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ROBB REPORT: The 10 Best Tennessee Whiskeys to Drink Right Now

Exploring the rich world beyond just Jack Daniels No. 7.

By Jonah Flicker

There’s a controversy brewing in the whiskey world that needs to be addressed. Perhaps “controversy” is too strong a word, maybe it’s more of a disagreement. Or even more precisely, a technical category classification that only whiskey nerds really care about: Is Tennessee whiskey really bourbon?

Technically, it meets the legal requirements, including being made from a mash bill of at least 51 percent corn and matured in charred oak barrels (legally, bourbon has to be aged in new charred oak “containers,” but this virtually always means barrels). There are some key differences, though.

In 2013, Tennessee House Bill 1084 was signed into law, stipulating that Tennessee whiskey must be “manufactured” in the state (a little iffy whether that actually means distilled), and most importantly, it has to undergo the Lincoln County Process (Prichard’s is the one exception to this rule). This involves filtering the distillate through maple charcoal before barreling, a step which is supposed to remove impurities and “mellow” the flavor, as Jack Daniel’s famously puts it.

Nelson’s Green Brier owners Charlie and Andy Nelson, provided their take on the bourbon debate “One word: yes,” wrote Andy in an email, affirming that Tennessee whiskey qualifies, while “Tennessee whiskey ≥ bourbon” was Charlie’s take. Jack Daniel’s master distiller Chris Fletcher concurs. “This filtering or mellowing process doesn’t prevent us from labeling our product as bourbon,” he wrote in an email. “It allows us to label it as Tennessee whiskey. In short, all Tennessee whiskey is bourbon, but not all bourbon is Tennessee whiskey.”

Jack Daniel’s, owned by Brown-Forman, is a global behemoth, beating out any other American whiskey brand as far as sales. So how do smaller brands and craft distilleries even begin to compete? According to Andy Nelson, there’s still room for the little guys. “There’s no doubt in my mind that the smaller brands of Tennessee whiskey will gradually gain recognition and familiarity, but national distribution is the first key to getting there and there haven’t been many to gain that quite yet,” he said. “There are currently over 30 distilleries in Tennessee, many of which are making Tennessee whiskey on some level.”

Distilleries that use the Lincoln County Process take great pride in it and tout the effects it has upon the whiskey. “If you taste two samples of the exact same distillate side by side,” said Nelson, “with one sample fresh off the still and the other having undergone the Lincoln County Process, you will notice the sugar maple charcoal-filtered spirit [has] less bitterness on the back of the tongue, a cleaner mouthfeel and a more velvety finish.” For Fletcher, it’s about removing some of the corn influence on the palate. “Charcoal mellowing removes most of this character, which contributes to the unique character of Old No. 7, lots of sweet fruit notes and oak barrel character with very little corn influence,” he said. “By absorbing most of this corn flavor, the mellowing process really lets the complexity of the spirit come through.”

Of course, not all whiskey made in Tennessee is labeled as Tennessee whiskey. There’s also bourbon and rye, which may or may not have undergone the Lincoln County Process. Ultimately, the legal designation of the Tennessee whiskey category is important to the people making it, who view it as equivalent to geographical indicators for cognac, scotch, tequila and bourbon. If you’re ready to dive into this world, here are 10 bottles to try now.

Heaven's Door Straight Bourbon Whiskey

This whiskey also qualifies as a celebrity brand, with the venerable presence of Bob Dylan as the force behind the concept. He also provides the inspiration for the bottle design, which is a rendition of iron gates he crafted at his metal workshop. Dylan worked with Marc Bushala, one of the founders of Angel’s Envy, to put the brand together with three core expressions to choose from, including a Tennessee straight bourbon aged for a minimum of six years and sourced from an undisclosed distillery. The mash bill is said to consist of 70 percent corn, with the remaining grains presumably a blend of rye and malt. There’s also a limited-release 10-year-old Tennessee bourbon, which builds on the palate of the original by adding layers of caramel, char and vanilla. The Heaven’s Door distillery and Center for the Arts is set to open in Nashville this year, where whiskey will be produced and live performances will take place once it’s safe to do so.

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