Decoding Tennessee Whiskey | Wine Enthusiast
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Decoding Tennessee Whiskey

Sometimes it seems like Bourbon and rye get all the attention, but Tennessee whiskey deserves a share of the spotlight, too.

Why does it get overlooked? It might be because compared to other styles of American whiskey, fewer producers of Tennessee whiskey exist. Just look at the trajectory of Kentucky’s Bourbon industry and Tennessee whiskey side by side: Before Prohibition, Tennessee had fewer distilleries to begin with, and it chose to start Prohibition early, going dry starting in 1910. After Prohibition was repealed, Tennessee’s comeback was much slower than that of Kentucky. Jack Daniel’s was the sole distillery to start up immediately after repeal. The state’s second legal distillery, George Dickel, took another 25 years to open.

The easiest way to explain the category is this: It’s Bourbon, and it’s made in Tennessee.

Another hurdle revolves around the confusion about the definition of Tennessee whiskey. The easiest way to explain the category is this: It’s Bourbon (more than 51% corn, aged in new charred oak barrels), and it’s made in Tennessee. It’s also filtered through sugar-maple ­charcoal, known as the Lincoln County Process, resulting in a mellower spirit that often has a lightly charcoal or soot-like quality.

However, a number of exceptions exist, giving experts plenty to argue over. For example, one specific producer (not reviewed below) is exempt from the Lincoln County Process requirement but still makes a product labeled Tennessee whiskey. Some producers make moonshine-style corn whiskey and don’t barrel-­age it, meaning it doesn’t fit the definition. And rye whiskey, made with at least 51% rye grain, isn’t considered Tennessee whiskey either.

For those seeking to learn more about the category firsthand, a trip to the Volunteer State is advised. In 2017, the Tennessee Distillers Guild launched the Tennessee Whiskey Trail, a 25-stop distillery tour across the state, to further promote Tennessee whiskey and local whiskey culture.

Also reviewed below are a selection of rye whiskies and Bourbons we tasted this month.

Tennessee whiskey

George Dickel Bottled in Bond (USA; George A. Dickel & Co., Tullahoma, TN); $36, 95 points. Look for deep, dark, haunting flavors in this 100-proof Tennessee whiskey, which evolves as water or ice is added to tame the alcohol heat. Burnt caramel and toffee telescope into espresso, black pepper, clove, unsweetened chocolate and a hint of black licorice. Overall, the effect is earthy, woodsy and complex. Best Buy. abv: 50%

Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel Special Release (USA; Brown-Forman Beverages, Louisville, KY); $65, 93 points. This limited edition was made in “heritage barrels” that were slowly heated to achieve a deeper, richer toasted layer before being charred. The end result is a distinct almond tone on nose and palate. Adding water brings out a toasty, nutty quality alongside sweet spices and a drying finish. Limited to 200 barrels; debuted October 2018. abv: 50% 

Heaven’s Door Double Barrel Whiskey (USA; Heaven’s Door Spirits, Columbia, TN); $50, 92 points. Look for a mild aroma that marries honey and oak. The palate leads with oak, then toasty vanilla and dried apricot, with a long, warming, peppery finish. Adding water brings out softer honey and chamomile notes. Music-lovers take note: this brand was developed in collaboration with Bob Dylan. abv: 50%

Smoky Mountain King’s Creek Tennessee Whiskey (USA; Distiller Sales Company, Minneapolis, MN); $40, 91 points. Mellow allspice and vanilla aromas lead the nose, coupled with a yeasty whiff. The palate opens with vanilla sweetness up front, drying to leather, espresso and clove on the finish. A splash of water unlocks a rounder, spicier flavor profile, finishing with the faintest hint of dried apricot on the exhale. Aged 9 years. Best Buy. abv: 45%

Rye whiskey

George Dickel Rye Whiskey (USA; George A. Dickel & Co., Tullahoma, TN); $25, 93 points. Sarsaparilla and cinnamon mingle with whiffs of cedar shavings. The palate opens with oak, vanilla and an echo of sarsaparilla, drying to charcoal, honey and chamomile, finishing long with an espresso accent. A splash of water brings a pleasing maple note forward. Best Buy. abv: 45%

Bare Knuckle Rye Whiskey (USA; KO Distilling, Manassas, VA); $66, 92 points. The aroma of this 100% Virginia rye is luscious and toasty. While this overproof spirit is predictably fiery, adding water lets bold mocha, burnt hazelnut and espresso bound forward, drying to clove and black pepper sizzle on the finish. Aged for at least two years. abv: 62.4%

Heaven’s Door Straight Rye Whiskey (USA; Heaven’s Door Spirits, Columbia, TN); $80, 92 points. In an unusual twist for typically all-American rye, this Tennessee-made whiskey is finished in French oak barrels. The end result is brisk, spicy and mouth-watering, building clove, black pepper, cinnamon and lemon peel on a base of coconut, chamomile and cedar. Music-lovers take note: this brand was developed in collaboration with Bob Dylan. abv: 46%


Four Roses 130th Anniversary Limited Edition Small Batch Bourbon (USA; Four Roses, Lawrenceburg, KY); $140, 97 points. Released in September 2018 to commemorate the brand’s 130-year history, this small-batch Bourbon, released at cask strength, is suitably special. The aromas are warm and delicious, suggesting vanilla, oak and allspice. The palate reflects some of the older, spicier whiskeys in the blend, singing with gingersnap and cinnamon fireworks up front, but underpinned with some of the lushness promised by the aroma: vanilla, cocoa, hazelnut. There’s a brisk lemony snap to the spicy finish that leads off into a long vanilla fade. 13,140 bottles released. abv: 54.2%

Coopers’ Craft Barrel Reserve Bourbon (USA; Brown-Forman Beverages, Louisville, KY); $31, 95 points. Enticing vanilla and cinnamon aromas yield a cinnamon bun-like effect. The palate opens with a mouthwatering saline note, sliding into a salted caramel note that finishes long, buttery and palate-coating, with a warming spicy glow. Best Buy. abv: 50%

Elijah Craig Barrel Proof (USA; Heaven Hill, Bardstown, KY); $59, 93 points. This 12-year-old cask-strength whiskey offers chocolate and vanilla aromas. The drying, numbingly hot palate opens with fiery cayenne and clove, yielding a Mexican chocolate-like effect. Balanced with water, the whiskey evolves into an oakier dark chocolate profile, lightened with almond, ginger and white pepper. abv: 67.6%

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