It has to be the biggest question in American whiskey: is Jack Daniel’s a type of bourbon? The two are often confused but the short answer is, no, Jack Daniel’s is a Tennessee whiskey. So what’s the difference? Well, read on.
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.
Tennessee whiskey has to come from Tennessee but that’s not all. The production process is similar to bourbon but with an extra step called the Lincoln County process. This entails taking spirit from the still and filtering it through maple charcoal before maturation. 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.
The classic Jack Daniel’s starts with a mash bill of 80% corn, 12% malted barley and 8% rye, but there are now other JD’s 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.