Greetings from your resident booze bibliophile!
In my quest for knowledge, I’ve read an ungodly number of books on American whiskey and beverage alcohol history. It’s fair to say that almost of all of the whiskey history books focus overwhelmingly on Kentucky bourbon. Kentucky bourbon is certainly iconic, but a whiskey from Tennessee is currently the top-selling American whiskey on the world stage.
In 2024, we’re all familiar with Jack Daniel’s and George Dickel as distilleries, but how much do we actually know about the history of Tennessee whiskey? Do we know the history of Jack and George? What do we know about Tennessee whiskey outside of Jack and George? If you’d like to expand your knowledge far beyond what you currently know, Drew Hannush released his new book in November 2023: “The Lost History of Tennessee Whiskey: Heroes, Villains, and Legends from a Whiskey Story Time Forgot.”
Most whiskey history books jump straight to the founding of distilleries without a lot of backstory or historical place. Hannush spends a large chunk of the early portion of his book detailed the early days. Long before the commercial distillers entered the scene, Tennessee was the western frontier for American pioneers. Hannush sets the stage for the early days of Tennessee, before it was a state.
Tennessee certainly has its share of Scots-Irish whiskey settlers, but we learn that English and Welsh names are actually more common with early Tennessee distilling. We’re quite familiar with names like Evan Williams and Elijah Craig, but Tennessee offers us names like Evan Shelby and Hans Frederick Stump. While big things were happening with Kentucky whiskey, Tennessee had its own big names.
In modern day, most of us associate Tennessee whiskey with Lincoln County. Early in the history of Tennessee, Robertson and Lincoln were the two most popular counties for whiskey production. Our modern understanding of “Lincoln County whiskey” is that the whiskey follows all of the rules for straight bourbon, but that the white dog is filtered through sugar maple charcoal before going into the barrel.
However, historically, Lincoln County whiskey was that and more. You’ve likely heard that Alfred Eaton used the sugar maple charcoal leaching prior to Jack Daniel, but he didn’t create the process. We don’t really know who was the first to use the process. We do know that none of the early Tennessee distillers ever used the term “Lincoln County Process.” The first time “Lincoln County Process” as a term appears was in 1896 in the Louisville Courier-Journal. The first known bottle to claim the Lincoln County Process came in 1905 with Old White Oak Tennessee Whiskey.
When thinking of Tennessee whiskey, “sour mash whiskey” likely comes to mind. Jack Daniel’s and George Dickel are sour mash whiskies, but by our current understanding, so are Jim Beam and Old Forester. Dr. James Crow is heavily associated with the sour mash process that most of the big distillers still use today. However, the early Tennessee whiskey makers would argue that James Crow was not making sour mash whiskey, but sweet mash. Early Tennessee distillers defined “sour mash” as only adding backset to the new mash and then letting natural yeast take over without adding any commercial yeast. Early Tennessee distillers would argue that adding commercial yeast to a new fermentation tank along with backset is “sweet mash.” In today’s understanding, we define sweet mash as only adding commercial yeast without backset.
Early Tennessee whiskey makers not only set themselves apart by using their definition of sour mash and leaching, but also by the use of a log still. These were simple stills were encased with wood, rather than using large amounts of expensive copper. Not only was a log still cost effective, it was traditional. Lincoln County whiskey was the combination of all three components. However, the modern understanding of “Lincoln County Process” is simply the sugar maple charcoal leaching. However, early Tennessee whiskey makers truly felt that their process set their whiskey apart from Kentucky and other regional styles.
“The Lost History of Tennessee Whiskey” details the Temperance Movement in Tennessee along with the rise and fall of historical brands that are starting to be revived today. You’re likely familiar with modern brands such as J.W. Kelly, Old Dominick, and Nelson’s Greenbrier. While we might feel like such brands are new to the scene, those names have a long history in Tennessee whiskey lore.
While Jack Daniel’s is the current powerhouse in Tennessee, prior to Prohibition, Nelson’s Greenbrier was the biggest player. Hannush provides the history and stories that will make you better appreciate the bottles currently on shelves. In addition to names that were long defunct until recently, Hannush also details how Jack Danie’s and George Dickel re-emerged after Prohibition. If you enjoy knowing the history behind the names, Hannush delivers.
It only seems fitting that in a discussion of Tennessee whiskey, the question is raised “Is Tennessee whiskey a bourbon?” In the conclusion of his book, Hannush states that he sympathizes with the early Tennessee distillers in the belief that their whiskey was indeed different from Kentucky bourbon and other regional styles of whiskey. Early Tennessee distillers genuinely did not view their whiskey as the same as bourbon whiskey. It’s true that Lincoln County whiskey meant sugar maple leaching, log stills, and their definition of sour mash. All of those things certainly set them apart from Kentucky and other regions.
However, does sincere belief in a difference from bourbon actually change what something is? In modern time, Tennessee state law gives a definition of Tennessee whiskey; essentially bourbon that has been leached with sugar maple prior to barreling. The only Federal definition of Tennessee whiskey comes from NAFTA in which Tennessee whiskey is defined as a “straight bourbon whiskey produced only in the state of Tennessee.” Sincere beliefs are in play, but we come back to all Tennessee whiskey is bourbon, but not all bourbon is Tennessee whiskey.
Drew Hannush makes clear how early Tennessee whiskey distillers felt about their process and its relation to bourbon. I’d like to add the views of a modern Tennessee whiskey distiller: Jeff Arnett. If you’re not familiar with the name, Arnett was the master distiller at Jack Daniel’s until recently when he moved on to Company Distilling in Tennessee.
Jeff Arnett: “You hear all bourbons are whiskey, but not all whiskeys are bourbon. Likewise, all Tennessee whiskey is bourbon, but not all bourbons are Tennessee whiskey. Prichard’s is the only exception to that statement. [Prichard] was grandfathered out of the Tennessee whiskey law. If you follow the Tennessee whiskey law, your product will fall within the federal bourbon identity class of whiskey.
Tennessee whiskey is a style of bourbon that is produced in Tennessee and includes charcoal mellowing after distillation and prior to maturation. Jack Daniels’s only ‘fought’ with Diageo to not abandon their marketing statements regarding George Dickel. The Tennessee whiskey law was supported by 85% of the DSP holders in the state, who all agreed that maintaining the historical process that Jack Daniel’s and George Dickel had followed for over a century to be the standard that should be adopted. There’s no marketing shame in any of this being shared or reviewed publicly… even though I’m no longer with Jack, I was there every step of the way in the debate.”
Understanding where whiskey has been helps us to appreciate where it is now and where it is going. If you want a deeper understanding of the whiskey you buy, you’re absolutely going to want Hannush’s book. I’ve read a lot of books, and this is one of the best books out there regarding American whiskey. Kentucky’s tale has been told ad nauseam. There is far more to American whiskey history than just Kentucky.
When reviewing a book on Tennessee whiskey history, it is necessary to also review a bottle of Tennessee whiskey. I chose to go with a quality Tennessee distillery that doesn’t yet have the national reach as Jack Daniel’s or George Dickel. Just out of Nashville in Franklin, TN, you’ll find Leiper’s Fork Distillery. Some details on this whiskey:
Age: at least 4 years old.
Bottling proof: 100.
Mash bill: 70% corn, 15% rye, 15% malted barley.
I appreciate the unique mash bill and the fact that the malted barley is toasted. When thinking of Tennessee whiskey giants, we are accustomed to mash bills with corn in the 80% and up range. Leiper’s Fork gives us a much different look at a Tennessee whiskey mash bill with a lower amount of corn. All of the grain is non-GMO and grown within 40 miles of Leiper’s Fork Distillery.
Fermentation length: 3 to 5 days
Proof coming off the still: 137
Barrel entry proof: 110
Leiper’s Fork runs a 500 gallon Scottish-style swan neck pot still manufactured by Vendome in Louisville. The still featured on the bottle label is a depiction of their still.
Leiper’s Fork used char no. 4 new American oak barrels from West Virginia Barrel Co.
Leiper’s Fork is non-chill filtered.
Now that I’ve disclosed the production details, let’s get to the tasting!
Leiper’s Fork Bottled in Bond Tennessee Whiskey – Review
On the nose: I’ve been drinking a lot of Armagnac lately, so I’m oddly greeted by a familiar scent: raisin. I love my Armagnac, so the raisin scent is highly welcomed. Continuing with the fruity nose, I’m picking up fresh black cherry. The cherry note is definitely fresh fruit and not the artificial cherry flavoring. Next on my nose is buttercream frosting. I feel like I just took a whiff of a kid’s birthday cake. Finally, I’m getting an earthy milk chocolate aroma that I assume is attributed to the high malted barley content. This is an incredibly pleasing nose.
In the mouth: The first thing I detect is toffee and milk chocolate. As I savor, my mind combines the two notes into a Heath candy bar. One of my favorite treats is a Heath bar that has been resting in my freezer. I’m loving this combination of toffee and milk chocolate. Next, I’m picking up dried apricot. The apricot note blends nicely with the Heath bar. It’s not overly sweet, but noticeable. Baking spices make the next appearance. I feel like a dash of pumpkin pie spice was added to the bottle, but just a tiny dash. Who doesn’t love pumpkin pie spice? As of the of the notes blend together, I also detect that slightly earthy note that I got on the nose. I’ll again assume the slightly earthy note is due to the high content of malted barley. This whiskey has a heavy mouthfeel. The viscosity is delightful!
The milk chocolate keeps showing up from start to finish. I’ve found fruit at every point, but now I’m get something I wasn’t expecting with dried strawberry. I’d describe it as the dehydrated strawberries in the box of Special K breakfast cereal. The baking spices carry to the finish. I’m picking up some peanuts as well. Whereas I got a Heath Bar initially, the finish is a bit more like a Peanut M&Ms. Finally, there is a wisp of smoke that I’m sure comes the charcoal filtration. I’d describe the finish as long.
I’m thrilled to find a Tennessee whiskey that isn’t from a major distiller than I enjoy so much. I understand that Malt has high standards when it comes to rating whiskies. I’m going with a rating a of 6 out of 10, which I find to better than most whiskies. Leiper’s Fork Bottled in Bond Tennessee Whiskey is definitely an above average whiskey coming in at a MSRP of $79.99. If the price were a bit lower, I’d likely rate this bottle at a 7. However, it was only a few years ago when $80 got you a young and bad craft whiskey. You might think $80 is a tad high for a 4 year old whiskey, but at least this is a very good 4 year old craft whiskey.