When we think of traditional whiskey, we tend to think of whisky, without the ‘e’. However, there are traditional American whiskeys (yes, notice that extra letter) as well. In fact, whiskey in the United States traditionally comes from one of two schools: Tennessee whiskey and Kentucky bourbon whiskey. While many people are familiar with bourbon, few understand the process and the traditions behind Tennessee whiskey.
Kentucky Whiskey with…. Extra Charcoal?
In many ways, Tennessee whiskey is similar to Kentucky bourbon. It has similar regulation regarding maturation, distillation and barrels. Like bourbon, Tennessee whiskey must be at least half corn and and aged at least two years in charred barrels made from new American oak. Like bourbon, it must be 40% ABV or more. In fact, it is virtually identical to bourbon except for in one key step: charcoal filtering.
Charcoal filtering of Tennessee whiskey is also known as the “Lincoln County Process.” This involves the newly distilled spirit being filtered slowly through charcoal made from sugar maple in order to mellow and deepen the flavor. Kentucky distillate, on the other hand, is put directly in the cask.
What a Difference Charcoal Makes!
Can filtering through charcoal really make a meaningful difference? Makers of Tennessee whiskey believe that it does! According to makers of the whiskey and fans, the charcoal filtering gives a dry and smooth character to the whiskey while allowing vanilla, caramel and other flavors from the wood to take a larger place in the flavor profile. It also likely removes impurities, as charcoal is commonly used in industrial processes for this purpose.
A Dying Art?
While Tennessee whiskey was once one of the most popular spirits in the United States, there are now just two companies distilling this liquor, Jack Daniel’s and George Dickel. Jack Daniel’s makes four different Tennessee whiskeys, from entry level Green Label to Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel, which is the only Tennessee single barrel whiskey on the market. There are also the well-known Black label, which is an American favorite, and the premium Gentleman Jack, put through the charcoal filtering process teo separate times.
George Dickel is a lesser known Tennessee whiskey maker with a large and dedicated following nonetheless. This company’s products have more vanilla and caramel tastes than Jack Daniels, but a less robust flavor. There are three different whiskeys produced by this brand, the Dickel #8 (80 proof), the Dickel #12 (90 proof) and the Dickel Barrel Select, which is made in small batches of ten barrels.
Does the lack of distillers indicate that this is a dying art indeed? It should be noted that both of these distilleries create and sell a massive amount of product. While there is little diversity in the Tennessee whiskey industry, much of this may be due to the tiny size and rural nature of the state. The product remains popular throughout the world, and the unique, local process is being used to this day. It would appear that Tennessee whiskey distilling is a thriving business, which is good news for millions of fans of this product.