Tennessee whiskey is straight bourbon whiskey produced in Tennessee. However, most current producers of Tennessee whiskey disclaim references to their products as "Bourbon" and do not label them as such on any of their bottles or advertising materials. All current producers are required by Tennessee law to produce their whiskey in Tennessee and, with one exception, to also use a filtering step known as the Lincoln County Process prior to aging the whiskey – which some assert makes the product distinct from the more generic product category called Bourbon.
Tennessee whiskey is one of the top ten exports of Tennessee. According to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, as of 2013, the U.S. market for bourbon and Tennessee whiskey reached $2.4 billion, and exports of bourbon and Tennessee whiskey grew to exceed $1 billion. There are currently two major producers of Tennessee whiskey – Jack Daniel's (owned by Brown-Forman) and George Dickel (owned by Diageo) – and at least two smaller producers (Benjamin Prichard's and Collier & McKeel).
On a federal level, what constitutes Tennessee whiskey is legally established under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and at least one other international trade agreement that require that Tennessee whiskey be "a straight Bourbon Whiskey authorized to be produced only in the State of Tennessee". Canadian food and drug laws  state that Tennessee whiskey must be "a straight Bourbon whisky produced in the State of Tennessee".
On a state level, the State of Tennessee has imposed stringent requirements. It is not enough under state law that the whiskey be produced in Tennessee; it must meet quality and production standards. On May 13, 2013, Tennessee governor Bill Haslam signed House Bill 1084, requiring the Lincoln County process (which involves maple charcoal filtering) to be used for products produced in the state labeling themselves as "Tennessee Whiskey", along with the existing requirements for bourbon (namely, mash consisting of at least 51% corn, aging in new charred oak barrels, and limits on alcohol by volume concentration for distillation, aging, and bottling). The law contained a specific exception for Benjamin Prichard's, which doesn't use the Lincoln County process. As federal law requires statements of origin on labels to be accurate, the Tennessee law effectively gives a firm definition to Tennessee whiskey.
While Jack Daniel's supported the 2013 legislation, stating it was necessary to bring the quality of Tennessee whiskey to the level of bourbons and Scotches, some of the state's smaller distilleries opposed it, arguing the process required by the law was too close to the process used by Jack Daniel's. Phil Prichard, the owner and distiller of Benjamin Prichard's, stated, "If I wanted my whiskey to taste like Jack Daniel's, I would make it like Jack Daniel's." Jeff Arnett, the Master Distiller at Jack Daniel's, noted that stringent requirements were required by Scotch makers in Scotland and Champagne makers in France, and said that Tennessee whiskey should be treated no differently.
In 2014, legislation was introduced in the Tennessee state legislature that would amend the 2013 law to allow the reuse of barrels in the aging process. Diageo, which owns George Dickel, supported the proposed change. Arnett blasted the proposed amendment, going as far as to accuse Diageo of attempting to weaken the quality of Tennessee whiskey to protect its Scotch and bourbon brands. Diageo argued that the 2013 law was an attempt by Jack Daniel's to push smaller competitors out of the market. (Such "smaller competitors" would presumably not include Diageo itself, since Diageo is several times the size of the company that owns Jack Daniel's.)
Relatively few brands of Tennessee whiskey survive today, due to a statewide prohibition that lasted longer than the national prohibition. As of 2013, many Tennessee counties still prohibit the sale of alcohol. In 2009, the Tennessee General Assembly amended the statute that had for many years limited the distillation of drinkable spirits to just three of Tennessee's 95 counties (Lincoln, Moore, and Coffee). The revised law allows distilleries to be established in 41 additional counties. This change was expected to lead to the establishment of small distilleries, thus increasing the number of producers of Tennessee whiskey.
By 1810, registered distilleries in the state numbered 14,191 and were producing 25.5 million gallons of whiskey. As of March 2013, there are four brands with at least one Tennessee whiskey on the market, and several with whiskey in the barrel awaiting release.
Producers of Tennessee whiskey
- Jack Daniel's (a Brown-Forman brand) from Lynchburg
- George Dickel (a Diageo brand) from Tullahoma
- Benjamin Prichard's from Kelso
- Collier and McKeel from Nashville
- TennSouth Distillery From Lynnville
- Davy Crockett's Tennessee Whiskey, a brand produced by Gatlinburg, Tennessee-based Gatlinburg Barrelhouse
- Nelson's Green Brier Distillery from Nashville
Planned future production
The Chattanooga Whiskey Company currently sells whiskey produced in Indiana, but the company is building a distillery for production of Tennessee whiskey in downtown Chattanooga. Production was initiated in Indiana rather than Chattanooga due to Prohibition-era laws which prevented distilling within Hamilton County until the law was changed in May 2013.
Whiskey made in Tennessee but not "Tennessee whiskey"
All Tennessee Whiskey is from Tennessee, but not all whiskey from Tennessee qualifies as Tennessee Whiskey.
Although the Ole Smoky Distillery (which began operation in 2010) is located in Tennessee and it produces a product that is a whiskey, the product cannot be sold as "Tennessee whiskey", because it is not aged. (It is legally classified as a corn whiskey rather than carrying the "Tennessee whiskey" label.) Their product is instead marketed as "Tennessee moonshine".
George Dickel began production of a rye whiskey in 2012, which also cannot be labelled as Tennessee whiskey, because it is produced from a rye-based mash and it is also not distilled in Tennessee. Most of the stages of its production are conducted under contract in Indiana, and the whiskey is then trucked to the Diageo bottling plant in Plainfield, Illinois for filtering with charcoal made at the Dickel distillery and bottling. In early 2014 they introduced a white corn whiskey using an unaged version of their standard mashbill; the Dickel mashbill is over 80% corn, allowing for its sale as "corn whiskey", but the bottle makes no reference to Tennessee whiskey.
Jack Daniel's began production in 2012 of what they dubbed a Tennessee Rye. As it is 70% rye it is not labeled as a "Tennessee whiskey". A limited initial release, not aged in wood, bore the label "Spirits Distilled from Grain". A second limited release, called "Rested Rye", was released after two years of aging, and was labeled as a straight rye whiskey. Jack Daniel's has said that a fully aged version will be released in the future.
Benjamin Prichard's produces other whiskeys, a Tennessee Rye Whiskey and an unaged corn whiskey called Lincoln County Lightning. Like their Tennessee whiskey, the are not charcoal filtered prior to aging.
Lincoln County Process
Jack Daniel's, George Dickel and Collier & McKeel Tennessee whiskeys undergo a filtering stage called the Lincoln County Process, in which the whiskey is filtered through (or steeped in) a thick layer of maple charcoal before it is put into new charred oak barrels for aging. The companies that produce whiskey in this manner suggest that this step improves the flavor of the whiskey. The filtering process is named for Lincoln County, Tennessee, which contained the Jack Daniel's distillery when it originally began its operation. However, in 1871, the boundaries of the county were changed, such that the Jack Daniel's distillery and the surrounding area became part of the newly created Moore County. The only whiskey currently produced within the current boundaries of Lincoln County is Prichard's, which does not use the Lincoln County Process.
In popular culture
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- SICE - Free Trade Agreement between the Government of the United States of America and the Government of the Republic of Chile, Section E, Article 3.15 "Distinctive products".
- "Canada Food and Drug regulations, C.R.C. C.870, provision B.02.022.1". Laws.justice.gc.ca. Retrieved April 12, 2013.
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- Distilled Spirits Council Industry Review, Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, February 4, 2014.
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- "Nelson's Green Brier Distillery". Retrieved February 27, 2015.
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- "Chattanooga whiskey can't be made in Chattanooga due to Prohibition-era laws". Chattanooga Times Free Press. Retrieved 7 March 2014.
- "Gov. Bill Haslam signs whiskey bill". Chattanooga Times Free Press. Retrieved 7 March 2014.
- Cynthia Yeldell, Ole Smoky Distillery to debut moonshine – Business to open in Gatlinburg on July 2 with free tours, samples, Knoxville News Sentinel, June 9, 2010.
- Charles A. Cowdery, George Dickel Gives a Different Taste to LDI Rye, The Chuck Cowdery Blog, October 26, 2012.
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- Bryson, Lew. "Buying Guide". Whisky Advocate 22 (1). Retrieved 5 April 2013.[dead link]
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- "Unaged Tennessee Rye". Jack Daniel's. Retrieved 15 March 2013.
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- Waymack, Mark H., and James F. Harris (1999). The Book of Classic American Whiskeys. Open Court. ISBN 978-0-8126-9305-8