If you should swagger into a bar in Nashville and, like Greta Garbo in “Anna Christie”, bark, “Gimme a viskee...ginger ale on der side,” you’re probably going to get served Jack Daniel’s or George Dickel. But if you sip it and then say, “Damn fine bourbon,” you may just get thrown out.
Tennesseans take justifiable pride in their namesake whiskey, which, they will remind you, is not the same as bourbon, a drink made mainly in neighboring Kentucky.
The North American Free Trade Agreement defines Tennessee whiskey as a “straight bourbon whiskey produced in the state of Tennessee.”
You won’t find the word bourbon printed anywhere on the labels of the four distilleries that make Tennessee whiskey: Jack Daniel’s, George Dickel, Prichard’s, and Collier and McKeel, which is sold only within the state.
The distinctions made by NAFTA may seem slight: bourbon must be distilled from a mash of 51 percent corn and aged in charred oak barrels for a minimum of two years; Tennessee whiskeys are made much the same way, but not necessarily aged in charred oak.
Jack Daniel’s and Dickel also filter their whiskeys through sugar-maple charcoal before aging -- called the Lincoln County process -- which is said to impart a smooth sweetness to the liquor.
Of course, in practice, the distinctions aren’t so simple. “When it comes out of the still, it’s Tennessee whiskey if it’s made in Tennessee,” says Phil Prichard of Prichard’s Distillery in Kelso, part of Lincoln County, Tennessee.
Prichard also makes a single-malt whiskey, a 95-proof Double Barreled Bourbon, a Sweet Lucy Bourbon Liqueur, and a 90-proof Lincoln County Lightning, made from white corn straight out of the still, just like moonshine. As far as Prichard is concerned, all are Tennessee whiskeys.
For many years Jack Daniel’s Old No.7 Black Label (80 proof), dating from the 1830’s and winner of a gold medal at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, was its only product.
In the past couple of decades, the brand has expanded its offerings. Gentleman Jack Rare (80 proof), was introduced in 1988, Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel (94 proof) in 1997, and Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey (70 proof) in 2011.
I did a tasting of various Tennessee whiskeys in a most appropriate place: the historic Oak Bar in Nashville’s Hermitage Hotel, with a plate of smoked and pickled charcuterie by chef Tyler Brown.
Given the similarities between Kentucky bourbons and Tennessee whiskeys, I cannot claim to discern significant distinctions. What I can do is tell you how they taste, from bottle to bottle.
Jack Daniel’s Old No.7, with its familiar black label, has a fine balance of charred oak and caramel flavors and hits the back of the tongue like a love tap, just enough to linger. (By the way, no one seems to know what the No.7 signifies on the label.)
Gentleman Jack is charcoal mellowed twice, once before and once after aging -- they call it the “blessing”-- which makes it somewhat mellower, a little sweeter and a bit gentler on the finish.
At 94 proof, Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel is a powerhouse. It’s drawn from barrels that rest in the warmer, upper floors of the distillery by master distiller Jeff Arnett.
He contends that each barrel can have distinct nuances making one bottle subtly different from another. It’s a darker whiskey, robust but very satisfying and warm on the palate.
Jack Daniel’s novelty whiskey is Tennessee Honey, made by adding honey liqueur. The producer recommends serving it “chilled straight or in drinks with other mixers like lemonade, tea or ginger ale.” That works for me, especially during the summer, and it makes a splendid Old Fashioned, with a dash of bitters.
The story goes that George A. Dickel, who founded his distillery in Tullahoma, Tennessee, in 1870, discovered that whiskey made during the winter was smoother than whiskey made in the summer. So he began chilling his distillation before it went into the charcoal vats.
The distillery re-opened in 1958 after closing for 40 years, and is now run by master distiller John Lunn, who makes No.8 and No.12 labels (as well as Cascade Hollow and Barrel Select, which I have not tasted).
If there were such a thing as a “classic” Tennessee whiskey, it might be the No.8. Vanilla, toast, corn and smoke all mingle in the bottle, with a lively burn at the back of it all.
No.12 is a deeper, richer, more concentrated spirit, at 90 proof, blended from older whiskeys than the No.8. This is not a drink you do knock back at a bar; you sip it after dinner.
The renegade Prichard’s Tennessee Whiskey, founded in 1997 in an old schoolhouse complete with basketball hoops, is made from white corn in small batch copper pots, and aged in white oak barrels.
The nose is a glorious burst of vanilla and soft oak; it begins sweet on the tongue, then trails off with an engaging, peppery finish that stays there until you take your next sip.
And you will.
(John Mariani writes on wine for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Muse highlights include Hephzibah Anderson’s book review and Catherine Hickley on art.