Tennessee Whisky: Don't Mess With Tradition

22 January, 2015

Distillers in Tennessee are whipping up a storm as they continue to debate the definition of their whiskey. Dominic Roskrow reports

For an industry where the status quo is a cause for celebration and words such as ‘modernity’ and ‘evolution’ are akin to cussing, Tennessee whiskey is sure kicking up a sandstorm right now.

Down in Tennessee they like you to think life is best savoured in second gear. This is good ol’ boy territory, a land of quaint customs and good old-fashioned politeness. It’s a place where the god-fearing folk don’t care too much for progress and prefer to cling to the traditional way of doing things. 

And the sedentary style of living extends to the state’s whiskey producers. No matter that Jack Daniel’s is a massive business with five bottling plants and more than a million casks maturing in its warehouses: they like you to see the statue of Mr Jack and the old safe which indirectly caused his death. And George Dickel might be a southern outpost for drinks giant Diageo, but you’re more likely to be told about the distillery’s wild turkeys than how many millions of gallons of spirit it is capable of producing.

For generations life was pretty simple down this way. Two distilleries making a similar style of Tennessee whiskey, one of them among the most famous on the planet. But that veneer of peace and tranquility is being torn apart not by one tornado, but two. 

At the heart of both issues is the definition of Tennessee whiskey. Until a few years ago it wasn’t really an issue, because George Dickel and Jack Daniel’s produced their whiskey pretty much the same way, and the method they used effectively defined the category. Tennessee is, then, a style of whiskey very similar to bourbon, made with a mix of grains but predominantly corn or maize, and matured in virgin oak barrels.

But there are two important differences between Tennessee whiskey and bourbon. The first is that Tennessee whiskey obviously has to be made in Tennessee. Bourbon can be, and is, produced across the United States, including in Tennessee. The second difference is known as the Lincoln County process, and entails pouring newly distilled whiskey spirit through a wall of charcoal made from freshly burnt maple wood.

But the consensus was shattered when the American craft distilling revolution got under way. Suddenly Tennessee had several new distillers making a range of different whiskey styles. These, it has been argued, are whiskies from Tennessee but not Tennessee whiskies. 

The new distillers are split about the definition that was considered by the state legislature. Many feel that it is too close to the Jack Daniel’s recipe, making it all but impossible to make whiskey different enough to find a niche market of its own.

But many of the new producers support this view. Andy Nelson, co-proprietor of Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery in Nashville, says that his distillery produces a Tennessee whiskey and a separate bourbon. 

“We think Tennessee whiskey is a very specific style of whiskey, and of course being made in Tennessee is a major part of that definition,” he says. “Our view on the legislative issue is that the current definition of ‘Tennessee whiskey’ should remain as-is. Two of the main aspects of Tennessee whiskey are the Lincoln County process [filtering through charcoal] and ageing in unused, charred oak barrels. 

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