Settling The Debate: Is Jack Daniel’s Bourbon?

The bourbon industry brings many debates among enthusiast, but one of the top ones is the question of whether or not Jack Daniel’s is considered bourbon? The answer is both yes and no. This article will take a deep dive into this question and try to settle the long debate once and for all. The Jack Daniel’s company has been producing its signature charcoal mellowed Tennessee whiskey since the days before American Prohibition and has risen to the top of the list for both regular consumers and bourbon enthusiast alike.

To start to answer the question we must start on January 24, 1963 when John Watts, a Representative of Kentucky, introduced H. Con. Res. 57 to the 88th Congress. John Clarence Watts was born on July 9, 1902 in Nicholasville, Kentucky. During his childhood he attended public school and then later to the University of Kentucky. He graduated from the university in 1925 and went on to graduate again from the school’s law school in 1927. The same year he graduated from law school he began practicing law in his hometown. In 1929 he became a police judge and served in that position until he became an attorney for Jessamine County, Kentucky in 1933. In 1947 and 1948 he was a member of the House of Representatives for Kentucky. His political party was Democrat. Thomas R. Underwood was serving as a member of Congress but resigned, so a special election was held on April 4, 1951 to fill the opening. John won the seat and served in this position until he died on September 24, 1971 from a stroke. He was buried at Maple Grove Cemetery in Nicholasville.

What John set out to do with his introduction of House Concurrent Resolution 57 was to make bourbon a unique spirit of America and set regulations of what could be considered a bourbon. The specifications to be called bourbon were detailed and were as followed: The product must be made in the United States. A common misconception is that it must be made in Kentucky to be considered bourbon. Although a large majority of bourbon does come from Kentucky, it does not have to be made in Kentucky to be considered bourbon. The mash bill, or the recipe, must be comprised of a minimum of 51% corn. The other typical ingredients for a bourbon that make up the rest of the mash bill include rye, barley and wheat but there are not regulations on those. The distillate cannot come off of the still at any proof higher than 160 (80% alcohol by volume). The distillate must then go in a new charred oak container. A couple misconceptions are usually that it must be American oak, however the regulations state that it just must be oak, not specific variety is mentioned. The biggest misconception is that it must be a barrel. The regulations state it must be a container, so it can be a box, tank, tube or just about any shape as long as it’s a container made up of the new charred oak. Barrels are just the most widely used and most common. There are also no regulations on the size that the barrel must be. Distillate must enter the barrel at no more than 125 proof (62.5% alcohol by volume).

Another nonregulated factor of bourbon making is that there is no minimum time to spend in the new charred container. A product that spends one second in one can legally be called bourbon. Although we would not recommend doing that, it technically could be done. One important regulation is that no coloring, flavoring or blending of other spirits may not be introduced into the product. It must solely get its flavor and color from its recipe, yeast and barrel. When the distillate is ready for bottling it cannot be bottled at any proof less than 80 proof (40% alcohol by volume). When a bourbon reaches the age of two years in the barrel it can be called a straight bourbon. If a bourbon is labeled as a bourbon but it less than four years old then the age must be presented on the label. On May 4, 1964 the bourbon regulations were passed, thus setting the guidelines on what a bourbon is.

Now in order for Jack Daniel’s to be considered a bourbon it has to meet all of the qualities that have been set forth to be called a bourbon. Let’s take a look into the production of Jack Daniel’s to see if it meets the regulations or not. Jack Daniel’s is produced in Lynchburg, Tennessee so it is made within the United States of America. The mash bill of Jack Daniel’s is 80% corn, 12% barely, 8% rye so it meets the minimum of 51% corn. The distillate exits the stills in Lynchburg at 140 proof which is 20 proof points less than the maximum it can legally be at to be called bourbon. The barrels used at the distillery are new and made up of 33 wood staves of American White Oak that are then toasted and charred. Thus, the distillery meets the regulations of a new charred oak container. Jack Daniel’s products come in a variety of proof points, but besides the flavored lines are all at least bottled at 80 proof. All in all, Jack Daniel’s meets all of the requirements to be considered a bourbon. So is Jack Daniel’s a bourbon, technically yes.

Even though Jack Daniel’s whiskey meets every checkbox to be a bourbon, it is marketed as a Tennessee whiskey. On May 13, 2013 the governor of Tennessee, Bill Haslam, signed into effect House Bill 1084 which defined what Tennessee whiskey is. Tennessee whiskey refers to whiskey produced in Tennessee that undergoes charcoal filtering, also known as the Lincoln County Process, before being set for aging. In addition to the filtration and place or distillation, Tennessee whiskey must also follow the regulations set forth by bourbon such as minimum corn requirements in the recipe, maximum distillation proof, maximum barrel entry proof and minimum bottle entry proof and needing to be aged in a charred new oak container. The Lincoln County Process is a step that Jack Daniel’s whiskey has been undergoing since its creation. After distillate comes off of the still it is run through maple charcoal vats as a means of filtration. After the product has run through the charcoal it is then ready for aging. This is a common practice for a lot of distilleries in Tennessee, but not all of them. Jack Daniel’s however does follow this process. Therefore, Jack Daniel’s meets the qualifications to be called a Tennessee whiskey.

The biggest differentiation between typical bourbon and Tennessee whiskey is the Lincoln County Process. In the definition of bourbon there are no regulations on the filtration of bourbon, therefore filtering it through charcoal does not take away its status to be able to be called bourbon. So is Jack Daniel’s a bourbon or a Tennessee whiskey? The final answer is both. It meets all of the requirements to be labeled as bourbon, however, there is an additional diversifying factor since it is produced in Tennessee to be labeled as a Tennessee whiskey. This separation allows for the company to market their products in a much smaller market than the wide category of bourbon. If the distillery wanted to, they could label their product as a bourbon they could. Until then, Jack Daniel’s will be labeled as a Tennessee whiskey.

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