Bourbon and Tennessee whiskey are often confused for one another in the minds of many consumers—there’s even debate in the whiskey world as to whether Tennessee whiskey can be considered bourbon. However, despite nearly identical production processes, the classic American whiskey styles do have some key differences. Here’s everything you need to know when comparing the two.
Bourbon vs. Tennessee Whiskey Fast Facts
• Both spirits are made with a mash bill of at least 51% corn and aged in new charred oak barrels.
• Tennessee whiskey must be made in Tennessee, while bourbon can be produced anywhere in the United States.
• Tennessee whiskey undergoes a charcoal filtering process called the Lincoln County Process, which aims to produce a slightly mellower spirit.
They both are made primarily with corn.
The mash bill, or makeup of grains in bourbon and Tennessee whiskey, must include at least 51% corn. The remaining 49% may include other grains like rye, wheat, and barley. Although the mash bill can feature different proportions of grains, it’s worth noting that the major producers of both Tennessee whiskey and bourbon are generally more corn-heavy, with mash bills often reaching 70% corn or higher.
They both must age in new charred oak barrels.
The charred new oak in which bourbon and Tennessee whiskey must age has compounds like vanillins, lactones, and tannins that help to give both spirits their characteristic caramelized color and flavor profile, which is often considered sweet compared to other whiskeys.
Neither spirit has a minimum aging requirement for their base designation, though they must be aged for at least two years to be labeled “straight,” or at least four years to be labeled “bottled-in-bond.”
They share other distillation requirements.
Both spirits must be distilled to a maximum of 160 proof (80% ABV) and barreled at a maximum of 125 proof (62.5% ABV). They must be bottled at a minimum of 80 proof (40% ABV).
Tennessee whiskey goes through a charcoal filtering process.
Tennessee whiskey uses the Lincoln County Process, a technique for which the unaged whiskey must be steeped in or filtered through maple charcoal chips before it’s barreled. This process removes impurities and strips the whiskey of some of its bolder corn profile, resulting in a mellower, softer spirit.
Although the terminology for the Lincoln County Process dates to the mid-1800s, the technique of using charcoal to mellow spirits has likely been used in whiskey-making for thousands of years. Almost all Tennessee whiskeys must use the Lincoln County Process by state law, but a special exception was made for Prichard’s Distillery when owner Phil Prichard argued that charcoal filtering was a process his ancestor, Benjamin Prichard, did not use.
Tennessee whiskey can only be produced in Tennessee.
As its name suggests, Tennessee whiskey can only be produced in Tennessee. While most bourbon, upwards of 95%, is made in the state of Kentucky, it can technically be produced anywhere in the United States.
Notably, while bourbon, as a classification, is regulated and defined by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), Tennessee whiskey currently is not, and regulations are enforced at a state level. Other policy agreements, like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and its successor, the United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement (USMCA), specifically define Tennessee whiskey as “a straight Bourbon Whiskey authorized to be produced only in the state of Tennessee…manufactured in accordance with the laws and regulations of the United States governing the manufacture of Bourbon Whiskey and Tennessee Whiskey.”
Common Brands of Bourbon and Tennessee Whiskey
There are around 30 distilleries that make Tennessee whiskey, but major producers include Jack Daniel’s, George Dickel, Nearest Green, and Prichard’s.
There are nearly 100 distilleries in Kentucky alone. Popular bourbon producers include Jim Beam, Evan Williams, Four Roses, Knob Creek, Maker’s Mark, Michter’s, and Wild Turkey.