Tennessee’s Proud Bourbon Tradition

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The spirit we now call Bourbon came into being about the same time as the Republic, when whiskey-loving, westward-moving Scots-Irish settled in Kentucky corn country alongside a group of rebellious Pennsylvania rye distillers who were fleeing George Washington’s liquor taxes. There the two groups would encounter pure, limestone-enriched water and fertile soils pushing up bumper crops of a sweet yellow grain they would soon alchemize into liquid gold.

Given its origin story (and the fact it’s named for Bourbon County, Kentucky), it’s understandable that many whiskey drinkers mistakenly believe Bourbon must be made in the Bluegrass State. Much of it is, with somewhere between 85 and 95 percent of Bourbon originating in Kentucky. But just across the state’s southern border, Tennessee Bourbon is a thing (even if its distillers don’t always choose to call it that) and has its own proud heritage. The Volunteer State was also settled by Scots-Irish at the same time as Kentucky and enjoys its same perfect-for-whiskey climate, soil and water. 

The only geographic restriction for Bourbon is that it be made in the United States, according to its  1964 definition by an act of Congress that proclaimed Bourbon “America’s Native Spirit.” Today 49 states in the union make Bourbon, as craft distillers look to capitalize on its rising popularity and steady growth in both sales and volume. To be called Bourbon, a spirit must be made in the U.S. and meet these further requirements:

  •  Made from a grain mash bill of at least 51 percent corn

  • Aged in new charred oak containers

  • Distilled to no more than 80 percent alcohol by volume

  • Aged in barrel at no more than 62.5 percent alcohol by volume

  • Bottled at more than 40 percent alcohol, or 80 proof

  • To be labeled “straight” Bourbon, aged a minimum of 2 years

The spirit known as “Tennessee whiskey” meets all the requirements to be called Bourbon, with a 2013 state law adding one more step: filtration through maple charcoal prior to barrel aging. The law codified a longstanding Tennessee distilling tradition known the “Lincoln County process” named, like Bourbon, for its county of origin. 

Some of Tennessee’s most iconic whiskey makers swear by the Lincoln County process, including Jack Daniels, which calls it the “extra blessing.” Widely known as “charcoal mellowing,” different producers deploy this rapid smoothing process in different ways.

So, some Bourbons made in Tennessee undergo the Lincoln County process and some don’t. Heaven’s Door’s portfolio contains one of each, which are also distinct from one another in other ways.

Our award-winning flagship Tennessee Bourbon is made much more in the style of a Kentucky Bourbon, and does not undergo the Lincoln County process. With over 20 percent rye in its mash bill, it has a spicier and more robust flavor profile than many Tennessee whiskeys, which tend to have 10 percent or less. It is not charcoal mellowed, going directly into charred new oak for seven years of aging. Head of Whiskey Development Ryan Perry carefully calibrates the flavor nuances that can develop among casks aged equal lengths of time, expertly blending those pulled from the warmer, drier top floor of a warehouse with those drawn from the cooler, more humid ground floor. His inaugural release, a palate-pleasing mixture of vanilla, baked bread and toasted oak, struck gold and double gold in major international competitions.

“It can sometimes be a challenge to convince even educated whiskey drinkers that Bourbon doesn’t have to be made in Kentucky,” Perry said. “That said, our Tennessee Bourbon is very much made in a Kentucky style.” 

Our most recent addition to the Heaven’s Door portfolio, a limited release Tennessee Straight Bourbon, enjoys the dual benefits of 10 years of age in the barrel and the “extra blessing” of the Lincoln County process, leading to a flavor profile that is both incredibly smooth yet robust and complex. It has a low rye mash bill which dials back the spice on the palate. It’s then mellowed off the still with column filtration through sugar maple charcoal before spending a luxurious decade in charred new oak. The result is an extremely fine sipping Bourbon, rich with vanilla and hints of toasted almond.

One thing is clear, whichever state it’s made in, Bourbon is truly American’s Native Spirit. 

Tasting notes Heaven’s Door Tennessee Bourbon (7-year)

Featuring golden vanilla notes layered over baked bread and a bed of toasted oak, Heaven’s Door Straight Bourbon Whiskey’s 2018 inaugural release won Double Gold at the 2018 New York World Wine & Spirits Competition, Gold at the 2018 San Francisco World Spirits Competition and 96 points at the 2018 Ultimate Spirits Challenge.

Tim Toomey

President of COVERT NINE, a digital marketing and design company based in Chicago, Illinois.