Editor’s Note: This column is republished with permission from its author.
To start the new year right, let’s put to bed the ‘Is Jack Daniel’s bourbon?’ argument once and for all.
Jack Daniel’s is not bourbon. That is the correct answer. Although it is made almost exactly like bourbon, and pretty much tastes like bourbon, Jack Daniel’s is a little bit different so its makers prefer to call it Tennessee whiskey.
That is all true; undisputed, in fact.
It only gets murky when people try to guess why Jack Daniel’s is not called bourbon. They usually assume it cannot be called bourbon. They further assume that the pre-barrel charcoal leaching process that makes Jack Daniel’s a little bit different is prohibited in the rules that govern bourbon production.
It is not.
The assumption that the so-called ‘Lincoln County Process’ prevents Jack Daniel’s from being called bourbon isn’t just wrong, it is perfectly wrong. Jack Daniel’s doesn’t want to be bourbon, not now, not ever. To its makers and legion of fans, Jack Daniel’s is everything bourbon is and more. ‘The Lincoln County Process’ is the extra step that makes Jack Daniel’s better than bourbon, so they say.
The makers of Jack Daniel’s have believed this back to and including Jack himself. Many years ago, the company took steps to prevent the Federal government from forcing them to call their whiskey ‘bourbon.’ That is why some people insist that Jack Daniel’s is bourbon, because it meets every legal requirement. ‘Bourbon in all but name’ is another way of saying it.
The false belief that Jack Daniel’s cannot be called bourbon leads to the equally false belief that Jack Daniel’s is an inherently inferior product. You may not like Jack Daniel’s, either just Old No. 7 or all of the expressions, but you can’t blame that on its lack of bourbon-ness. The Jack Daniel’s production process is as rigorous as that of any bourbon maker, and it checks every box in the bourbon rules.
No one can argue with the brand’s success. Jack Daniel’s is the best-selling ‘bourbon-style’ whiskey in the world.
So why isn’t Jack Daniel’s called bourbon? The answer goes back to the Repeal of Prohibition in 1933. When the American distilling business restarted, new rules were put in place. They defined different types of distilled spirits in great detail and required producers to use the type classifications that most closely described their products. If your whiskey met the standards for bourbon you had to call it bourbon. At least, that seemed to be the rule.
This was a problem for Tennessee’s Motlow family, makers of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey, but it was not their most immediate concern. Tennessee did not repeal its state Prohibition laws in 1933 with the rest of the country. This prevented Jack Daniel’s from resuming operations. Distilling didn’t become legal in Tennessee until 1937.
When Jack Daniel’s started up again, they made some products they could sell right away, such as brandy and unaged corn whiskey, but they knew the Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey they were making would not need label approval until about 1941, because it would take that long for the first batch to fully age.
When they eventually did submit their label for approval, they did not use the bourbon classification. That began a series of negotiations between the government and Lem Motlow’s son, Reagor. The family had never called their whiskey bourbon before and they didn’t intend to start now.
“Jack Daniel’s was told by the government that they had to call it a Bourbon,” explained a Jack Daniel’s spokesperson. “We objected and used the fact that our whiskey is different and ‘doesn’t have the characteristics of a bourbon.’” Reagor Motlow made several trips to the government office in Louisville to argue his case. Tests were conducted in the government laboratory there. In the end, the government concluded that Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey had “neither the characteristics of bourbon or rye whiskey but rather is a distinctive product which may be labeled whiskey.” The decision was spelled out in an official letter withdrawing the agency’s earlier objections to the label as proposed.
Here’s the letter:
Reagor would have preferred the creation of a ‘Tennessee whiskey’ classification, but he took what he could get.
It is unclear what tests were performed in Louisville and what they might have found to distinguish Jack Daniel’s from bourbon. I prefer to imagine Reagor and the government guys in the ‘lab’ (i.e., bar) performing organoleptic tests (i.e., drinking), when after the third or fourth round one of the government guys declared, “now that you mention it, I think this does taste different.”
Years later, the Schenley Company tried to buy Jack Daniel’s but Brown-Forman got it instead, so Schenley decided to revive the George Dickel brand as a Tennessee whiskey to compete with Jack Daniel’s. They built a distillery in Tennessee and embraced pre-barrel charcoal leaching as a Tennessee thing. ‘Tennessee whiskey’ is still not recognized as a classification in the Federal code, but the Tennessee legislature has enshrined a definition in Tennessee law.
This is pretty much the entire and correct explanation for why Jack Daniel’s is not a bourbon, yet it seems unlikely to end the arguments. Probably that’s the whiskey talking.
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Charles K. Cowdery is an internationally renowned whiskey writer, specializing in American whiskey. He is a Kentucky Colonel (Patton, 206) and a member of the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame (2009). He is the author of multiple bourbon books, including Bourbon, Strange: Surprising Stories of American Whiskey, and is a...