American whiskey is sometimes a little tricky for people to get their heads around. You have Bourbon, Rye, Single Malt, Tennessee style and a whole lot more. Generally speaking they are all pretty similar in terms of how they are made, but the slightest differences can result in a totally different tasting spirit. Basically the one thing that all whiskeys have in common is that they are made from grain. Grain of course covers a lot of ground, wheat, rye, barley, corn, oats, so really this is just a way to make a distinction from fruits (brandies and eau-de-vies), sugar cane (rums) or other things like agave (tequilas and mezcals).
The most well known American whiskey is of course bourbon, which we will cover in more detail soon when we get to Kentucky. But the basic idea there is that bourbon, by law, must be made from 51% corn (the rest is usually rye, wheat or barley), must be made in the U.S.A. using no additives, and must be aged for at least 2 years in new American White Oak barrels that have been lightly charred. Notice that none of these conditions says that it has to be made in Bourbon county. In fact, there are no distilleries in Bourbon county Kentucky, it’s just that Bourbon county used to cover most of Kentucky and has since been split up in to many smaller counties. So all of this is to say that bourbon can be made anywhere in the US as long as it follows these rules. But one state south, in Tennessee there exists a strain of distillers that follow these rules but demand not to be called bourbon, these guys prefer Tennessee Whiskey.
First up is the grandaddy of them all, Jack Daniels. Founded in 1866 by the very dapper and diminutive (he was 5 foot 2) Jack Daniel, or as those in his employ called him, "Mr Jack". He got started distilling when he bought a still off a preacher whose flock didn’t look kindly on him making red likker on the side. Soon after, he founded his eponymous distillery near a spring in Lynchburg. The grounds here are beautiful and perfectly suited to making whiskey. The iron-free water flows from a limestone cave that you can still walk right up to, and the warm summers and cold winters are just-so for aging the spirit. They make their whiskey the same as everyone else and use 80% corn 12% malted barley and 8% rye, but there is one difference. It’s what Tennessee whiskey folk call mellowing, which consists of filtering the spirit, fresh off the still, though charcoal.
They make the charcoal on site by using their own saw mill to cut down sugar maple wood that they pile into ricks that are ignited using Jack Daniels so as not to pollute the charcoal with any foul smelling accelerants. The charcoal is then filled 10 feet deep into a wooden vat and the new make whiskey is slowly pored though it. It takes 10 days for the whiskey to get from the top to the bottom. The claim is that this process removes the impurities in the alcohol before going into the barrel for aging. Filtering though a small amount of charcoal was also an old moonshiners tool to remove the heavy fusel oils that come of the first part of a run through the still. Not doing this created “popskull” whiskey that gave an awful headache. So you can see where this practice probably started.
Now some argue that this is the critical step that makes Tennessee whiskey the smooth sipper beloved by many, and therefore should be something other than bourbon, and others say that this filtration process makes it legally ineligible to be called bourbon(there is reasonable debate here, one legal definition says filtration is fine, and the other, older definition is vague, maybe considering the charcoal an additive). Personally I have found that, while the filtration process does make the whiskey a little smoother, it also seems to take the complexity out. The barrel is what gives whiskey its color and much of its sweetness and the leathery, chocolaty flavors. Flavors that come from before the barrel aging (i.e. the flavor that mellowing would influence) would be the corn, barley and rye. So it stands to reason that filtering is affecting the base flavor, making the spirit that goes into the barrel more simple so that it’s complexity comes more from the aging process than the stuff it is made from.
Jack Daniels is special because it is the oldest licensed distillery operating in the US. The tour is worthwhile, if only just to wander the grounds there. They show you where they burn the charcoal, you then wander down to the hollow to see where the water comes from, then you get to see the safe that killed Jack Daniel. You see, Mr. Jack had a pretty hot temper, and one day – angry because he’d forgotten the combination to his safe – he kicked that aforementioned safe, breaking his toe. Eventually, that broken toe got infected which led to blood poisoning which finally did him in. Perhaps if he had soaked his toe in Jack Daniels he might have lived. They say he was a teetotaller though, but I guess that shouldn’t have kept him from being a toeteetler.
Up the road a bit, in Tullahoma, is George Dickel Distillery. Dickel, like many distilleries, was reconstituted after prohibition. The original distillery was completely destroyed by the Feds, but in 1964 they set up down stream a bit in Cascade Hollow. Dickel is a much smaller operation but they operate pretty similarly to Jack. Same charcoal mellowing, but with one twist. Many years ago, old George Dickel realized the whiskey he made in the cold of winter was better and smoother than the spirit he made in summer. The idea here is that the cold whiskey filters more slowly and fully. So from then on he only distilled in the wintertime. Now the current distillery can’t really afford to only operate in the winter so they have developed a way to create an artificial winter and cool down their whiskey before it goes into the mellowing vats.
The tour is quite a bit more intimate than Jack, but it contains many of the same kinds of things. One of the more interesting bits of trivia is that most of the trees around the still buildings are black. They have healthy looking normal leaves, but totally black bark. This is caused by the higher than normal amounts of ethyl alcohol in the air from the stills and from evaporation through aging barrels. This ethanol vapor in the air, along with humidity, promotes the growth of a fungus called Baudoinia compniacensis on all the trees and buildings nearby. This was actually one of the (many) ways the revenuers would use to find moonshiners, just look for black trees and you know there is a still nearby. Incidentally, Compniacensis is derived from the Latin for Cognac, the phenomenon was first discovered on barrel aging warehouses for Cognac in France.
Back on the road you can head a bit south towards the little town of Kelso to visit one of the new kids on the block, Prichard’s Distillery. Founded in 1997, by Phil Prichard who comes from a family with deep distilling roots. He started out making rums and now he is also distilling a Tennessee whiskey, a single malt, a white dog unaged whiskey, and an incredible bourbon that has been aged twice. Prichard’s is a nice complement to some of the larger more industrialized operations because they are so small, they make their whiskies and rums using a pot still which is a simpler but trickier method of distilling. This gives the spirits a very different character than the industrially produced whiskies up the road. While Prichard’s is a Tennessee Whiskey, they don’t actually charcoal filter since Prichard says it removes too much character from the spirit.
The nice thing about all of these places is that they are all a quick drive from each other. They are all within easy striking distance of Chattanooga, Birmingham, or Nashville and there are plenty of small places to stay nearby as well. The bad news is that Jack Daniel and George Dickel are in dry counties, so they can’t do tastings. Prichard’s however, does do tastings and frankly they are the best anyway. Plus you can get Jack anywhere.