Whiskey has been associated with Tennessee since some of the first settlers moved onto the land that would become a state in 1796. It is known for producing a distinct style of whiskey, appropriately named Tennessee whiskey.
The "Lincoln County Process" gives the whiskey the character of charcoal mellowing that makes it unique, most famously from brands like Jack Daniels and George Dickel. Though other distilled spirits—including whiskeys—are produced in the state today, in order for a bottle to bear the "Tennessee Whiskey" label, it must adhere to strict requirements in production.
What Defines Tennessee Whiskey?
By law, Tennessee whiskey must be produced in the state of Tennessee. This is unlike bourbon—of which neighboring Kentucky is most famous for—that can actually be produced anywhere within the United States.
In addition to that, Tennessee whiskey must be made from a mashbill that is at least 51 percent corn. Other grains, including barley, rye, and wheat, can constitute the remainder. This is the same requirement as bourbon.
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. Just like bourbon, 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.
To bring it all together, Tennessee whiskey must these requirements:
- Produced in Tennessee
- Made of 51 percent corn
- Distilled no higher than 160 proof, not barreled over 125 proof, and bottled at a minimum of 80 proof
- Use the Lincoln County Process
- Aged in new, charred oak barrels
Tennessee Whiskey Distilleries
Today, there are only a handful of distilleries that produce actual Tennessee whiskey. This was not always the case and the history of whiskey in the state was met with many challenges over the years.
In 1838, Tennessee passed the very first prohibition law in the U.S. stating that retailers would be fined and the proceeds would go to public schools. During the Civil War, whiskey production was shut down by the Confederate states to reserve the grains for much-needed food. After a few decades to rebound, the state was a leader in the prohibition movement and the manufacture of alcohol was outlawed starting in 1909 (10 years before the U.S. Prohibition).
Tennessee remained dry until 1939 and this era put the biggest dent in the state's whiskey production. It has taken a long time for it to recover and the progress has been 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.
As of 2019, the list of Tennessee whiskey producers includes:
- 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 and it is famously used to make a Lynchburg lemonade.
- 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, though they 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. It was not until 100 years later that it reopened and now produces two Tennessee whiskeys along with some notable bourbons under the label Belle Meade.
- 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."
Beyond Tennessee Whiskey
Whiskey is not the only liquor distilled in Tennessee and not all the whiskey is Tennessee whiskey. The Tennessee Whiskey Trail was formed in 2017 and it's a great resource for discovering the state's 30 or so distilleries. Many of those are included in the trail that is a multi-day destination for spirit enthusiasts and travelers.
The state's distilled spirit industry is as diverse as many other states in the U.S. You'll find craft distilleries making everything from gin and vodka to rum and liqueurs, even some absinthe. Given the history, you will definitely find lots of moonshine, corn whiskey, and bourbon, though there are plenty of single malts and rye whiskeys to explore as well.
Some distilleries, such as End of the Line, Ole Smokey, and Tennessee Legend, have a lot of fun with flavored whiskey. From apple pie to lemonade, pecan to cinnamon, and spicy mango to the favorite salted caramel, the flavors of moonshine Tennessee is producing have something to offer anyone who's up for an adventure.
History.com. "Tennessee Passes Nation's First Prohibition Law." https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/tennessee-passes-nations-first-prohibition-law
Tennessee State Library and Archives. "The Saloon and Anarchy: Prohibition in Tennessee." https://sharetngov.tnsosfiles.com/tsla/exhibits/prohibition/index.htm
Tennessee Whiskey Trail. "History of Tennessee Whiskey." https://www.tnwhiskeytrail.com/history/