Whether you like to add your favorite mixer, drink it neat or on the rocks, there is a style, flavor and blend of whiskey for everyone. Most whiskeys are identified by the country where they come from, but this definition is not always accurate. It will also depend on how it is produced. Before taking a closer looker at the history of Tennessee Whiskey, let’s look at 10 of the best labels on the market today.
What better way to start than with one of the all-time classic Tennessee Whiskeys famous around the world?
Like many whiskeys, Jack Daniel’s has a variety of whiskeys, most noticeably is the Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel Whiskey at 50% ABV. It is a rich dark color, a sign of its age and complexity. You will notice a sweet fruity flavor but also hints of caramel and spice. There is still the vanilla essence associated with Jack Daniel’s as well as the subtleness of the oak.
The bottle we are most used to seeing is the Jack Daniel’s No.7. The classic production takes a sour mash of whiskey, charcoals it. It is then left to mellow before passing through 10 feet of sugar maple charcoal as a filtering method. Finally, it is left in handcrafted barrels. The length of time for aging will only depend on when experts decide that the aroma and flavor are perfect. For the 150th anniversary, Jack Daniel’s has released a special version of the No.7 that is more intense and slightly stronger. It is definitely worth getting your hands on this one.
George Dickel Barrel Select Tennessee Whiskey
This whiskey has been aged from 10-12 years in a selection of handcrafted barrels that are selected by Master Distiller John Lunn. You can enjoy a touch of smokiness along with some sweetness and spice and it’s best to be served neat or over ice. The George Dickel Barrel Select is an award-winning Tennessee whiskey, earning multiple gold medals from the Beverage Testing Institute and earned 93 points at the Ultimate Spirits Challenge in 2013.
George Dickel also has a rye whiskey. It is a mash of 95% rye and 5% malted barley. The main flavor is vanilla with a touch of the rye spice. There is a simplicity to the taste, but it is delicious on the palate and incredibly easy to sip. It’s a good value whiskey that has also scored well with the Wine Enthusiast magazine.
Prichard’s Tennessee Whiskey
Prichard’s Tennessee Whiskey has an amazing history that goes back to the establishment of the States. It is made using techniques from the Civil War era that involve white corn and the use of small pot stills. It is then aged in charred American oak barrels for 10 years. After aging, it is reduced to 80 proof with limestone-filtered spring water. Most would say that this 40% ABV has a bold taste and a smell of oak and caramel but also a gentle kick of ginger.
Heaven’s Door Straight Tennessee Bourbon
Plenty of Rock Stars have ventured into the whiskey industry and with a name like Heaven’s Door, there is no surprise that Bob Dylan’s venture into the spirits started here. Dylan used the old church distillery to record four albums. It was even Dylan who designed the artwork on the bottle. Any serious whiskey drinker wouldn’t be swayed by a musician’s influence, but in this case, the Heaven’s Door distillery has done a fine job, winning a gold medal at the 2018 San Francisco World Spirits Competition.
This Tennessee whiskey has a pale amber color and a grain mash of 70% corn and 20% rye. The aroma of warm, sweet spices is met with cinnamon flavors with just enough cheery and honey. With a higher rye content, you might notice a bit more of a peppery taste too. You can also look out for Heaven’s Door Double Barrel Whiskey and Heaven’s Door Straight Rye Whiskey.
Corsair Ryemageddon Whiskey
The design of the bottle, the hip name and the fact that it only states “aged spirit” leads us to question how long it has actually been aged for, but it is still that taste that matters and we can’t argue with Darek Bell (a master distiller who studied at the Bruichladdich Distilling Academy in Scotland) who voted this for the 2013 Craft Distillery of the Year.
The mash consists of 80% malted rye and 20% chocolate rye. The scent wasn’t one of our favorites, especially if you are not a licorice fan, it was a little too sweet-smelling. The taste, on the other hand, is perfectly balanced. The chocolate is there but not overpowering, there is also the right amount of cinnamon, pepper and smokiness. There is a little bit of heat, but it doesn’t last longer than it should.
Collier and McKeel Tennessee Whiskey
Collier and McKeel are not in the same league as Jack Daniel’s or Dickel in terms of size, but the strict adherence to the whiskey-making process has allowed them to produce a fine tasting whiskey. Don’t be surprised if you detect different aromas and flavors in different cases as Collier and McKeel are a small batch producer.
The brand has followed the Lincoln County Process to a T with limestone-filtered water locally sourced, as is the cut sugar maples. The color is clear and rich, almost caramel-like. The first smell to reach your nose is sweetness followed by a woody, caramel aroma. The sour mash used doesn’t overwhelm you and there is just enough of a spicy taste to notice but it doesn’t overpower the other flavors of honey and earthiness. It is perfect neat and on the rocks and the Collier and McKeel website has some good inspiration for mixology.
Uncle Nearest 1856 Premium Whiskey
Lynchburg and its nearby areas produce some of the finest whiskeys on this list, including Uncle Nearest 1856. The year is relevant with nearly two centuries of mastering distilling methods. Uncle Nearest may have played a role in the foundations of the Lincoln County Process.
The local ingredients and double distillation along with premium aging techniques (for 11 years), has led this whiskey to win world recognition. At 57.55% ABV, the first thing you notice along with the strength is the spicy caramel flavor combined with a touch of maple and then dried fruits, particularly raisins.
Nelson’s First 108 Tennessee Whiskey
We loved the story of the name. In 1909 Tennessee experienced a statewide prohibition and Nelson’s Green Brier Tennessee Whiskey was, so to speak, retired. Exactly 108 years later, it was back with a few updates, first being the name. The 108 version involves a sugar maple charcoal mellowing.
What makes Nelson’s First 108 different is the aging process. It is aged in 30-gallon barrels compared to the usual 53 gallons. This enables a rapid processing of just two-years, then it is moved to full-sized barrels. That being said, this is not your average 2-year whiskey and is neither underdeveloped nor too oaky. It is fresh, dry and has subtle flavors of chocolate and cinnamon. It is perfect for those who like the sweetness of toffee and butterscotch.
Rollins Tennessee Whiskey
The design of the bottle would lead you to believe that the Rollins Tennessee Whiskey is older than it actually is. Despite being new to the whiskey playing field, Rollins Tennessee Whiskey follows the traditional Lincoln County Process and takes pride in using local products for the corn and grain mash. It’s a beautiful rich golden color and delivers an impressive pack.
At 40% ABV, it comes will a rich sweet maple charcoal taste as well a really small hint of baked apples with caramelized sugar and cinnamon. Even for its youth, it still has managed to collect some awards, which deserves respect.
Clayton James Tennessee Whiskey
While taking the Lincoln County process and then adding the unique Clayton James touch, this brand takes white corn and grain mash and letting it ferment in copper pots. Once the heads and tails are cut leaving the hearts to be aged. Because of this, only small batches are produced, and it is not as easy to find as others.
The whiskey is filtered through maple charcoal, which is evident in the flavor, both smoky and sweet, along with vanilla, spice, and caramel. You may even spot floral flavors and rosewater. On the nose, you will appreciate the fruitiness off apples and pears.
In order to be a true Tennessee whiskey, it must follow certain requirements, so firstly, it must be produced in the state of Tennessee. In most cases, it will use the Lincoln County Process, a process which involves passing through charcoal chips in order to filter it. This gives Tennessee whiskey the unique charcoal mellowing characteristics. It is this filtering which makes it stand out from a bourbon, that and bourbon whiskey can be produced anywhere in the U.S. Prichard’s is the only Tennessee whiskey that is exempt from this law.
There are four other requisitions to be able to call a whiskey a true Tennessee whiskey:
- It cannot be distilled over 160 proof
- It cannot enter a barrel over 125 proof
- It must be bottled at 80 proof or higher
- The ABV must be between 40% – 70%
Tennessee whiskey must also be made of a grain mash containing at least 51% corn. For this reason, the George Dickel Rye Whisky can’t be legally classed as a Tennessee whiskey despite being produced in Tennessee. The whiskey, by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), must age in new charred oak barrels.
Prior to the statewide prohibition in 1909, there were far more Tennessee whiskey distilleries, but many didn’t survive, which is why only a few of the original brands still stand today.
The History of Tennessee Whiskey
As the founders of America began to move west, they took their whiskey-making skills with them. Luckily, they were met with the perfect conditions for the perfect whiskey, the land, the water, and the right climate.
This whiskey has certainly had its ups and downs. Tennessee was making so much whiskey before the Civil War that the government banned the production of whiskey so that efforts could be turned towards the army. This didn’t stop the distilleries from building the businesses up again once the war was over. At this point, there were hundreds of distilleries but once again, the government stepped in and introduced the second statewide prohibition.
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Some brave produces kept going which not only helped to keep the traditional techniques going, but also made the way for moonshine. It wasn’t until 1940 when Jack Daniel’s returned and then George Dickel in the 1950s. Not until 2009, did Tennessee start to reform the laws that were created during the prohibition, allowing the number of distilleries in Tennessee to grow from three to thirty today.
In 2017, the Tennessee Whiskey Trail was established. Visitors can tour 26 of the Tennessee distilleries, each one taking between 30 minutes and a couple of hours with the whole tour lasting around 10 days.
How Is Tennessee Whiskey Made?
Each distillery will have their own trade secrets to produce the individual aromas and flavors. The mash grain must consist of at least 51% corn. The remaining grain is usually varying percentages of rye and barley. The grains are ground into a paste-like consistency and most commonly, limestone water is added before it is placed into oak barrels for the aging process, which will vary.
Jack Daniel’s uses sugar maple wood that has been soaked on 140 proof Jack. It is then set on fire and burnt down to charcoal. The charcoal is ground into small pellets. From here, new whiskey is poured through the pellets and put straight into oak barrels.
George Dickel pours whiskey into 13ft vats. The maple charcoal and whiskey are allowed to soak together at 40 degrees.
Whichever grain mash and process it is used, there is no doubt that the Lincoln County Process does give Tennessee whiskey a flavor like no other.