Bourbon Vs. Tennessee Whiskey
Whiskey Rage #2
A few weeks ago, I wrote an article about removing age statements from Scotch in a fit of rage. It finally got to the point where I had to blow off some steam. Well, here we are again, and I’m not happy. I got in an argument about Tennessee Whiskey. It would seem that, if you want to impress your friends about your knowledge of whiskey, you will tell them that Jack Daniel’s ISN’T bourbon, it’s Tennessee Whiskey. WELL NOW, excuseeeeeee me. I seem to have forgotten the fundamentals of reading labels. *Nasally voice* “Well the label on Jack Daniel’s doesn’t say bourbon, does it”. Well John Doe, you aren’t just messing with any angry whisky drinking fireball. You’re messing with an angry whisky drinking fireball who does his research!
Unfortunately, if you type in a Google search about whether or not Tennessee whiskey is bourbon, a number of “credible” sites will tell you “Of course not! It’s made in Tennessee and charcoal filtered”. So Tennessee has succeeded in its goal of brand differentiation. The whole world of semi-educated drinkers will obstinately refute the idea that Jack Daniel’s is in fact bourbon. So why do I choose to argue that, and go against the flow of contemporary drinkers? Because I don’t just go by what one link on the internet tells me. So let me start with the facts:
Bourbon, as we all know, is a 51% corn mash whiskey, sour mashed or otherwise, aged in virgin White Oak barrels for at least 2 years, and made in the United States. NO, it doesn’t have to be made in Kentucky, and if you say it does, then may I please refer you to Prichards, Journeyman Distillery, Two James, New Holland, and the hundreds of other distilleries that are currently making bourbon outside of Kentucky. Don’t believe me? Look it up! The point is, there is a legal definition of bourbon, and Tennessee whiskey fits all of the parameters for being bourbon.
“But angry yelling man, Tennessee whiskey is charcoal filtered and that makes it different than bourbon!” Ahh, yes it is. Most of it, anyways. Prichard’s actually makes Tennessee whisky, labeled as Tennessee whiskey, that isn't charcoal filtered. In fact, Prichard’s makes a bourbon too. Do you know what the difference is? The difference is the kind of corn they use (white corn [Tennessee] instead of yellow corn [bourbon]).
Do you still think that charcoal filtering differentiates Tennessee whiskey from bourbon? Well what if I told you that Kentucky bourbon Ezra Brooks is charcoal filtered as well, and it’s STILL BOURBON. And by the way, Brita filters are also charcoal filters, so if you think Jack Daniel’s isn’t bourbon, I better not hear you calling your water “water” after it comes out of your Brita pitcher! It’s Tennessee H2O, fine sir (bru ha ha). I bet you’re still arguing that Tennessee whiskey isn’t bourbon because somebody said it wasn’t.
Well then, let me ask you another question. Let us say that Jack Daniel’s decides to make a rye whiskey (they have, by the way), and charcoal filter that rye whiskey (which they probably will). Do we then say that because that whiskey was made in Tennessee and charcoal filter, it isn’t a rye whiskey? What do we call it then? Jack Daniel’s Tennessee2 whiskey? I would postulate that when Jack Daniel’s comes out with a rye whiskey, they will call it a rye whiskey (they call it "unaged Tennesse Rye" at this point). So scientifically speaking, if making rye whiskey in Tennessee doesn’t change the fact that it is rye whiskey, why would we apply that logic to bourbon?!
I bet your asking now, if you have bothered to entertain my argument, “So why is there so much information out there saying Tennessee whiskey isn’t bourbon?” The answer is simple, and as frustrating as it is, it’s because Tennessee whiskey distillers WANT you to think they’re different. Why? It is brand differentiation. If Jack Daniel’s was just another bourbon, would it really be all that much more appealing than the cheaper Jim Beam alternative, or even worse; Ezra Brooks? I highly doubt it, when you’re having your $5 Jack and Coke. Brand image is what most of these companies survive on, and they’re succeeding in it.
I don’t blame anybody for thinking that the two of them are different, because even though NAFTA defines Tennessee whiskey as a type of bourbon, we hear all the time that they’re different. That being said, if you’re at the bar with somebody who ACTUALLY knows what they’re talking about, and you try and impress them with your knowledge, all you’re doing is making yourself look like an ass.
Afterthought: I’m not advocating going to Tennessee and arguing that Jack is bourbon, unless your fixing to get shot. Your safety is your own responsibility.