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Is Jack Daniel’s Bourbon? The Definitive Answer

Is Jack Daniel’s bourbon? The short answer is no, Jack Daniel’s is not bourbon. However, the long answer might surprise you, as the explanation is not as simple as you may think. The label on a JD bottle does not feature the word ‘bourbon’. In fact, the brand rather proudly calls itself ‘Tennessee whiskey’. But what exactly does this mean? Let’s take a deep dive into the differences between Jack Daniel’s and bourbon. 

Jack Daniel’s Can Be Bourbon 

There is a lot of legislation surrounding bourbon and whiskey in its many different forms. Let’s focus on bourbon whiskey and straight bourbon whiskey to start with. 

Bourbon whiskey must be made from a mash that is at least 51% corn, distilled at a maximum of 160 proof, and decanted into barrels at a maximum of 125 proof. In terms of maturation, bourbon whiskey does not have a minimum aging period, contrary to popular belief. It must be matured in new charred oak barrels with no additives or colouring. Lastly, it must be bottled at no less than 80 proof (40% ABV). 

Straight bourbon whiskey is subject to the same regulations. However, to be considered ‘straight bourbon’ the spirit must be aged for a minimum of two years. 

Interestingly, Jack Daniel’s meets the requirements for being labelled as bourbon. However, there is an extra process that the whiskey goes through, making it distinctive from most bourbons on the market. This is called the Lincoln Country Process.

The Lincoln County Process 

The Lincoln County Process is named for the original hometown of Jack Daniel’s, which now operates in Lynchburg. The process was developed as a way of rectifying spirit, and involves filtering the whisky through charcoal before it is casked. 

Use of the Lincoln County Process began when whiskey would come out of distilleries and be sold in bulk to taverns, hotels, and merchants. In order to alter the whiskey for the palates of their customers, the merchants would filter the whiskey through charcoal. The process removed impurities and congeners from the whiskey in a much shorter time frame than the long aging process that had become standard practice in Kentucky.

Towards the end of the 19th century, Lincoln County and Robertson County in Tennessee were famous for their use of charcoal filtration. Soon, the practice became synonymous with Tennesee whiskey. 

As such, Jack Daniel’s can be considered bourbon, but instead chooses to be part of the unofficial Tennessee whiskey producers. There has long been a definition in Tennessee state law, in part thanks to Jack Daniel’s. 

Jack Daniel’s Labelling Battle 

Prohibition in the United States was repealed in 1933. As a result many new laws were put in place to manage the re-emerging industry. These laws included having producers classify their products. If a whiskey met the standards for the legal definition of bourbon, then it had to be called bourbon. 

The Motlow family, owners of Jack Daniel’s, had never classified their whiskey as ‘bourbon’ and were resistant to the new labelling system. 

In Tennessee, prohibition was not repealed until 1937, giving the Motlow’s four years (before their first batch of whiskey would be ready to sell) to formulate a plan for keeping the name ‘Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey’. 

Once the whiskey was ready to sell, the Motlow’s submitted their label for approval. The word ‘bourbon’ was conspicuously absent. Reager Motlow, of the Motlow family, spent much of the ensuing weeks travelling to Louisville’s government offices to plead his case. His case being that Jack Daniel’s is different to bourbon, and does not have the same characteristics. Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey was a distinct product. 

Following several tests and arguments back and forth, it was concluded by the government that the whiskey had “neither the characteristics of bourbon or rye whiskey but rather is a distinctive product which may be labeled whiskey.” Note that Tennessee whiskey was not awarded its own classification at this point. However, Reager had won the battle against ‘bourbon’ and the family could freely label their product as ‘Tennessee Whiskey”. 

In December 2020, the UK recognised the GI status of Tennessee whiskey, as many other countries have in international trade agreements. 

Jack Daniel’s Is Not Bourbon 

Defending the honour of bourbon, the Jack Daniel’s team says “[It is n]ot that being called bourbon is bad. Bourbon-Whiskey is made according to a very high standard of quality. A standard that Jack Daniel’s meets and then does it one better”. 

As such, the Lincoln County Process that all Tennessee whiskey is subjected to has all but become synonymous with Jack Daniel’s, which accounts for the vast majority of whiskey production in Tennessee. 

So, there you have it. Jack Daniel’s, JD, Jack, Tennessee whiskey. There are many names you can give to the Lynchburg spirit. Just don’t call it bourbon. As JD says on their website “it’s not bourbon. It’s Jack. […] It’s a Tennessee whiskey and it says so right here on the bottle”.

Jack Daniels Reviews

We’ve had the pleasure of reviewing a LOT of Jack Daniels over the years here at the Whiskey Wash and each offers something different.  The Jack Daniel’s American Single Malt illustrates the brand’s innovative approach, blending Scottish traditions with Tennessee characteristics. The 12-Year-Old Tennessee Whiskey reflects the brand’s heritage, offering complexity from its extended aging process and the 10-Year-Old Tennessee Whiskey, Batch 02, highlights Jack Daniel’s commitment to quality and craftsmanship.

Just One More Thing…

Did you know that the world nearly lost Jack Daniels for good! A seemingly innocuous fungus, Baudoinia, emerged as a potential peril to the storied distillery. In “Baudoinia: The Fungus That Stopped Jack Daniel’s,” we uncover a fascinating clash between nature and whiskey tradition. The story delves into how the whiskey aging process, quite unintentionally, became a nurturing ground for this stubborn fungus, leading to some unexpected twists. This account not only highlights the challenges of dealing with such natural events but also casts light on the broader impact on the industry. For those drawn to the delicate balance between environmental factors and the craft of whiskey production, this narrative offers a riveting journey.

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