It has to be the biggest question in American whiskey: is Jack Daniel’s a type of bourbon? The two are often confused.

The short answer is, no, Jack Daniel’s is a Tennessee whiskey.

The slightly longer answer is yes, because Tennessee whiskey is a subtype of bourbon that meets all of the legal requirements for the spirit, but has additional requirements specific to its production in Tennessee.

Confused? We can help with that. Read on.

Casks at Jack Daniel's

Casks maturing at Jack Daniel’s

What is bourbon?

Bourbon is America’s most famous whiskey and probably takes its name from Bourbon Street in New Orleans. A common misconception about bourbon is that it has to come from Kentucky. Most bourbon does come from Kentucky with famous brands like Jim Beam but bourbon can come from anywhere in the US, even Tennessee.

To be classed as bourbon, the whiskey must conform to certain rules. It must be made from a mash bill of at least 51% corn, the rest can be made up of rye, wheat or barley. It can be distilled to no more than 80% ABV and can’t go into the barrel above 62.5% ABV. The barrel must be made from new charred oak. The last part is crucial and where much of bourbon’s sweet flavour comes from. The ageing period isn’t stipulated though to be sold as whiskey in the UK and EU, it must be aged for a minimum of three years. 

What is Tennessee whiskey?

For a long time, the distinction between bourbon and Tennessee whiskey was not clearly defined, with trade agreements like NAFTA providing the only legal reference (stating that Tennessee whiskey was straight bourbon made in the state of Tennessee). But in 2013 everything was cleared up after the Tennessee State legislature passed a law that defines Tennessee whiskey as a straight bourbon that is made in the state of Tennessee and that must undergo the Lincoln County Process prior to ageing.

What is the Lincoln County Process? It’s a long-standing practice pioneered by Nathan ‘Nearest’ Green, or ‘Uncle Nearest’ (who taught it to Jack Daniel) which entails burning maple wood to create charcoal. This charcoal is then broken into small pieces and used to fill vats in excess of three metres tall. The new make spirit is dripped onto the charcoal continuously for several days, passing through the maple charcoal before maturation. This is said to create a smoother texture, as the charcoal has the effect of filtering out harsher elements and making the spirit lighter. It’s essentially a form of carbon filtration. 

The two largest Tennessee whiskey producers are Lynchburg-based Jack Daniel’s and Cascade Hollow’s George Dickel. Each distillery has its own method. George Dickel 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.

Rick burn at Jack Daniel's

Rick burn at Jack Daniel’s, Yee haw!

How is Jack Daniel’s made?

The classic Jack Daniel’s starts with a mash bill of 80% corn, 12% malted barley and 8% rye, but there are now other JDs including a rye. The water comes from a natural spring beneath the distillery.

The grains are first cooked and then fermentation takes place using a special proprietary yeast strain. Like most American whiskeys, Jack Daniel’s uses a sour mash process where leftovers from previous ferments are added to the latest fermentation. This raises the acidity in the washbacks and prevents wild yeast and bacterial infection, which ensures a consistent outcome every time. 

Distillation takes place in a column still. This is a change from how things were done pre-Prohibition when pot stills were used. The spirit comes off at around 70% ABV and then it undergoes charcoal filtering.

At Jack Daniel’s this involves dowsing a load of maple wood in new make and setting it on fire to produce the necessary charcoal. The team then breaks up the charcoal and packs it into oak vats. Then the new make is slowly dripped through the charcoal in a process that both removes bitter notes and smooths the spirit, but also adds some of the flavour of the burnt wood. 

Then the ageing process is the same as bourbon, charred new American oak casks which provide all those sweet spicy toffee notes that we love. The casks are aged in Jack Daniel’s vast seven and eight-storey warehouse, before blending and ageing into a consistent bottle of Old No. 7. 

In short, charcoal filtering means that Jack Daniel’s is smooth. Some might say more so than bourbon. Which perhaps explains why it’s so popular. That and all those rock stars fans from Keith Richards to Slash.