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Tennessee Whiskey and the Lincoln County Process
As the debate of whether Jack Daniel’s is a bourbon or not continues to rage, it’s a fact that inevitably the idea of Tennessee Whiskey as a category and the phrase “Lincoln County Process” will come up. But what exactly is the “Lincoln County Process” (aka “LCP”)?
The name comes from Lincoln County, Tennessee (United States) and refers to using “activated charcoal” for filtration purposes. But this process dates back to the Egyptians in 3750 BC with evidence of use to purify water in 400 BC. “Activated charcoal” is common charcoal (not the kind you use for BBQ) burned to temperatures as high as anywhere between 600 and 900 degrees Celsius (or 1,110 and 1,650 degrees Fahrenheit).
This history is referenced on the Nearest Green Whiskey’s Foundation site stating that it was likely to have been brought over from Africa and passed down to Nearest Green. (Nearest is credited as Jack Daniel’s mentor.) While other Tennessee distillers had also been using this method in the 19th century, it’s rumored that Jack Daniel’s advocated to establish Tennessee Whiskey as a distinctive product. In 1941, they obtained a letter from the IRS stating just that.
Tennessee whiskey wasn’t legally defined until NAFTA made it so in the 90’s and only several years ago in 2013 was it granted its own category by in House Bill 1084 as follows:
● Manufactured in Tennessee
● Mashbill of minimum of 51% corn
● Distilled to no more than 160 proof (80% ABV)
● Aged in new charred oak BARRELS in Tennessee. (Note the use of the term “barrels”. Small detail but if you read our September Women in Whiskey article, the legal definition of bourbon uses the word “containers”.)
● Maple charcoal filtration before aging (This is key to the Lincoln County Process, but even that hasn’t been detailed out.)
● Place in barrel at no more than 125 proof (62.5% ABV)
● Bottled at no less than 80 proof (40% ABV)
Picture credit: Tennessee Distillers Guild
Even when industry numbers are referenced in research reports, Tennessee Whiskey is usually referenced with bourbon. The Distilled Spirits Council reports that this category contributed to over $4 billion in revenue for distillers and is one of the top exports of Tennessee. (Although it should be noted that it has been negatively impacted by tariffs from the EU and China.)
While most Tennessee Distillers use this designation, Prichard’s Distillery chooses to offer “bourbon” AND Tennessee whiskey. And even Uncle Nearest opts out of this on their label. Last year, WBSE Member Jacob Kiper wrote to them directly asking “why the label does NOT use the terms “Tennessee whiskey”, bourbon, or straight whiskey”. Their response? “Uncle Nearest is sold and labeled as Premium Whiskey as that is what we want the focus to be on as so many do not perceive Tennessee Whiskey to be a premium product. That said, all of our whiskey is distilled and aged in Tennessee. We utilize… the process Uncle Nearest helped to perfect (Lincoln County Process…)…and place our whiskey into new American oak barrels to age. We choose to market as Premium American Whiskey, but we fulfill every requirement of Tennessee Whiskey.”
Legalese aside, even the scientific community is fascinated: the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry published recent research related to the Lincoln County Process from the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture. Tennessee Whiskey seems to be on everyone’s mind - as this issue goes to publish, Kelly Clarkson released her cover of Chris Stapleton’s rendition of “Tennessee Whiskey”.
Geekdom aside, there are many delicious Tennessee whiskeys aside from Jack Daniels and Uncle Nearest for you to try. I’ve personally enjoyed Belle Meade, Heaven’s Door, Corsair, and Nelson’s Green Brier, amongst others. If you’re up for a road trip (or to just get some ideas for bottle hunting), check out the Tennessee Whiskey Trail. What Tennessee whiskeys have you enjoyed?