I’m a huge Tennessee whiskey fan. While there aren’t nearly as many Tennessee whiskeys as there are, say, Kentucky bourbons, there’s still some amazing work being done in the Volunteer State. Plus, a lot of Tennessee whiskeys are simply released as “straight bourbons,” so some do get lost in the mix. Either way, there are enough great new Tennessee whiskeys coming out that I decided it was time to blind taste some.
Okay, at this point you’re probably wondering what makes a “Tennessee whiskey” Tennessee whiskey. Here goes: All Tennessee whiskey is bourbon (unless it’s called Tennessee rye whiskey). The style is a sub-category of bourbon by definition and by law. Tennessee whiskey has to be made with at least 51% corn in the mash bill, aged in new oak, and has specific proof points along the way for distilling, aging, and bottling. All of that makes it a type of bourbon, because those are the exact same rules for bourbon.
This is so unequivocally true that a lot of distillers/blenders/brands just release their Tennessee whiskey as “Tennessee bourbon” or just “straight bourbon whiskey.” In fact, if Jack Daniel’s wanted to release a “Jack Daniel’s Straight Bourbon Whiskey” tomorrow, they could take any barrel of Old No. 7 and do so.
Tennessee whiskey is, by law, a “straight bourbon that was made in Tennessee.” According to the feds and international trade, that’s it, that’s the definition/law. The state of Tennessee also added that to be called a “Tennessee whiskey,” the juice has to go through charcoal filtration — or the famed Lincoln County Process, which sees hot juice off the stills slow-dripped through several feet of sugar maple charcoal.
But even that has exceptions in the state, making the definition pretty much moot outside of Tennessee. Moreover, most bourbon is filtered in one way or another anyway but usually after aging, unless it specifically says otherwise. Go look at your bottle of Evan Williams a little more closely and you’ll see mention of “charcoal filtration.” So, this is actually less of a variable than most think. That’s not to say nothing is happening during filtration either before or after aging, it is. We’re just not here to dive into that aspect right now.
What is a big variable is the mash bill. A lot of Tennessee whiskey is far more corn-forward than the juice from up north in Kentucky. Where Kentucky bourbons very generally have a mash bill with 70 to 74% corn, Tennessee bourbon whiskeys generally will have a corn component closer to 80 to 84%. Both still use wheat, rye, barley, and other grains at will to make up the rest of the mash. This is — in part — is what gives the Tennessee sauce a bit more sweetness. Then, of course, there’s the use of different yeasts, unique water sources, and varying climates for aging that make it a different beast too. It’s still bourbon though. In the end, folks, how this juice is labeled really depends on the whim of the brand.
So the next time you hear someone say, “Tennessee whiskey isn’t bourbon!” You can politely reply, “All Tennessee whiskey is a straight bourbon that’s charcoal filtered before aging, with exceptions like Prichard’s Tennessee Whiskey, which isn’t.”
All of that means that a lot of the whiskeys in this blind taste test are labeled as either “Tennessee Whiskey,” “Tennessee Straight Bourbon Whiskey,” or simply “Straight Bourbon Whiskey.” The throughline is that they’re all from Tennessee or were blended with juice from Tennessee to make a blended straight bourbon whiskey. Phew. Glad that’s out of the way, aren’t you?
Our lineup today is:
- Heaven’s Door Aged 10 Years Decades Series No. 1 Straight Bourbon Whiskey
- Barrell Craft Spirit Bourbon Aged 15 Years A Blend of Straight Bourbon Whiskey (TN, KY, IN)
- Pursuit United 2022 Release Blended Straight Bourbon Whiskeys (TN, KY, NY)
- The Clover Single Barrel Tennessee Straight Bourbon Whiskey
- George Dickel Bourbon Whisky Aged 8 Years
- Jack Daniel’s Bonded Tennessee Whiskey
- Nelson Bros. Whiskey Reserve Bourbon A Blend of Straight Bourbon Whiskeys
- Chattanooga Whiskey Bottled In Bond Vintage Series Spring 2018 Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Let’s dive in!
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Part 1: The Tasting
This opens strong on the nose with a mix of overripe pear, wintry spice, rich toffee, soft vanilla, and woody maple syrup. The palate is luxurious and leans into buttery toffee and soft vanilla cream with layers of warming spices that lean toward a black Necco Wafer, moist marzipan, and old porch wicker. That earthy note leads towards some soft powdered dark chocolate with an almost sour edge before worn garden leather gloves with a speck of sweet potting soil mixes with a stewed pear tobacco finish.
This is a pretty amazing sip of whiskey.
Soft grains — think wet oats — and fresh buttered and salted popcorn pop on the nose with a chalky multivitamin, fresh-picked pears, soft toffee candy, and a drop of cherry juice. The palate leads with a cherry Necco Wafer before veering into tart red berries, dry and powdered winter spices, dry sweetgrass, and a touch of wet brown sugar. The end is lush and hits on a soft Earl Grey tea vibe before hitting a moment of black dirt and cherry tobacco by way of an old cedar box.
This is another winner. It’s just straight up delicious.
The nose draws you in with a mix of old leather and a back porch on a sunny day with layers of apple and pear skins, plenty of dark spice, white sugar frosting, dry grass, and a hint of sour cherry. The palate has a light ABV warmth (a Kentucky hug if you will) that fades toward a mix of chocolate-covered cherries and orange spice next to mulled wine and vanilla cookies. The end leans into porch wicker with that cherry darkening toward more spice and dark chocolate on the finish.
I’m three pours in and all three have been killers. I might be f*cked ranking these.
This opens with bright red fruit countered by old leather with a hint of caramel sauce and yellow Necco Wafer lurking deep in the nose. The taste opens with a soft oatmeal cookie before cherry chalk leads to cherry candy with a touch of almond and vanilla wafer accented with toasted kindling. The finish leans into the soft vanilla and caramel with cherry dominating.
Okay, this is good but not nearly as good as the last three. I might be out of the weeds.
This nose is classic, with rich vanilla next to dry spicy tobacco leaves next to apple hand pies with sugar icing made with plenty of dark spices and butter. The palate has a bran vibe that hints at a white Necco Wafer with a ripe white peach fresh off the tree with a hint of ginger bite to it. The end circles back around to a vanilla wafer with nutmeg, orange zest, and a twinge of dark chocolate sauce leading to a dry and slightly molded wicker chair sitting in the sun.
This is a pretty big step up from the last pour but I’m not so sure it’s as stellar as the first bunch.
The nose draws you in with Cherry Jolly Ranchers next to sweet cedar bark braided with old strands of leather and orange-laced tobacco leaves while a hint of vanilla wafer and general “health food store” vibes underneath it all. The palate feels like warm apple pie on a sunny day with the best vanilla ice cream on top as layers of eggnog nutmeg and creaminess move toward a Cream of Wheat vibe and some apple wood chips for a smoker and a hint of almond shells on the finish.
This is different but as good as the last one, I think. It doesn’t have that velvetiness of the first three pours, but it’s damn good.
This is, again, classic on the nose with orange zest mingling with vanilla pods, winter spices, cherry syrup, and leathery pouched full of apple pie. The palate has a grainy vibe that leads to dark chocolate and Cherry Coke with warming spices (allspice and clove) next to banana bread with plenty of walnuts. The end has a touch of black pepper next to green tea and honey with a final note of vanilla wafer and wet tobacco.
This is some good stuff. It’s a little lusher but still feels mid-ground for this tasting.
Now this is a nose! There are distinct notes of rich toffee, old leather boots, dark chocolate-covered tart berries, malted vanilla milkshakes, a tiny hint of orange oils, and a twinge of wet masa. The palate mixes those tart red fruits with cherry candies, Southern biscuits dripping with honey, browned butter, and vanilla wafers. The end leans into the drier aspects with a spiced bark vibe next to dry cherry tobacco and woody spices and maybe some hickory chips.
This is up there. It’s delicious, unique, and fresh.
Part 2: The Ranking
8. The Clover Single Barrel Tennessee Straight Bourbon Whiskey — Taste 4
Average Price: $46
This whiskey is a celebration of golf legend Bobby Jones. The juice in this bottle is a sourced (from an undisclosed distillery) single barrel of whiskey that’s bottled with a touch of proofing water.
This is a good whiskey overall. It was just up against some crazy competition today and fell to the bottom of the list. That said, I would recommend giving this a shot both for its taste and price.
7. Jack Daniel’s Bonded Tennessee Whiskey — Taste 6
Average Price: $35
This whiskey is made from Jack’s classic mash of 80% corn, 12% barley, and 8% rye before it’s twice distilled and run through Jack’s long Lincoln County sugar maple charcoal filtration process. The spirit then goes into the barrel for at least four years — per bonded law — before it’s batched, cut down with a little water, and bottled.
This is another bottle I’d recommend at least trying. It’s really good but sits a little lower on this list for being very middle-of-the-road, which is kind of the point of this whiskey. It’s really made for everyone to enjoy.
6. George Dickel Bourbon Whisky Aged 8 Years — Taste 5
Average Price: $38
The whisky in the bottle is the same Dickel Tennessee whiskey but pulled from barrels that leaned more into classic bourbon flavor notes instead of Dickel’s iconic Tennessee whisky notes. The barrels are a minimum of eight years old before they’re vatted. The juice is then cut down to a manageable 90-proof and bottled.
We’re still very squarely in the middle of the road here, but it’s a nice place to be. This is a quality workhorse bourbon that works on the rocks as well as it does in a cocktail.
5. Nelson Bros. Whiskey Reserve Bourbon, A Blend of Straight Bourbon Whiskeys — Taste 7
Average Price: $60
This new release from Nelson’s Green Brier is a big evolution for the brand. The high-rye bourbons are aged for four years before they’re masterfully blended into this expression. It’s then bottled without any fussing or meddling.
Okay, this is the last “middle of the road” whiskey on the list. This is a quality pour on the rocks but really shines as a killer cocktail base. It’s very distinctly a “classic” bourbon — and that’s a good thing — but that’s where the flavor profile ends.
4. Barrell Craft Spirit Bourbon Aged 15 Years, A Blend of Straight Bourbon Whiskey (TN, KY, IN) — Taste 2
Average Price: $270
Barrell Craft Spirits is another craft blendery that’s sourcing some of the best barrels in the game and expertly marrying those barrels. This expression blends 15-year-old bourbon from Indiana, Kentucky, and Tennesse into a final product that reaches new heights for blended bourbon.
This is just on another level. It’s distinct and very Tennessee-forward thanks to that grain and chalky wafer vibe. Still, this is so much more than that, with real depth that takes you on a journey.
3. Pursuit United 2022 Release Blended Straight Bourbon Whiskeys (TN, KY, NY) — Taste 3
Average Price: $65
The team at Pursuit United re-vamped their bourbon for the first 2022 release. They’ve picked barrels via Bardstown Bourbon Company from Kentucky, Tennessee, and Indiana that skewed a little more rye heavy this year and blended those into this high-proof release.
This felt like a real evolution of the brand with deeper notes and bolder flavors. This is high-quality juice with a great balance and fun profile. I can also see making a mean Manhattan with this as the weather turns a bit cooler.
2. Chattanooga Whiskey Bottled In Bond Vintage Series Spring 2018 Straight Bourbon Whiskey — Taste 8
Average Price: $55
This particular whiskey was made back in spring 2018 and released in June 2022. The whiskey is a blend of four mash bills that all feature specialty malts ranging from honey malts to oak-smoked barley to naked oats to chocolate roasted barley to caramel malts and many more. The throughline is yellow corn, bonded warehouse aging, and proofing down to 50% ABV.
This is just stellar whiskey. It’s lush and supple with a deep yet distinct flavor profile that’s as delightful as it’s satisfying. This is a winner. Still, there was one more pour that just edged it out today.
1. Heaven’s Door Aged 10 Years Decades Series No. 1 Straight Bourbon Whiskey — Taste 1
Average Price: $95
This is the first in the new series from Bob Dylan’s Heaven’s Door Tennessee whiskeys. The juice is a 10-year-old straight bourbon that was made in Tennessee but wasn’t charcoal filtered before or after aging. The sourced barrels were blended and just proofed down before bottling without any other fussing.
This was delicious, nuanced, and kind of exciting. It’s that good. This is a contender for the best bourbons of the year for sure.
Part 3: Final Thoughts
This was a hard ranking. All of these whiskeys had their charms and there was something I liked about each one. Though eight through five were definitely more everyday or table bourbons, I’d still be more than happy to keep a bottle around.
Four through one really were the standouts. Each one offered something unique and beautiful. You won’t be disappointed tracking any of them down. That said, the new Heaven’s Door was just the best overall and unbeatable today in both flavor and nuance while feeling like something completely new and fresh. It’s a great pour is what I’m getting at. But you better pre-order it now. It’s not going to last on the shelf.