Jack Daniel’s is undeniably a classic as far as spirits go, with countless devotees from all over the world. But the immensely popular whiskey has had its share of controversy over the years.
Debates have frequently arisen between bourbon enthusiasts and whiskey drinkers as to how it should be classified. The burning question in particular: is Jack Daniel’s bourbon?
Put simply, the answer is “Yes”. Strictly speaking, Jack Daniel’s is bourbon, if you go by the federal label approval that categorizes it as such. But even the makers themselves dismiss the categorization, refusing to label their product as bourbon. As you might expect, this has caused a fair bit of confusion and only serves to stoke the fires of contention.
What is bourbon?
Bourbon is a type of whiskey made from corn mash. Ideally, it should contain 51% to 80% corn to obtain its characteristic sweet flavor. Most distillers keep the corn content to about 70% and use a mixture of other grains to make up the rest of the mash bill. These grains are primarily responsible for the resulting flavor and style of the bourbon.
The distillation process begins with sour mash drawn from the leftovers of the previous batch. This is left to sour further overnight before new mash is added.
Bourbon is usually aged for at least two years, although premium brands may be aged from five to 12 years. Rare varieties are aged even longer, sometimes up to 27 years.
What is Tennessee Whiskey?
The distillation of Tennessee Whiskey is so similar to bourbon’s that most examples–Jack Daniel’s, in particular–are categorized as such.
The process involves the distillation and aging of corn mash in a new American oak barrel to meet the same ABV standards as bourbon. However, Tennessee Whiskey is subjected to additional filtration according to the Lincoln County Process standards.
The fresh distillate is filtered using “ricks” or maple charcoal chips doused with the spirit and set on fire. Once the maple chips are blackened, they are placed in water to cool down. The charcoal ricks are then suspended in a large vat for a few days before the spirit is aged.
Is bourbon the same as whiskey?
Let’s go back to the confusion regarding Jack Daniel’s and bourbon. Some believe that the makers’ refusal to label the Tennessee Whiskey as bourbon is simply a marketing strategy.
Indeed, the continuing debate undoubtedly keeps whiskey aficionados talking, and Jack Daniel’s in the public consciousness.
Even so, it can’t be denied that bourbon and Tennessee Whiskey do have some important differences. To mention a few:
Bourbon strictly conforms to ABV standards
Bourbon needs to be aged in barrels to achieve a specific alcohol content level. Furthermore, the mash is distilled to 80% alcohol volume, which translates to 160 proof.
Bourbon is also aged until it is reduced to 62.5% alcohol volume (125 proof). It is further filtered and diluted to not more than 40% alcohol volume or 80 proof.
Other whiskeys follow varying ABV standards for distillation and barreling. For example, Scotch whiskey is often distilled at 40% ABV or 80 proof, with no minimum or maximum ABV requirements.
The barrels used are different
Both whiskey and bourbon are subject to an aging process. However, bourbon is strictly aged in new charred oak barrels with no coloring or other additives. The spirit is aged in these barrels for at least two years.
On the other hand, whiskey may be stored in rum, sherry, or port casks. There are also no restrictions on the use of new or used barrels.
Corn is a crucial ingredient in bourbon
The main factors that differentiate bourbon from other whiskeys are the manufacturing and aging processes. All whiskeys undergo aging as well, although the use of different fermented grains determines the whiskey variety.
On the other hand, the American Bourbon Association mandates that spirits have to be distilled from grain mixtures (mash) to qualify as bourbon. It should also have at least 51% corn content, which gives the bourbon a noticeably sweeter flavor than other whiskeys.
The takeaway from all this is: Yes, Jack Daniel’s is bourbon. Although there are notable differences between this particular Tennessee Whiskey and other bourbons, there are enough similarities in the distillation and aging processes to warrant placing them in the same category.