As most of you Louisvillians know by now, all bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon. So what makes bourbon different than all the other whiskey classifications? Why do some brands spell whiskey with an “ey” and others just a “y”? How the hell can bourbon even be semi-related to the horrid scotch? And is Tennessee Whiskey technically bourbon?
In honor of National Bourbon Heritage Month, I’ve gone to school to learn more about all styles of whiskey — bourbon, scotch, Irish Whiskey, Canadian Whisky and Tennessee Whiskey — so you don’t have to. And throughout this month, I’ll present the facts and methods of each style.
Why? Because the more we know about our competition, the more informed we’ll be when debating the merits of bourbon with a drunken Canuck on our next trip to Bora Bora. Also, learning about booze is fun, and it has gotten me access to some of the top whiskey distillers all over the world. And free samples.
I’d like to thank Brown-Forman and Moonshine University for providing me answers to all the dumb questions that popped in my head and also setting me up with all the experts in the field. It just so happens that Brown-Forman owns a whiskey in each of the above classifications, so I was able to connect with the men and women who represent each brand.
What is bourbon?
Consider this a crash course in Bourbon 101, because I’m assuming you all know most of this. But just in case, a recap. According to Title 27 of the Code of Federal Regulations, which was acknowledged by Congress in 1964, there are five important rules that bourbon must abide by:
- It must be made in the United States (yes, other states can make bourbon, but they don’t do it as well as we do).
- It must be made from at least 51 percent corn.
- It must be distilled no higher than 160 proof.
- It must not be put into a barrel higher than 125 proof.
- It must be put into a new, charred oak container.
There are no regulations on aging, but most distilleries let their juice sit at least four years. In order for a label to say “Straight Bourbon,” it must be aged for a minimum of two years, and if it’s less than four years, it must have an age statement printed on there as well.
Personally, I believe the sweet spot for bourbon is four to 12 years, but there are always exceptions, and I’ll try anything twice.
While 51 percent of the recipe must be corn, the rest is usually made with malted barley and rye or wheat.
Each of the four types of whiskey I’ll be covering has its own rules and production methods, and I’ll point those out as we go along, noting when they differ from bourbon. Still curious about the “ey” and “y” spellings? Let’s go ahead and get that out of the way.
According to my Stave & Thief Society textbook (Stave & Thief is a class you can take at Moonshine University to become a certified Bourbon Steward), if the country of origin has an “e” in its name — United States, Ireland — then it’s spelled “whiskey.” But if there’s not an “e” — Scotland, Canada, Japan — it’s spelled “whisky.”
Of course there are exceptions to that rule — like Maker’s Mark Bourbon Whisky and Old Forester Bourbon Whisky — because those brands wanted to pay homage to their Scottish heritage, or just confuse everyone.
Why should we give a Jack about Tennessee Whiskey?
For this chapter of your studies, boys and girls, I consulted the master distiller of Jack Daniel’s, Jeff Arnett, and the director of spirits education at Moonshine University, Colin Blake. (Blake actually weighed in on all the whiskey categories, so get used to seeing his name. He’s a cool dude.)
If you’re anything like me — and let’s hope you’re not — Tennessee Whiskey, especially Jack, conjures queasy college memories of too many birthday shots. Before I talked with Arnett, I was afraid of Jack. I mean, Ke$ha brushes her teeth with the stuff — or, at least, used to before rehab.
In my mind, it’s what sad and lonely country singers turn to after a breakup or the death of their dog.
And a couple months ago when the Tennessee Whiskey Trail made its debut and fired pot-shots at bourbon, it made my blood boil. But after a few sips of Kentucky bourbon, I settled down and decided to learn more about this Tennessee bourbon that refuses to be called bourbon.
“The only thing that makes Tennessee Whiskey different than bourbon is the charcoal mellowing process,” said Jack master distiller Arnett. “Right after we distill, before we put it into a barrel to mature it, we’re going to pass it through sugar-maple charcoal.”
Technically, nothing can be added to bourbon other than water at any point in the process. So does this charcoal mellowing step — also known as the Lincoln County Process — mean that it’s definitely not bourbon?
Not exactly, explained Blake.
“That whole process is not additive, it’s subtractive. It’s a filtering process,” he said. “That char is activated charcoal — the same stuff that’s in your Brita Water Filter. It’s actually pulling things out.”
After walking through a formal tasting with Arnett, I was surprised to find Jack Daniel’s so mellow and sippable.
He explained that the rye content in Tennessee Whiskey is much lower than in bourbon, and most Volunteer State distillers use more corn than we do. More corn and less rye will yield a much smoother product.
If you’re curious, Jack uses 80 percent corn, 12 percent malted barley and 8 percent rye.
Also, Tennessee is just now catching up — or trying to catch up — to Kentucky. Prohibition began in the state 10 years before it did everywhere else, and even after that awful time ended in 1933, most Tennessee counties were dry. Only Jack Daniel’s and George Dickel were allowed to produce whiskey for decades.
Finally, in 2009, the Tennessee General Assembly amended an outdated law allowing only three counties to make whiskey, and now there are at least 44 of the 95 that are permitted — so new whiskey distilleries are springing up as we speak, hence the formation of the Tennessee Whiskey Trail.
The state government also put together formal legislation in 2013 to define what Tennessee Whiskey is, and employing the Lincoln County Process is part of the rules.
“Jack did not invent the Lincoln County Process, but we believe we have perfected the process. We’ve worked longer with it continiously than any other distillery,” said Arnett. “I think the more you clarify what a product is and the more you define the process by which it’s made, for someone who is a connoisseur, that makes a difference in how they value the product.”
I’m now curious to try Gentleman Jack and the Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel Collection to sniff out similarities and differences between my beloved Kentucky bourbon and Tennessee bourb— I mean whiskey.
Blake gets the final word: “The flavor profile between the two is fairly similar. It could legally be bourbon, but Tennessee wants to do their own thing.”
This is Part 1 of a series. The others will be linked below as they are published.