Lincoln County Process
The Lincoln County Process is a step used in producing almost all Tennessee whiskeys. The whiskey is filtered through – or steeped in – charcoal chips before going into the casks for aging. The process is named for Lincoln County, Tennessee, which was the location of Jack Daniel's distillery at the time of its establishment. However, subsequent redrawing of county lines resulted in none of the distilleries currently using the process being located in the county for which the process is named.
Various distilleries use the Lincoln County Process to make Tennessee whiskey. Notable examples include Jack Daniel's Tennessee Whiskey, George Dickel Tennessee Whisky, Uncle Nearest 1856 Premium Whiskey (both aged and silver), Nelson's First 108 and Tennessee Handmade White Whiskey, Collier and McKeel Tennessee Whiskey, and Clayton James Tennessee Whiskey.
For Jack Daniel's, the charcoal used is created onsite from stacks (ricks) of two-by-two-inch sugar maple timbers. The timbers are primed with 140 proof Jack Daniel's and then ignited under large hoods to prevent sparks. Once they reach the char state, the ricks are sprayed with water to prevent complete combustion. The resulting charcoal is then fed through a grinder to produce bean-size pellets that are packed into 10-foot (3.0 m) vats used to filter impurities from the 140 proof whiskey. The whiskey is then reduced with water to 125 proof for aging. The process was taught to Jack Daniel by Nearest Green, the namesake of Uncle Nearest Tennessee Whiskey.
The George Dickel distillery uses deeper (13 foot) vats and distills the whisky – the spelling used by Dickel – to 135 proof. Dickel chills its whisky to 40 degrees F (5 °C) before it enters the vats and allows the liquid to fill the vats instead of trickling it through. The distillery claims these differences result in a better filtering process, as Dickel found he made more pleasing whisky during the cooler winter months.
For its silver whiskey, Uncle Nearest is the first company to use a triple charcoal mellowing process that takes place in 11 steps over a 25-day period. The final product is then bottled at 90 proof.
Nelson's Green Brier Distillery uses the Lincoln County Process to make its wheated First 108 Tennessee whiskey and its white whiskey. The original bottling of First 108 was a limited release product in 2017, with a four-year bottling planned for release in 2019.
Newer maker Tenn South Distillery produces its Clayton James Tennessee Whiskey using only the "hearts" – the middle portion of a run that contains the most ethanol. The company says it then uses the Lincoln County Process to add a sweet maple smokiness to the whiskey.
To be labeled as a straight whiskey, it is prohibited to add flavoring or coloring compounds to the spirit after the fermenting of the grain. Although it is a common misconception that this requirement prohibits the use of the Lincoln County Process for bourbons, it is actually not uncommon for bourbons to be charcoal filtered, and the decision not to label whiskeys that use the process as "bourbon" may only be a choice of marketing strategy.
Some producers claim that according to a 1941 Internal Revenue Service ruling issued at the request of Jack Daniel Distillery, the Lincoln County Process is what distinguishes "Tennessee whiskey" from "bourbon". However, not all producers of products labeled as Tennessee whiskey use the process. (Specifically, it is not used in the production of Prichard's Tennessee Whiskey.)
The term "Tennessee whiskey" does not actually have a legal definition in the U.S. Federal regulations that define the Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits. The only legal definition of Tennessee whiskey in U.S. federally recognized legislation is the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which states only that Tennessee whiskey is "a straight Bourbon Whiskey authorized to be produced only in the State of Tennessee". This definition is also recognized in the law of Canada, which states that Tennessee whiskey must be "a straight Bourbon Whiskey produced in the State of Tennessee". None of these regulations requires the use of the Lincoln County filtering process (or any other filtering process).
On May 13, 2013, the governor of Tennessee signed House Bill 1084, requiring maple charcoal filtering to be used for products produced in the state labeling themselves as "Tennessee whiskey" (with a particular exception tailored to exempt Benjamin Prichard's) and including the existing requirements for bourbon. As federal law requires statements of origin on labels to be accurate, the Tennessee law effectively gives a firm definition to Tennessee whiskey.
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