabama whiskey," even though it is Alabama's official state spirit. That's because it is made in Kentucky.


Josh 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.

Josh 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.

mwilli7119 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?

mwilli7119 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.