Revisiting Tennessee Whiskey

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[Photograph: Chris Breeze on Flickr]

Now that cooler weather is here and whisk(e)y distillers are preparing to unveil their latest bottlings at events such as Whiskyfest in San Francisco and New York, it's time to explore the world of flavor and character that can be found in this distinctive dark spirit. We'll talk about several aspects of the whisk(e)y world in the weeks to come, but to get things started it's worth taking a look at the "other" American whiskey that is neither bourbon nor rye: Tennessee whiskey.

Made from a base of corn flavored with rye and malted barley, and aged in new, charred-oak barrels, Tennessee whiskey is almost identical to bourbon—federal regulators actually classified it as bourbon until 1941, when it was given its own category—with a couple of exceptions. First, as the name implies, this style of spirit must be made in the state of Tennessee; while almost all bourbon is made in neighboring Kentucky, the legal definition of bourbon has no comparable geographical requirement. In terms of flavor and production, the major difference between bourbon and Tennessee whiskey comes into play before the liquor enters the barrel. Should the fresh-distilled spirit be put directly into the oak barrel, it'd be on its way to becoming straight bourbon; distillers of Tennessee whiskey, however, first pass the spirit through a 10-foot-thick layer of sugar-maple charcoal, which producers claim helps mellow the flavor of the whiskey, and some claim this extra step gives the finished liquor a light sweetness.

Tennessee whiskey is a giant in the marketplace due to the immense popularity of Jack Daniel's, the biggest-selling brand of American whiskey. The other main producer of Tennessee whiskey is George Dickel, which occupies a much smaller part of the market. Among aficionados of American whiskey, discussions regarding Tennessee whiskey are typically brief, due in part to the limited number of distilleries but also to the relative disdain some whiskey drinkers have for the mass-market spirit from Jack Daniel's.

I visited both of these distilleries last month as part of a trip along the American Whiskey Trail, and it gave me a chance to revisit a few brands I hadn't tried in years, and to experience a couple of bottlings that I'd not yet come across.

At Jack Daniel's, the emphasis seemed to be on accessibility of flavor: the distillery's fastest-growing brand is Gentleman Jack, which is passed through the charcoal filter both before and after aging, and has a very light and sweet flavor of maple sugar. The distillery's premium whiskey is a Single Barrel, with a smoky aroma and a toffee-vanilla finish, a spirit that was robust but that I found lacking the mid-palate richness I look for in a similar-style bourbon. Their iconic whiskey, of course, is the Jack Daniel's No. 7, with an aroma of maple and banana, a light body and a sweet-tart flavor that reminded me of vanilla and lemon peel. Jack Daniel's whiskey is hugely popular for a reason, but as a dedicated fan of full-flavored bourbons and ryes, I found them somewhat unsatisfying, lacking the complexity I enjoy in other American whiskies.

I found an altogether different situation at George Dickel, which has four bottlings of its Tennessee whiskey: an 80-proof Cascade Hollow, bottled at three years old and with a grassy aroma and a spicy, yeasty flavor; an 80-proof black-label George Dickel No. 8, aged between six and eight years and with an aroma of vanilla and cloves and dry, bready finish; a 90-proof George Dickel No. 12, aged between eight and 10 years, with a robust flavor of molasses and a rich spiciness; and a Barrel Select, bottled around 12 years old and with a lush fragrance of caramel and apricots, and a big flavor apples and pears, with a lingering honey finish.

It's been years since I paid much attention to Tennessee whiskey, and tasting through the full portfolios of both major distilleries reinforced some long-held opinions, while also leaving me pleasantly surprised by some of the whiskey being made in Tennessee.

But these are just my opinions of these spirits. Are you a fan of Jack Daniel's or George Dickel? What are your favorite expressions of these whiskies?

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