(Continued from “The Stateside Spirit III” on 25 January 2019)
Tennessee whiskey is, in a nutshell, a regional style of Bourbon whiskey. Tennessee whiskey is subject to all the criteria and requirements essential to Bourbon whiskey, plus the idiosyncratic Lincoln County Process, which applies to all but one distillery. This apart, the only other noticeable difference between Tennessee whiskey and Bourbon whiskey is that the former tends to have a lower percentage of rye in its mash bill, hence even smoother than the latter.
Pioneered by Jack Daniel’s at a time when the Lincoln County was indeed its home, the namesake Lincoln County Process sees new make spirit being filtered through – indeed steeped in – more than 10 feet of sugar maple charcoal prior to barrel maturation. This not only removes impurities from the new make spirit, making it smoother, but also imparts the sugar maple’s distinctive flavour on the new make spirit, making it sweeter.
Despite the ubiquity of Jack Daniel’s, which outsells any other American whiskey, Tennessee whiskey is very much a niche variant of Bourbon whiskey, rather than a realm unto itself in the mould Speyside v Highland. The Great State of Tennessee is roughly as large as its northern neighbour, the Great Commonwealth of Kentucky, but almost 50% more populous. Tennessee has no shortage of forests, providing a seemingly inexhaustible source of wood, which is then made into barrels and charcoal.
Due to historical reasons, Tennessee has significantly fewer distilleries than Kentucky. Years before the Prohibition, the temperance movement had already driven out most distilleries from Tennessee; post-
Prohibition, Tennessee’s whiskey industry seems to have recovered much less than its counterpart in Kentucky, and a number of statewide prohibition laws even survived the nationwide Prohibition. For many decades, only three – Coffee, Lincoln and Moore – out of Tennessee’s 95 counties legally remained “wet”, meaning that the vast majority of counties went “dry”.
It was not until 2009 that 41 counties had their “dry” ban removed, thereby kick-starting a 21st century renaissance of Tennessee whiskey, with various independent distilleries popping up across the state. In a good way, Tennessee whiskey is as American in taste as it gets: it is as affable as country music, and as easy-going as a Hollywood comedy.
To summarise this mini-series, there are a few counterintuitive facts about American whiskeys:
Kentucky and Tennessee are the key whiskey-producing states, but they are not the first to produce whiskey in America;
The status of corn in American whiskey is equivalent to that of malted barley in scotch whisky, but the earliest American whiskeys were not made from corn;
Despite its name, Bourbon County produces very little Bourbon whiskey, which can be produced outside of Kentucky, whereas whether Tennessee whiskey can be produced outside of the state is subject to debate;
Benjamin Prichard’s is the only distillery in Lincoln County, and yet it is the only Tennessee whiskey which can opt out of the Lincoln County Process.
To be continued one day…
Matured in charred virgin white oak barrels and mellowed by maple charcoal, this is the archetypal Tennessee whiskey. Rich mahogany with shimmering vermillion reflex, the pungent nose offers raisin, crushed leaves, corn syrup and woodsmoke. With a smooth mouthfeel, the lively palate delivers plum kernel, white pepper, chocolate orange and burnt sugar. Medium-full bodied at 40%, the sweet entry carries onto a smoky mid-palate, leading to a gutsy finish.
Matured in charred virgin white oak barrels and double mellowed by maple charcoal, this is a refined version of the forthright Old No. 7. Luminous amber with bright copper reflex, the aromatic nose presents aniseed, banana split, meringue and caramel. With a silky mouthfeel, the rounded palate furnishes liquorice, maple biscuit, apricot tart and caffè macchiato. Medium-full bodied at 40%, the suave entry continues through a spicy mid-palate, leading to a satisfying finish.
Matured in charred virgin white oak barrels, finished in maple barrels and double-mellowed by maple charcoal, this is Tennessee’s – indeed America’s – answer to sherried Speysiders. Saturated golden with shimmering jonquil reflex, the exuberant nose radiates dried figs, macadamia, banana pudding and marzipan. With a buttery mouthfeel, the luxuriant palate oozes golden raisins, almond, maple cake and fudge. Full-bodied at 40%, the irresistible entry persists through an ingratiating mid-palate, leading to a moreish finish.
Jacky I.F. Cheong is a legal professional by day and columnist by night. Having spent his formative years in Britain, France, and Germany, he regularly writes about wine, fine arts, classical music, and politics in several languages