By Richard Thomas
The Kentucky boy’s disdain for Tennessee whiskey once to came fairly easily to me, so much so that when I was younger (and much more foolish), I labeled Tennessee whiskey a bastard offspring of bourbon and yet another classic example of how Kentucky’s southerly neighbors made a mess of aping everything we did in the Bluegrass State. Yet over time I gained more affection for the Volunteer State’s virtues, such as Meat and Three joints and cities like Nashville, Memphis and Chattanooga.
So I’m not nearly as prejudiced against Tennessee these days, and even though I still hold Andrew Jackson and Isham Harris against the Volunteer State, I have come to see Tennessee whiskey and Jack Daniel’s in a different light. Jack Daniel’s is, after all, available just about anywhere in the world, and is often the best whiskey on hand in much of it.
The essence of what separates a Tennessee whiskey like Jack Daniel’s from Kentucky bourbon whiskey is the Lincoln County Process. This is an extra step between distillation and aging, whereby the new whiskey is drip-filtered through a thick layer of maple wood charcoal. Before and after that, the making of Jack Daniel’s and any other Tennessee whiskey is basically the same as what goes on in Kentucky’s bourbon country.
For most, the black label of Jack Daniel’s (sometimes also called “Old No. 7”) is what the distillery all about, but the nature of this whiskey has changed during my lifetime. Historically, Jack Daniel’s Black Label was produced at 90 proof (45% alcohol), and then reduced to 86 proof (43%). In 2004, Jack Daniel’s took Black Label down to 80 proof (40%). I feel the lowered alcohol content also takes back something of the whiskey’s manly bite, and in doing so it’s just not what it used to be. This ain’t the Jack Daniel’s guzzled by John Belushi in Animal House. Imagine some pulling smoke and fire out of Knob Creek and you’ll understand the difference.
As previously described, Jack Daniel’s Black Label is now bottled at 80 proof (40% alcohol). The square bottle and its label are so recognizable as to be almost cliched, but these two features have proven far more stable than other, similar icons of labeling, such as Coca Cola.
In the glass and bottle, this whiskey has a dark, deep amber color that is very pleasant to look at. The aroma of Jack Daniel’s is thick and smooth, with strong hints of caramel and vanilla. The flavor is sweet and silky, like warm molasses. The finish is of middling length, smooth and warm, although with a slight fiery bite on the end of it.
A fifth-bottle of Jack Daniel’s usually goes for about $20 or $25 in the United States, depending on local taxes. In Europe, it’s an import and closer to 35 euros.