Tennessee Whiskey

Thursday May 16, 2024

When is a bourbon not a bourbon…..

To all intents and purposes Tennessee whiskey is bourbon. It must adhere to all the federal regulations required of bourbon, it’s aged in exactly the same way as bourbon and the grain bill is usually the same.

So what is so different about Tennessee whiskey and why is it even a ‘thing’?

The Lincoln County method was the original name for the process that turns ‘White Dog’ (bourbon) whiskey into Tennessee whiskey. Hailing from Lynchburg Tennessee, it could be argued that Jack Daniel’s was the original leading figure in the development of the Lincoln County method. Interestingly enough, the Jack Daniel’s distillery is no longer in Lincoln County due to a certain ‘relocation’ back in the 19th century when county boundaries were redrawn during the 1870’s, so that the inhabitants of any county were no more than one day’s ride away from a courthouse.

As the name implies, the Lincoln County process originated in and was developed and practiced in Lincoln County. However, we only know the method began to be used in the early 19th century but exactly when and why is uncertain. Some say it came about in an attempt to produce a smoky ‘Scotch’ style of whiskey. Others say it was an attempt to smooth out the somewhat rough whiskey produced back in the day. Whatever the driving force behind its invention, today it enjoys a federal classification all unto itself.

In basic terms, the Lincoln County process involves the filtration of the ‘new make’ spirit through charcoal before it enters the cask for maturation.

As sugar maple trees are indigenous and plentiful in Tennessee, it stands to reason this was the natural wood of choice for the pioneering distillers, especially as sugar maple makes such excellent charcoal. The process is a simple but effective one. Maple trees are felled, sawn up and allowed to air dry for several months. It’s reported that air dried wood as opposed to kiln dried wood, makes far better charcoal, burning much cleaner and hotter, which gives a far better charcoal yield from the amount of wood used.

The charcoal is then crushed into small pieces, the size of which is critical. It should be small enough to optimise maximum surface area interaction with the spirit, yet not too small to prevent the sprit filtering through the charcoal bed too slowly, or indeed, at all.

The charcoal is then placed in a container, where the new make spirit is drip fed onto its surface. Care has to be taken that the spirit doesn’t ‘channel’ its way down through the charcoal, as this will bypass the whole intended purpose. Gravity pulls the spirit down through the charcoal, which can take several days, depending on the size and scale of the operation. When it finally emerges from the filtration, the difference can be significant.

The resulting Tennessee whiskey is said to be sweeter, with a less grain character than its bourbon counterpart. The suggested reasoning behind this, is that the filtration removes a lot of the grain taste from the spirit and thus enables more of a pronounced barrel contribution in the matured whiskey. Since the charred white American oak of the barrel contributes substantial vanilla and caramel notes during maturation, it stands to reason that the reduced grain flavour leaves more room for the barrel notes to prevail.

At Penrock Distillery, we don’t make Tennessee whiskey. In fact, we can’t! ‘Tennessee Whiskey’ is a regionalisation, so we can’t technically make it in Cornwall. However, a rose by any other
Who knows, you may see us experiment with a ‘Lincoln County’ Cornish whiskey at some point in the future.

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