Something Special or a Marketing Gag?
The Jack Daniel‘s No. 27 Gold is a curious case. The label says Tennessee Whiskey, but the additional information on the label is puzzling. Saying in big letters: “Double Barreled, Extra Matured in Maple Barrels“. Whisky connisseurs are likely to ask: How can this be, when the maturation in fresh American white oak casks is mandatory? Is there a special law for Tennessee Whisky?
When the new Prichard‘s Tennessee Whiskey was released, many wondered, why the label did not mention the charcoal mellowing procedure, which was known to be the unique selling point of Tennessee Whiskey.
What is a Tennessee Whiskey?
Let's dig deeper into the matter. What is a Tennessee Whiskey? According to the common perception, Tennessee Whiskey is made like Bourbon in the first and last steps of the production. Rye, corn and grain are distilled and age in casks of new white oak. The difference between Tennessee Whiskey and Bourbon is, that before the spirit is filled into casks, it‘s filtered with maple charcoal, a process which is called charcoal mellowing. The charcoal extracts sharp substances from the liquid, which gives the Whiskey a smoother character. That's how it has been marketed by the producers, especially Jack Daniel, for decades.
However, the rules and regulations of the 1964 Bourbon Act, which apply to all Bourbons in the USA, also applied to Tennessee Whiskey. There was no Tennessee Whiskey Act. If you keep to the rules of the Bourbon Act, you may call your product Bourbon. If you keep to slightly stricter rules, you may call it Straight Bourbon. If your distillery is in the state of Kentucky, you may call your Whiskey Kentucky Straight Bourbon.
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Is Tenessee Whiskey Better than Bourbon?
Does that mean that Tennessee Whiskey is a 'better Bourbon' because of the additional production step of charcoal mellowing? No, it does not. Nobody prohibits the rest of the US Bourbon industry from also filtering their product, and indeed this happens. However, it is rarely stated on the label because there is no universal agreement that filtration makes a whiskey better. For some years now, Scottish producers have been successful with the claim that natural, non chill filtered Scotch Whisky tastes better than filtered Whisky. In 2010 we carried out a big blind trial, with more than 1,000 samples and more than 100 connoisseurs and found only very small differences in quality between chill filtered and non chill filtered Whiskies.
Bourbon is not Scotch, and the results of the study may not apply to Bourbon. But distinguishing Tennessee Whiskey from Bourbons from other states based on filtration seems arbitrary and solely owed to marketing. The motivation behind this seems to be: "If you can't be leading in a category, open up your own category where you can be the leader."
The Law of Tennessee Whiskey
The definition of the Tennessee category got really out of hand in 2013 when the lobbying market players from Tennessee persuaded Governor Bill Haslam to sign a local bill stating that Tennessee Whiskey must be charcoal filtered. After all, this had been the tradition for more than 150 years. However, the reopened Prichard‘s distillery invoked written documents dating from even earlier proving that they had not filtered back then. So an exception was written into the law.
Because of this exception other market players, among them some new microdistilleries, then claimed that this arbitrary prescription of a production process violated their constitutional freedoms.
Creative Freedom of Flavour
But what about the extra maturation in maple casks? Thinking about these non-oak casks, the Jim Beam Distiller's Masterpiece comes to mind. It is a Kentucky Straight Bourbon that has been finished in Spanish Pedro Ximénez Sherry casks. If finishes are possible in Kentucky and Tennessee, is the notion that Bourbon must only be matured in American white oak wrong?
Indeed, the Bourbon Act only states that Bourbon must be matured in fresh American white oak casks for at least two years. It does not say what you can or should do with the Whiskey afterwards. Here the creativity of the Whiskey producers comes into play
Between Brand Image and Customer's Taste
Are such legal restrictions good or bad? Well, it is a balance between traditions and flavour innovations. If you are too restrictive you won't convince new customers of your product, especially not connoisseurs looking for variety and young people looking for fancy drinks. However, if you are too innovative, long-time customers do not recognize your brand anymore and turn to competitors. Take the cigarette brand Camel for example. Once among the market leaders, their advertisements featured a smoking globetrotter. When the brand started to use a plush camel, the customers preferred to ride a mustang in Marlboro Country. It only takes a few wrong decisions and little time to seriously damage a brand. Today, Camel has little significance on the cigarette market.
Jack Daniel‘s is treading a new path with their No 27 Gold. On one hand, they keep the traditional charcoal mellowing procedure; on the other, they use unusually sweet maple casks, which may appeal to new customers. After only selling this bottle on few target markets, it is now commonly available, showing, that it got accepted by the buyers.
On a Side Note: Tennessee Whiskey vs. Tennesee Whisky
Whisky or Whiskey? Depending on in what country wea are talking about this beverage, the spelling differs. Whiskey, the spelling with the ‘e‘, is only used in Ireland and the United States. Every other country like Scotland, Germany, or Canada, leaves the ‘e‘ out.
Therefore the fitting term would be Tennessee Whiskey, like Jack Daniel‘s named their products. But there are a few cases, in which the spelling without an ‘e‘ is used. George Dickel is one of them, but with a certain reason: To underline and stress the claim that their Whisky is just as good as Scotch, the brand sticks to the original spelling from Scotland. Their production, however. is still the same as for any other Tennessee Whiskeys.
More Information for you:
Take a look at the famous Jack Daniel's Distillery with our Distillery Tour Video:
How does a Tennessee Whiskey taste? Check out our Tasting Video about the George Dickel No. 12:
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