Whisky Myths Debunked #10 – Jack Daniel’s Is Not A Bourbon

by Oliver Klimek on December 14, 2012

It is amazing how this myth keeps popping up over and over again. Actually it is not restricted to Jack Daniel’s but this it is by far the most prominent example of a falsely alleged non-bourbon.

The myth comes in three flavours:

  1. “It is not a bourbon because it is from Tennessee”
  2. “It is not a bourbon because it is charcoal-filtered.”
  3. “It is not a bourbon because it does not say so on the label.”

Let’s see what the official US whisky regulations have to say about this:

§ 5.22 The standards of identity.

(1)(i) ‘‘Bourbon whisky’’, ‘‘rye whisky’’, ‘‘wheat whisky’’, ‘‘malt whisky’’, or ‘‘rye malt whisky’’ is whisky produced at not exceeding 160° proof from a fermented mash of not less than 51 percent corn, rye, wheat, malted barley, or malted rye grain, respectively, and stored at not more than 125° proof in charred new oak containers; and also includes mixtures of such whiskies of the same type.

There is no mention of a required geographic origin here. Bourbon is defined by its ingredients and its storage.

Regarding the filtration there is a subsection further down dealing with it:

§ 5.23 Alteration of class and type.

(b) Extractions. The removal from any distilled spirits of any constituents to such an extent that the product does not possess the taste, aroma, and characteristics generally attributed to that class or type of distilled spirits alters the class and type thereof, and the product shall be appropriately redesignated. In addition, in the case of straight whisky the removal of more than 15 percent of the fixed acids, or volatile acids, or esters, or soluble solids, or higher alcohols, or more than 25 percent of the soluble color, shall be deemed to alter the class or type thereof.

The regulations only state the the filtration must not be overdone, but nothing bourbon-specific can be found here either.

Jack Daniel’s  – and also their Tennessee competitors George Dickel – point out their charcoal “mellowing” (also known as Lincoln County Process) as something that sets them apart from other whiskies. But the simple fact that there are also charcoal-filtered Kentucky bourbons like Jim Beam Choice disproves the Tennessee hypothesis.

And it should be pointed out that there is no requirement for an American whisky that meets the bourbon criteria to be labelled as bourbon. Jack Daniel’s and others choose not to do so because they want their whisky to appear as something different than the Kentucky bourbons. But in fact they are not.

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

sku December 14, 2012 at 3:25 pm

Succinct and well done. This is an endless semantic argument among American whiskey folks. Jack Daniel’s will tell you they have a Treasury Department letter recognizing Tennessee Whiskey as a distinct product. Chuck Cowdery has written pretty extensively on the issue and agrees with you; he recently uncovered another piece of evidence: http://chuckcowdery.blogspot.com/2012/01/us-defines-tn-whiskey-through-back-door.html

The truth is, no one wants JD to be bourbon. As you note, JD wants to pretend it is something different and Jim Beam wants to retain its claim as the world’s most popular bourbon, so everyone in the industry is happy with the ambiguity.

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Oliver Klimek December 14, 2012 at 4:05 pm

I agree that nobody in the industry has an interest to change this somewhat weird situation. It just casts a light on the rather flexible US whisky regulations ;)

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Blue Note December 14, 2012 at 7:27 pm

Just a small point, Oliver. The Americans spell whisky with an “e” as in whiskey.

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Oliver Klimek December 14, 2012 at 7:44 pm

If you read carefully, you will notice that the official US regulations use the “Whisky” spelling. Not to mention Maker’s Mark and others who do likewise. Might actually be worth a separate “Myths Debunked” article…

For me, the spelling is completely irrelevant, and I am not afraid to write “Jack Daniel’s is an American whisky distillery”

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sku December 14, 2012 at 9:41 pm

George Dickel also uses “whisky.”

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BC December 15, 2012 at 4:45 pm

This also seems to bring up another ambiguity in the regulations. Wouldn’t Stagg and other similarly high-proof cask-strength spirits not count as ‘bourbon’ since they are aged and bottled above 125 proof?

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Oliver Klimek December 15, 2012 at 5:24 pm

The 125 proof is the maximum strentgh for filling the whisky into the barrel. Depending on the climate, more water than alcohol may evaporate during maturation, so we can end up with a stronger whisky in the bottle.

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Josh Feldman December 17, 2012 at 5:49 am

…like Stagg…

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Adams January 10, 2013 at 2:29 pm

Calling Tennessee whiskey bourbon is like calling Irish whiskey scotch! After all, the only thing separating most Irish whiskey from Scottish whisky is that the former is triple distilled. When the Irish do a double distilled malt, it’s basically scotch made in Ireland… but if you said that to an Irishman or a Scotsman, they’d likely knock your teeth out.

Guys like Klimek and Cowdery present only part of the legal picture. “Tennessee whiskey” and the Lincoln County process are defined under Federal law and specifically mentioned in NAFTA and a number of other bilateral trade trade agreements signed by the United States. US laws and regulations can be famously contradictory, but you’d be hard pressed to find anyone in the American whiskey trade who thinks “Tennessee whiskey” is an irrelevant and undefined category with the force of law behind it.

The only myth debunked here is that Klimek and Cowdery know what they are talking about.

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Oliver Klimek January 10, 2013 at 2:53 pm

Like so many others you are mixing up geography and whisky types here. Scotch is Scotch because it has to be distilled in Scotland, Irish whisky has to be distilled in Irleand. The type of distillation is totally irrelevant here. Or would you also call Hazelburn an Irish whisky distilled in Scotland?

Bourbon is NOT a geographial term, even if it has its roots in Bourbon County, KY. It is a style of whisky clearly defined in the US regulations. There is Tennessee whisky just as there is Kentucky whisky. Legally, Jim Beam is a Kentucky straight bourbon and Jack Daniel’s is a Tennessee straight bourbon. Filtration is just as irrelevant as the type of the still.

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Oliver Klimek January 10, 2013 at 3:06 pm

And it should also pointed out that the Lincoln County process is not required for a Tennessee whisky under the NAFTA rules. They even state that it has to be “a straight Bourbon Whiskey authorized to be produced only in the State of Tennessee”. Prichard’s for example don’t filter their whisky.

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Adams January 11, 2013 at 10:59 am

You are aware that you just proved me correct and contradicted yourself?

According to you, Tennessee whiskey is what it is solely because of where it is made. Yet the only major thing separating Irish, Welsh, English and Scottish whiskeys are where they are made. In most instances, how the stuff is made overlaps.

So according to you, Tennessee whiskey is bourbon, but Irish, Welsh, English and Scotch aren’t all the same thing? Talk about a huge, screaming, jump up and down and out loud double standard.

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Oliver Klimek January 11, 2013 at 1:41 pm

Sorry, but I don’t get your point. What do you want to say exactly? And where did I contradict myself? I never denied that there is a “Tennessee whisky” category. You specifically menitioned the NAFTA agreement, and this actually defines Tennessee whisky as a bourbon. And the sole point of the article is debunking the common misconception that Jack Daniel’s being a Tenneesee whisky can not be a bourbon.

If you think I wrote bullshit, please state what is wrong and disprove it.

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Eric February 21, 2013 at 3:23 am

This is one debate where I like to split the difference and tell people, “you’re both right.” If you think the legal definition is most important, then Jack Daniels is a bourbon. If you prefer to privilege the definition promoted by Jack Daniels and George Dickel’s marketing, then they’re not bourbon. The Code of Federal Regulations has no authority over popular perceptions of what the drink is or is not.

Some people like to get into this argument to show off what they know (or think they know) about whiskey. I do get more tired of people thinking they’re smart when they correct people in insisting that Jack Daniels is not a bourbon. People on the other side of the debate at least know the basis for both sides arguments – the it’s-not-a-bourbon camp generally has no idea that there’s a legal basis for saying it is a bourbon.

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Frank Murphy September 16, 2013 at 5:49 pm

I may as well stir the pot. Adams, bar the flaming style of diatribe, is confusing geographical specifity with type. This comes about due to the historical glitch of calling a corn-based whisky matured in virgin oak casks in the US and all the rest of the regs, “bourbon.”

Regardless of name, bourbon is a TYPE of whisky, albeit bound in a GEOGRAPHICAL term, i.e. the USA. If a bourbon style of whisky was made in Scotland it would be a grain whisky since that is what TYPE of whisky the Scotch Whisky Association would class it as. I would expect the name in Ireland would be the same. So, to recap, Bourbon is a TYPE of whisky. Tennessee whisky is a GEOGRAPHICAL designation. For example, the Jack Daniel’s distillery recently released a Tennessee rye spirit. This shows that a distillery in the GEOGRAPHICAL location of Tennessee can produce a different TYPE of spirit. But the spirit the distillery is best known for, Old No.7, is a bourbon TYPE made in Tennessee GEOGRAPHICALLY. Glad I cleared that up for some. :-)

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Jeff Board January 29, 2014 at 8:26 pm

Hasn’t this changed since the time of original blog post? Tennessee whiskey was legally defined and recognized by the Feds not too long ago, and as such there is now a legal definition for both as separate whiskey types. Whether JD could call itself bourbon is irrelevant, it pushed the Tennessee whiskey regulation through for good reasons, and now the argument is settled.

JD is not a bourbon.

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Oliver Klimek January 29, 2014 at 8:50 pm

Yes, Tennessee whisky is defined as a whisky meeting bourbon standards with additional charcoal filtration. This filtration is irrelevant for meeting bourbon standards. They still would be entitled to write “bourbon” on the bottle.

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