Tennessee whiskey is one of the great American classic spirits. Under NAFTA, Tennessee whiskey is legally defined as “a straight Bourbon Whiskey authorized to be produced only in the State of Tennessee”. Only one of the three current producers of Tennessee whiskey refer to its product as “bourbon”; the other two do not. However, Tennessee whiskey must follow the same guidelines as bourbon when it comes to matters of age, distillation, and barrel aging.
Tennessee Whiskey Regulations
Today, there are strict regulations regarding the production of Tennessee whiskey. According to the Standards of Identity, the FDA guidelines for defining food and drink, whiskey must be distilled from grain mash produced at less than 190 proof, must be bottled at no less than 80 proof, and must exhibit characteristics of having been stored in oak containers. Additionally, in order to be classified as Tennessee whiskey, a spirit must be made from at least 51% corn and must be produced in the state of Tennessee.
Tennessee Whiskey Production
The process of producing Tennessee whiskey is a fairly involved one. Tennessee whiskey begins with a mash comprised of corn, rye, and barley. The grains are ground, cooked, and then cooled in mash tubs. Spent beer, a portion of the fermented mash leftover from a prior distillation, is then added to sour the mash and to maintain consistency between batches. At this point, the mash goes into a fermentation vat along with yeast to convert the sugars into alcohol. After three or four days, the mash contains roughly 6 percent alcohol and is known as “distiller’s beer”. The distiller’s beer is then actually distilled twice to separate the alcohol from the water and the grain. This is the stage where some Tennessee whiskeys diverge from one another.
Some will argue that, to be classified as Tennessee whiskey, the whiskey must go through what is known as the Lincoln County Process. In this process, named after Lincoln County, Tennessee where it originated, the alcohol is filtered through a thick layer of maple charcoal before being aged in oak barrels. The rationale for the process is that it gives the resulting whiskey a distinctive flavor profile highlighting notes of vanilla and caramel. Jack Daniel’s, whose original distillery was located in Lincoln County, Tennessee, still uses this process to produce its Tennessee whiskey. George Dickel, another of the three Tennessee whiskey producers still in business, also uses the Lincoln County process, while the third Tennessee whiskey producer, Benjamin Prichard’s, does not.
Tennessee Whiskey Aging
The final step in the production of Tennessee whiskey is the aging. Tennessee whiskey is aged in charred oak barrels; the charring caramelizes the wood sugars and helps give Tennessee whiskey its distinctive flavor. Depending on the brand and label, the Tennessee whiskey is then aged for several years. As recently as 2009, future Tennessee whiskey production was expected to begin to increase. A revised state law now allows distilleries to be established in 45 of Tennessee’s 95 counties, as opposed to just three.