Tennessee whiskey is, by its very design, a more refined version of bourbon. And things don’t typically taste worse the more refined they become. For me (as someone who drinks a fair amount of whiskey for a living), the juice from Tennessee is more interesting to me (in general) than its Kentucky cousin. Both because of that refinement and the relative scarcity of the stuff compared to the much more ubiquitous bourbon.
What sets Tennessee whiskey apart from Kentucky’s bourbon is one step in the entire distilling/bottling process. For the most part, Tennessee whiskeys and ryes have to follow the same rules as standard bourbons and ryes. Except for a bottle to be called a “Tennessee” whiskey or rye, it has to go through the Lincoln County Process. This is a filtration step — usually before aging — where the hot juice is run through or steeped with sugar maple charcoal, to add more depth of flavor and color to the juice. This process was popularized by the legendary first master distiller of Jack Daniel’s distillery, Nathan “Nearest” Green. (Just to be clear, “Tennessee bourbon” does not have to go through the Lincoln County Process. It’s usually just bourbon made in Tennessee.)
If you’re feeling a little burned out on Kentucky’s signature tipple, it might be time to put down the bourbon and reach for a bottle of whiskey from Tennessee that’s newer to your palate. To help you get into the style in a little more depth, I’m calling out eight bottles I dig. Some of these are going to be pretty easy to find, others… not so much.
Still, tracking down a good bottle of booze in half the fun.
Uncle Nearest 1884 Small Batch Whiskey
Distillery: Nearest Green Distillery, Shelbyville, TN (Sourced)
Average Price: $45
This label, which celebrates Uncle Nathan “Nearest” Green and his achievements in Tennessee whiskey, is a great entry point into the style. The juice is sourced but the barrels are hand-selected by descendants of the Green family who still work either for Uncle Nearest or Jack Daniel’s.
The nose comes in a mildly sweet with a note of earthiness and clear vanilla. That vanilla carries on, as a nice spice kicks in alongside a tart fruit edge. The sip holds onto the cinnamon spice as light flourishes of more fruit and even florals dance in the background on a lingering finish.
This is a very solid bottle for mixing cocktails. Try it in an old fashioned and go from there.
Nelson’s Green Brier Tennessee Whiskey
Distillery: Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery, Nashville, TN
Average Price: $30
Nelson’s Green Brier is on the frontline along with Uncle Nearest in bringing the spotlight back to Tennessee whiskeys. This signature expression from the shingle uses a corn base with a dose of wheat and malted barley — essentially making this an analog to a “wheated” bourbon. The juice is slowly filtered with sugar maple charcoal before aging in new oak until it’s just right.
Caramel apples spiked with sharp cinnamon mingle with an oily vanilla bean pod. The cinnamon, apple, and caramel carry on through the taste as a sense of dark chocolate powder ebbs late. The sweetness edges towards a wet brown sugar that pushes the tart apple and cinnamon into baked apple crumble territory, with a fleeting hint of dark berries on the very end.
I dig this stuff a lot. I use it mostly for highballs with soft mineral water to help all those notes really shine.
Davidson Reserve Tennessee Whiskey
Distillery: Pennington Distillery, Nashville, TN
Average Price: $35
Davidson Reserve from Pennington’s stills in Nashville is a Tennessee whiskey version of a “high-rye” bourbon. The corn and rye are the stars of this mash with a small supporting role from malted barley. The juice is filtered and then spends at least four years in the barrel before it’s blended into small-batch bottlings.
Crème brûlée covered in fresh strawberries draw you into this sip. The sweetness is pure maple syrup that supports a baked peach fruitiness alongside notes of mild nutmeg and flicker of pineapples baked into sugar cookies. The warming end embraces all the fruit as a quick flash of fresh mint arrives right at the end to close things out.
This is a great cocktail base to have on hand. All that fruit and a little bit of mint make it work well in a whiskey smash or mint julep.
George Dickel Bottled in Bond Distilling Tennessee Whisky
Distillery: Cascade Hollow Distilling Co., Tullahoma, TN (Diageo)
Average Price: $45
Master distiller Nicole Austin might be one of the sharpest distillers working today. Case in point, this bottled-in-bond release highlights Austin’s keen sense for when whiskey is ready for the bottle. This expression spent eleven years aging in Cascade Hollow’s rickhouses under bonded supervision before it was filtered and bottled under Austin’s watchful eye.
Christmas spices and pecan pie greets you. The sip stays bold with a sense of tart apple orchards next to bushels of sweet red berries as notes of vanilla pop up alongside a continued sense of all those spices. The fattiness of the nuts peeks in again as the fruit mellows into a buttery and spicy cobbler.
I drink this stuff on the rocks mostly. Though if it’s around the holidays, this becomes the go-to Manhattan base, with a nice and herbal sweet vermouth.
Fugitives Grandgousier Tennessee Whiskey
Distillery: Nashville Craft Distillery, Nashville, TN
Average Price: $60
This single barrel expression is all about the grain-to-glass experience of Tennessee. The mash uses a Hickory Cane heirloom corn that was cultivated in the area long before Europeans showed up. They also use Irish malted barley to round out the mash bill before small-batch copper pot distillation. The juice is then filtered with their own sugar maple charcoal. Then the juice goes into the barrels until it’s just right.
Roasted corn cobs dance next to caramel covered apples and a hint of freshly baked biscuits dripping with butter. That buttery biscuit note carries on as flavors of fruit, vanilla, and spice mingle on the palate. The sip ends slowly with a return of the corn and caramel as a faint wisp of smoke.
If you can get your hands on this one, try it as a sipper with a single rock or few drops of water.
Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel Select Tennessee Whiskey
Distillery: Jack Daniels Distillery, Lynchburg, TN (Brown-Forman)
Average Price: $50
You can’t have a list of Tennessee whiskeys without Jack Daniel’s … you just can’t. This expression is a great highlight for the mammoth brand. Each bottle is hand-selected from the upper floors of the rickhouses. Each barrel is selected for its character and depth that best represents what a great dram of Jack can be and is then bottled individually.
Toasted oak is the dominant note up front with a hint of dark spice and maple sugar. Subtle vanilla sits next to a very slight essence of banana as the spice and wood continue to be the center of the sip. The spice gets a little peppery on the end as the vanilla marries to the toasted oak before the sip slowly fades away with one last gasp of fruit.
I tend to drink this with a single rock, though I’ve been known to use it as a cocktail base as well.
Collier and McKeel Tennessee Whiskey
Distillery: Pennington Distilling, Nashville, TN
Average Price: $55
As much as Jack Daniel’s feels like and an “old school” whiskey, Collier and McKeel really feels like a throwback (even though it’s not, really). The rye in the all-locally-sourced mash bill helps to amp up the distillate. But it’s really the slow, drip-by-drip sugar maple charcoal filtration that comes to define this dram.
There are clear notes of bourbon vanilla, caramel, and oak up top. Hints of honey mingle with notes of apple, worn leather, and a distant whiff of pipe tobacco smoke. The sip holds onto that thin smoke as it hits the honey-sweetness and bourbon-y notes again on the slow fade.
This makes for an exceedingly interesting highball base… if you can find it.
Clayton James Tennessee Whiskey
Distillery: Tenn South Distillery, Lynnville, TN
Average Price: $35
This wheated Tennessee whiskey takes things very slow. The tiny craft distillery really focuses on the Lincoln County Process by taking that step their own way. Instead of slowly dripping their hot juice through the charcoal, they steep the whiskey with the charcoal under high-pressure conditions for a solid week. This adds some serious depth to the dram that really highlights what that sugar maple charcoal filtration can do.
Blooming fruit orchards — peach, pear, cherry, apple — greet you with big notes of vanilla and caramel. The sweetness of the sip leans towards a Grade A maple syrup stewing all those fruits with dashes of dark spices and a billow of smoky wood. Then the sip takes a turn, offering up an almost vegetal note with a savory herbal touch that somehow works before the end embraces the spice, fruits, and mild smoke on the medium-length finish.
This is a fascinating sip that works in any application, especially a highball.