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The defining moment: Kentucky bourbon vs. Tennessee whiskey

Mar. 30, 2007 - 09:11AM   |   Last Updated: Mar. 30, 2007 - 09:11AM  |  
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Ridgemont Reserve 1792 Small Batch Bourbon coats the inside of a sipping glass.
Ridgemont Reserve 1792 Small Batch Bourbon coats the inside of a sipping glass. (M. Scott Mahaskey / Staff)
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Dispatches from the ‘Whiskey Trail':

Dispatch 1: 7 secrets of bourbon tasting

Dispatch 2: Maker's Mark: A tale of whiskey and wax

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The debate over http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bourbon_whiskey">Kentucky bourbon versus http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tennessee_whiskey">Tennessee whiskey has raged for as long as the two have been around.

Pop culture is no help. http://www.allmusic.com/cg/amg.dll?p=amg&sql=11:jifrxqr5ldse">George Thorogood needed "one bourbon, one scotch and one beer," while http://www.allmusic.com/cg/amg.dll?p=amg&sql=11:wifyxql5ldse">George Jones found a love "as smooth as Tennessee whiskey."

Visitors to distilleries in both states all want to know the same thing:

What's the difference?

"It's a big difference," said Lynne Tolley, master whiskey taster and great-grandniece of http://www.jackdaniels.com/">Jack Daniel, the largest-selling whiskey in the world. "And so many consumers and the general public do not know."

Ultimately, it all comes down to charcoal.

For much of its life, Tennessee whiskey is very similar to Kentucky bourbon. Both are made from a blend of corn — at least 51 percent to qualify as bourbon, though Jack Daniel's uses 80 percent — plus rye and barley malt. The grains are cooked with limestone-filtered water, fermented, strained and distilled (then generally distilled again, to further remove impurities), until what remains is a high-octane alcohol ready for aging.

"Essentially, this is a moonshine," said John Lunn, master distiller for whiskey maker http://landingpage2.dickel.com/?Lang=en-us&BrandId=SO&RefUrl=http://www.dickel.com/Templates/HomePageTemplate.aspx?NRMODE=Published&NRNODEGUID=%257b48859475-3697-449D-9701-0F596C8B187E%257d&NRORIGINALURL=%252f&NRCACHEHINT=Guest">George A. Dickel & Co. "A really, really good moonshine."

Bourbon makers like to say that "all bourbon is whiskey but not all whiskey is bourbon." At this point in the distillery process, turning the brew into Tennessee bourbon would be easier — and cheaper — than turning it into Tennessee whiskey. But instead of moving the distilled alcohol directly into charred, white oak barrels the way their bourbon-making cousins do, Tennessee whiskey makers go a step further.

The booze is strained through finely chopped sugar maple charcoal (made at the distilleries) and blankets of white virgin wool. Known as the "charcoal-mellowing process," the additional step removes additional impurities and refines the flavor of the drink.

"It takes days for a drop of Jack Daniel's to get all the way to the bottom," Tolley said. "And then it goes into the barrel."

The barrels are then moved out to the storage warehouses for aging — the process is very similar in both bourbon and Tennessee whiskey manufacturing — which adds color and flavor.

It's worth noting that the charcoal-mellowing process removes many more impurities left behind during fermentation, particles called congeners. While they contribute to the taste, congeners are often accused of contributing to hangovers.

Lunn wouldn't promise that overindulging in George Dickel won't result in a hangover, however, only that wines and beers are more likely to spark one.

And if you can't get past the fact that Tolley's title of "master whiskey taster" sounds like one of the best jobs in the world, there's something you should know:

"They won't let us swallow," she said.

Instead, the 20 tasters who test the pre-aged mix and the 25 who taste the matured brew all spit their Jack Daniel's out after a good swish in the mouth.

That's not to say that working for Jack Daniel's doesn't come with perks. On the first Friday of each month, employees each get a free bottle.

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