Yes. And no.
Jack Daniel’s chooses not to call itself bourbon, but the historic brand applies for federal label approval under the class of bourbon and Tennessee whiskey is listed as straight bourbon in the North American Free Trade Agreement. And if you actually pull a high ranking Jack member aside and really push them on it, they will confirm that “technically” it is a bourbon.
But, it’s their choice to not call it bourbon, and they heavily lobbied to create a state Tennessee identity for their style of whiskey. So, out of respect for their labeling and state laws, I call them Tennessee whiskey. It’s absolutely a unique style that is a straight bourbon, charcoal filtered prior to entering the barrel. And frankly, Jack Daniel’s charcoal mellowing isn’t the leading flavor creator; it’s their yeast and water that, in my opinion, make Jack different. And to their credit, Jack does a good job telling their side of the story.
Still, the debate rages on (most people don’t care, BTW), and it gives us whiskey geeks something to rant about in social media forums, only proving whiskey evokes a passion as strong as: Is LeBron the greatest NBA player of all time? (Answer to that is no. Jordan is. Duh.”)
I spent a couple pages on this in my book, Bourbon Curious, but I expect this issue to go away one day. The federal government needs to step up and define Tennessee whiskey, ending the debate. Jack Daniel and Tennesseans clearly do not want to be associated with bourbon, and that’s just fine.
Unfortunately, for Jack, George Dickel, Charles Nelson and all the others labeling as Tennessee whiskey, they must endure the never-ending debate: Is Jack Daniel’s bourbon?
Of course, Jack Daniel is laughing all the way to the bank. Every time a whiskey geek speaks of Jack Daniel’s bourbon origins, they sell a case or twenty.
Jack Daniel’s marketing infiltrates every level of whiskey: geeks, food, entry level, etc. And I wouldn’t be so sure that they don’t love this “Is Jack bourbon?” debate….because we keep talking about it.