Article By: Lew Bryson
It takes a lot to be Straight Bourbon Whiskey.
There are rules about what grains can and must go into the mash, rules about how strong it can be coming off the still, how strong it has to be going in the barrel, how strong it has to be to be bottled. There are rules about the kind of wood used to make the barrels, and how many times a barrel can be used (once!), and how the wood must be charred before filling. There are rules about how long it must be aged in that barrel, and how that age can be presented on the label. And there dare not be any added coloring, flavoring, or aromas in bourbon whiskey.
If you balk at any one of these rules, you may have made whiskey, but it's not bourbon whiskey. It's complicated, finicky stuff. Now, take all those finicky rules, plus all the other stuff bourbon distillers do just because it works - like sour mash fermentation, the particular kind of corn they use, limestone water, copper in the still, and the complicated feng shui of building warehouses - take all that, I said, pack it in a big box, and take it down to Tennessee, around Tullahoma. ("Tullahoma," the woman at my motel said, "is from the Indian words 'tulla', what means 'mud', and 'homa', what means 'more mud'.")
Daniel master distiller Jimmy Bedford
INSERT George Dickel master distiller David Backus
Open that big bourbon box up and set up all that whiskey-making equipment and warehouses and rules . . . then add one more big step, and you're finally ready to make Tennessee whiskey, the kind they make at the Jack Daniel Distillery and at the George Dickel Distillery. Because in addition to all the other stuff bourbon distillers do, at Daniel and Dickel they slowly filter every single drop of their whiskey (or whisky, as they spell it at Dickel) through ten feet of sugar maple charcoal, what they call charcoal mellowing, or as it used to be called, The Lincoln County Process.
The Lincoln County Process is crucial to Tennessee whiskey. But don't confuse it with the chill-filtering you may have heard of used on other whiskeys prior to bottling, done to clear the whiskey of harmless proteins and fatty acids that could cause cloudiness if the whiskey got cold. And we' re not talking about the rough filtering that takes place when a barrel of aged bourbon is dumped - that's just to keep any chunks of char that may break off the inside of the barrel out of your bottle of whiskey. The important part of the Lincoln County Process is the timing: the whiskey is charcoal mellowed before it goes into the barrel, an additional step inserted in the whiskey-making process that isn't followed by bourbon distillers.
The Process may sound simple: run new make off the still through ten feet of charcoal. But George Dickel master distiller David Backus says that "The Lincoln County Process can ruin good whisky, and it can't make bad whisky good." There's a lot more than meets the eye here.
What meets the eye first is the fire. Charcoal mellowing doesn't mean running the whiskey through a pile of Kingsford briquettes - both Daniel and Dickel burn their own charcoal. They use sugar maple wood, and not just any sugar maple. "We're looking for sugar maple trees that grow in gladey areas," said Jack Daniel master distiller Jimmy Bedford. "You get an abundance of ply in those shady areas." Ply is the number of layers in a tree, the 'growth rings'. Trees grow more slowly in shady areas, so there are more rings per inch. More rings means more cellular wall, more cellular walls means more little pockets in the charcoal to catch what needs to be caught.
The sugar maple wood is cut in the fall to avoid sap pockets that can flare and explode, then air-dried. It is stacked loosely in square piles called ricks, about six feet high, with plenty of open space for cross-ventilation. Then the workers spray it with alcohol - something they've got plenty of, just laying around - and set it on fire.
Charcoal burners usually bury the wood, smouldering it for days with small vents at top and bottom. That's the way it's been done for thousands of years. That's not the program with the Lincoln County Process. The wood for whiskey is burned right out in the open, under high metal hoods that serve to funnel the smoke away from the burning ricks. I found a charcoal expert, Dr. Peter J. F. Harris, a British Professor who studies charcoal's microstructure. He was not completely familiar with the Lincoln County Process, though he had heard of it, and he speculated that since "many volatile compounds will be released when wood is heated to high temperatures, some of them harmful, notably methanol," open-air burning served to keep those compounds out of the charcoal to be used in the Process.
So instead of controlling the fire by the slow, largely self-regulating effect of burying it in earth, the burn is controlled by carefully-timed and aimed sprays of water. Not too much - or the fire might miss burning some of the wood - and not too little - which would burn the wood to ash instead of the cellular-structured charcoal. In about three hours, four ricks are reduced to a hot bed of coals, and the fire is extinguished. The charcoal is broken up to the size of a large garden pea, cooled, and taken to the mellowing sheds.
Five-foot wide vats, ten feet deep, are filled with those bits of charcoal, and the new-make whiskey, clear as water (or white lightning), drips down onto them and makes its slow way down through the bed, through a plain white virgin wool blanket. "The charcoal will last about six months," said Bedford. But that decision isn't made based on a mark on the calendar. When the whiskey stops tasting right coming out the bottom of the vat, Bedford makes the call to replace the bed. Not every drop comes back, either. "There's about a 1% loss in the mellowing process," he said.
They do things a little bit differently at Dickel. There's a blanket on the top as well as the bottom, and instead of the two crossed trickle pipes used at Jack Daniel, the whisky pours onto a perforated steel plate and into the vat. They also put a lot more whisky in there. "The charcoal bed is drowned," Backus said. The bottom of the vat is closed off, and whisky fills the vat 'til it is brim-full, then the bottom is opened.
"The whisky hits every spot of the bed," Backus explained. "If it trickles down, drop by drop, the whisky will make a path down through the charcoal, and it's going to miss some parts of the bed. Those parts will never get used, and the parts in the path get over-used." That may explain why Backus only changes a vat's bed about once a year. Like Bedford, it's a matter of the distiller's judgment. "Some beds go longer, some less," he said. "Most are about a year."
But the big difference at Dickel is that they keep the mellowing vats chilled. "We do cold chill mellowing," Backus said. "People noticed that the whisky we made in the winter tasted better." That's a Tennessee winter, of course, so don't picture vats of whisky with icicles hanging off them. That's what happens in Tennessee. What difference does it make in Massachusetts, once the whiskey is in the bottle and sitting on the shelf? I asked Jack Daniel's publicist (and raconteur, and corporate memory) Roger Brashears what the difference was between Tennessee whiskey and bourbon. He was cautious, because Brown-Forman makes some good bourbon, too, but he mused a bit. "Tennessee whiskey, with going through the charcoal . . . " he said, and paused. "It's sort of like beauty, it's in the tongue of the beholder. It's clean tasting, sharp, uncluttered. Bourbon has a cluttered taste to me. Taking someone else's tastes, though, that's like sending off for a mail-order bride - you don't really know what you'll get. It probably won't taste like that to you."
"In my terms, it's just a smoother, more mellow product," said David Backus. "The charcoal tends to remove some of the bite, the harshness that shows up in some bourbons." Backus set up a tasting of new make before and after the charcoal vats, and it was amazing. The stuff just off the column still was muddled, grainy, almost undecided about what it was going to be. But after the vats, it was a pure spirit of corn, sweet and light, just raring to get into those barrels and get to work.
What does that charcoal mellowing take out, what does it adsorb? Roger Brashears always says the Lincoln County Process "smooths out the hog tracks". It's hard to say, really, there are just so many things in new make. The charred oak barrels take some things out, double distilling takes more, but the Process is an extra step.
Ask the two about the difference between their own whiskeys, and see what happens. "We make it our way, and they make it theirs," Brashears said, diplomatically. "If there wasn't but one way to make it, and it all tasted the same, you wouldn't need but one company to make it." Backus notes the extra age on Dickel whiskey: "Generally our whiskey is aged longer," he said. "It's more mature, more mellow, with more sweetness, less bite."
Jack Daniel's Old No. 7 Black Label is the best-selling American whiskey, of course, and no one needs to be told how to sell it. But what about the other Jack Daniel whiskeys: Old No. 7 Green label, Gentleman Jack and the Jack Daniel Single Barrel? "Sell it by taste if you can," said Brashears. "Old Senator Reger Motlow believed in 'stomach to stomach advertising'. If you can get them to taste the whiskey, you won't need any advertising."
Dickel's not as familiar to most people. Brand manager Tom Bonaventura had some advice for hand-selling the brand: introduce it to people. "There are a couple ways to approach that," he said. "One thing we've employed is a taste test against Jack Daniel's or a Kentucky bourbon. The key is to sample the product. If you want to focus on hand-selling, it's all about sampling. Just getting people to try it works well, it sells itself.
"Some key talking points," he continued. "We continue to hand-craft it in small batches; there are no computer systems any where in the distillery. We've continued to use double-distilling and the cold-chill mellowing process. That's something George Dickel himself realized, that it works better when it's done cold. The true consumer will appreciate those differences. Those are key things that they take to heart. A lot of these neat little things we do with the brand can be communicated to the consumer, and they really taste the difference."
Dickel's looking forward to a higher profile as Diageo decides where to take the brand, and maybe some new bottlings. "As we move forward with re-opening the visitor center," Bonaventura said, "we'll probably look at developing products to meet consumer tastes, products that meet what consumers have told us they want. There's nothing specific underway at this point in time. We're doing a lot of consumer research, and when we identify those needs, we'll provide products to fulfill them."
What's next for Jack Daniel's? "We've been ahead of Beam the last five years," Brashears said, after noting that the two had swapped the lead in sales for years. "Now there ain't no Johnnie Walker Red made in the US, but they're out there in the international market, they're the biggest. I'd quote Satchel Paige: they better not be looking back, because someone's gaining on them."
Can Jack Daniel make enough whiskey to continue to grow? "The water's the only limitation on how much we can make," said Brashears, referring to the steady flow of water from Cave Spring, the water source on the distillery grounds, "and we ain't even dented it yet. So I think we can probably take care of it."
Things are a little different down in Tennessee than they are in Kentucky, and most of your customers don't realize it. A little bit of education - about the Lincoln County Process and Tennessee whiskey - could do them, and you, a powerful world of good.