When you hear the words ‘Tennessee whiskey’, we’ll bet your mind jumps straight to Jack Daniel’s. But the state is home to a host of whiskey producers large and small who pride themselves on doing things the Tennessee way. Speaking with Jim Massey, co-founder of Nashville-based Fugitives Spirits, we dig down into the DNA of Tennessee whiskey and reveal what sets it apart from bourbon…
The two largest Tennessee whiskey producers are Lynchburg-based Jack Daniel’s and Cascade Hollow’s George Dickel, but there are a wealth of smaller producers throughout the state – Chattanooga Whiskey Company of, naturally, Chattanooga, Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery of Nashville, and Tenn South of Lynnville to name just three – who are dedicated to making whiskey the Tennessee way.
The term ‘Tennessee whiskey’ doesn’t apply to all whiskeys produced in Tennessee, since the liquid has to undergo a certain production process before it can wear the term on its label, but it does have to be made in the state. When it comes to regulations, Tennessee whiskeys are held to the same legal definition as bourbon – at least 51% corn, aged in new, charred oak, etc – but they benefit from an additional filtering process through maple charcoal, known as the Lincoln County Process.
“The effect of these constraints has kept ‘paper tiger’ brands from hijacking and repackaging hundreds of variation brands on industrial bourbon and calling it ‘Tennessee Whiskey’,” says Jim Massey, co-founder of Nashville-based Fugitives Spirits, which uses sustainable heirloom grains to make its signature bottlings. “While the marketplace is flooded with repackaged bourbon brands all carrying the same juice, Tennessee Whiskey has held steadfast and true. There are only a handful on the market, so we’ve ended up being the true rare find.”
The process – which sees all new make distillate filtered through (or steeped in) charcoal chips prior to being aged in cask – is named for Lincoln County, Tennessee, which was the location of Jack Daniel’s when it was first established there. Interestingly, it’s no longer used in Lincoln County – the only remaining distillery is Kelso-based Benjamin Prichard’s, which is the only distillery exempt from using charcoal filtration.
For the rest – well, each distillery has its own method. Jack Daniel’s chars sugar maple staves with its own unaged distillate before grinding the remains into chunks, filtering its new make through a 10ft filter bed using gravity. George Dickel, meanwhile, chills its new make to around 5 degrees celsius before steeping it in 13ft of charcoal (as opposed to filtering it through). By contrast, Collier and McKeel pumps its whiskey through 10-13 feet of sugar maple charcoal made from trees cut by local sawmills.
While ‘filtering’ gives the impression that flavour is being removed as opposed to added, in reality the opposite is true. “Maple charcoal filtering certainly smooths the spirit, but it also adds dramatically to the flavour profile,” says Massey, who admits he was initially hesitant to introduce the process. “My heirloom grain distillate was so beautiful, I thought, ‘Why change this?’,” he explains. “But I was committed to making the best Tennessee Whiskey and that meant I had to do the maple charcoal filtering. The result overwhelmed me, it was indeed smoother and yet more complex.”
This, Massey explains, is because of the additional congeners found in the charcoal, which he makes from storm-damaged sugar maple limbs at his family farm, which were planted by his great-grandfather more than 100 years ago. “I did this out of necessity – it’s not like you can go to the store and buy food-grade maple charcoal – but I realise this is probably the way it was originally done,” he says. “We get hints of smoke and certainly maple, but there is a wild fruit note that comes through as well.”
The spirit is certainly all the more compelling for it. I ask Massey for his opinion on existing practices regarding the production and labelling of Tennessee whiskey. Are there any changes he’d advocate for? “I’d like to see a designation for Tennessee Whiskey sourced from heirloom Tennessee-raised corn,” says Massey. “Other than that, it needs to be distilled and aged and bottled in Tennessee, and, of course, honour the Lincoln County Process.
“With the varieties of soil types and heirloom corn and distillation methods and skills and charcoal production possibilities, there are thousands of flavours to be explored for Tennessee Whiskey as it is defined,” he continues. “Those who say it’s too limiting are simply ignorant, have ulterior motives, or they don’t want to do the work.”