What Is Tennessee Whiskey?

A Guide to Buying and Drinking Tennessee Whiskey

Jack Daniel's Tennessee Whiskey Mural on Beale Street
Richard Cummins / Lonely Planet Images / Getty Images

Tennessee whiskey is a distinct style of whiskey that must adhere to strict requirements and can only be produced in the state of Tennessee. It is primarily made of corn and uses the "Lincoln County Process" which gives the whiskey its unique character of charcoal mellowing. Jack Daniel's is the top-selling whiskey in the world and exports account for much of that. There are other impressive brands of Tennessee whiskey worth noting as well.

Tennessee Whiskey vs. Bourbon

Bourbon and Tennessee whiskey are nearly identical. Both are American-made distilled spirits that have regulations regarding production. Bourbon—of which neighboring Kentucky is most famous for—can actually be produced anywhere within the United States, where Tennessee whiskey is exclusive to the state. Both whiskeys require the same corn percentage in the mashbill and must be aged in new charred oak barrels. The primary difference is that Tennessee whiskey must go through a charcoal filtering process, which mellows the whiskey's character. For that reason, bourbon is often bolder and has a more robust flavor.

Fast Facts

  • Ingredients: 51% corn, remainder other grains
  • Proof: 80-140
  • ABV: 40–70%
  • Calories in a shot: 65–72
  • Origin: Tennessee
  • Taste: Charcoaled, toasted oak, caramel, vanilla
  • Aged: No minimum aging; must be in new, charred oak
  • Serve: Straight, on the rocks, mixed drinks, shots

What Is Tennessee Whiskey Made From?

Whiskey has been associated with Tennessee since some of the first settlers moved to the area that would become a state in 1796. It is known for producing a specific style of whiskey, though other types of whiskey and distilled spirits are produced in the state. There are a number of regulations distillers must follow in order for a bottle to bear the "Tennessee Whiskey" label.

By law, Tennessee whiskey must be produced in the state of Tennessee. It also must be made from a mashbill that is at least 51 percent corn. Other grains, including barley, rye, and wheat, can constitute the remainder. The whiskey is distilled no higher than 80 percent alcohol by volume (ABV, 160 proof) and cannot be barreled over 125 proof. It needs to be bottled at a minimum of 80 proof, though some barrel strength whiskeys are bottled as high as 125 to 140 proof.

The Lincoln County Process must be done after distillation and prior to aging. Though other whiskeys may also use charcoal filtering, it's typically after aging, so the timing is key in defining Tennessee whiskey. During this mellowing process, the "new make spirit" (also called "white dog") fresh off the still is slowly dripped through charcoal derived from sugar maple trees. This mellows out the distilled spirit, removing many of the congeners (impurities) and lending a richness to the whiskey. The result is a whiskey that many people find to be lighter and smoother than many bourbons, though it is in no way lacking in flavor.

The final step in making Tennessee whiskey is barrel aging. The whiskey is required to be aged in new, charred oak barrels. There is no minimum aging requirement, just as there is not one for bourbon. There are exceptions for both styles: If the whiskey is labeled "Straight," the minimum is two years and for a "Bottled-In-Bond" label, it must be aged at least four years.

What Does Tennessee Whiskey Taste Like?

Tennessee whiskey is often described as a lighter version of bourbon. The charcoal mellowing takes some of the harshness (or boldness) out of the whiskey. It still has the toasted oak, caramel, and vanilla notes found in other whiskeys and there is a hint of charcoal or burnt wood.

How to Drink Tennessee Whiskey

There are many ways that people enjoy Tennessee whiskey. Some like to drink it straight while others prefer it on the rocks. A splash of water will tone down high-proof whiskeys and make them more approachable.

Straight shots are popular and it's mixed into a number of shooter recipes. Mixed drinks are probably the most popular use and they're often simple, tall, and refreshing. A shot of Tennessee whiskey topped with cola is a favorite—most commonly ordered at bars as a Jack and Coke. It's also a great background whiskey for lighter sodas (e.g., citrus and ginger ale) as well as lemonade.

Cocktail Recipes

Since Jack Daniel's is the most popular brand of Tennessee whiskey, it is responsible for some of the style's most famous recipes. The Jack and Coke is simply a shot of the whiskey in an ice-filled highball glass that's filled with Coca-Cola. And, there's no denying the fame of the Lynchburg lemonade, though it's often simplified from the original recipe. Tennessee whiskey, no matter the brand, can also be poured into nearly any whiskey mixed drink recipe.

Popular Brands

Today, there are only a handful of distilleries that produce actual Tennessee whiskey. This was not always the case and the state's whiskey industry was met with many challenges over the years.

Tennessee was a leader in prohibition in the U.S., passing the first law in 1838 and whiskey production was shut down during the Civil War to save grain for food. From 1909 through 1939, the manufacture of alcohol was outlawed entirely. After that, recovery was tremendously slow: Jack Daniel's was the first distillery to reopen in 1940; George Dickel followed in the '50s; Pritchard's opened in the '90s. It was not until 2009 when the prohibition-era laws were revised in the state that more distilleries were able to open up and produce whiskey and other liquors.

  • Jack Daniel's is the best-known and overall the best-selling whiskey in the world. The Old No. 7 bottle is the brand's flagship. They produce a number of other bottlings including flavored whiskeys. Gentleman Jack and Single Barrel Select are often preferred by whiskey enthusiasts.
  • George Dickel is the second leading producer in the state. It has many loyal fans that prefer it over its famous counterpart. The brand's introductory bottle is No. 8, and they also have a number of expressions, including an impressive rye whiskey.
  • Benjamin Pritchard's is the only distillery exempt from the Lincoln County Process that can still be labeled Tennessee whiskey. They produce a number of whiskeys, including bourbons, rye whiskey, and a moonshine called Lincoln County Lightning.
  • Nelson's Green Brier Distillery was shuttered in 1909 with the state's prohibition and it remained closed for 100 years. It now produces two Tennessee whiskeys along with some notable bourbons under the label Belle Meade.
  • Big Machine Distillery (formerly Tenn South Distillery) produces Clayton James Tennessee Whiskey. The small-batch producer uses locally grown white corn and copper pot stills. They employ the maple charcoal for flavor rather than filtering out impurities because they use only the "heart" (purest portion) of the distillate and discard the "heads" and "tails."

Cooking With Tennessee Whiskey

Jack Daniel's has played a role in promoting Tennessee whiskey as a cooking ingredient. It's largely used for grilled foods, including barbecue sauce, steak and rib marinades, and ham glazes. You'll also find recipes that use it for chili, chicken wings, Southern-style pies, and much more.