Is Jack Daniel’s Bourbon?

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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.


Fred Minnick is the author of several drinks books, including Bourbon and Rum Curious. Sign up for his free drinks newsletter.

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2 Replies to “Is Jack Daniel’s Bourbon?”

  1. You are right, this has been debated ad nauseum, and it’s pretty clear JD could label their whiskey as “bourbon” if they wanted to. Having an official Federal designation for Tennessee Whiskey wouldn’t make it any less bourbon, just something of its own, in addition to being bourbon (which, come to think of it, is what it already is).

    JD fits all the criteria for “bourbon”—unless you believe the Lincoln County Process adds flavor, and doesn’t just filter. Most believe it’s very clear there is no flavor added during the process. But I suppose only a court case would settle the issue for some people (and then again, those people may never be satisfied). I don’t see Jack putting “bourbon” on their label to test this, but perhaps another distillery will try it, someday. “Lincoln County Process Tennessee Bourbon”! Let the whiskey bloggers (and the comments) go wild!

    Jack #7 was a very decent whiskey, back in the 60’s and 70’s. And while it is still fine, it changed (for the worse) substantially over the years. I’m still not sure how they avoided the backlash other distillers experienced when they lowered proof/removed age statements. I suppose it’s because those changes happened before the big Bourbon boom of the past few years. But irrespective of what happened to #7, their higher-end releases have been pretty darn good, IMO. But I’m still more of a Dickel man, when it comes to Tennessee Whiskey.

  2. Things can be two things. A square is a rectangle and still a square.

    It doesn’t matter what Jack Danial’s calls their product if it meets the definition of bourbon its bourbon. If it meets the definition of Tennessee Whiskey its Tennessee Whiskey. If it meets both definitions its both.

    How Jack Danial’s promotes their product is a different matter. If they want to focus on the fact they are Tennessee Whiskey do differentiate themselves from similar products like other bourbons, that’s fine. Educated whiskey geeks know that Tennessee Whiskey is Bourbon, just like people with a knowledge of geometry know that a square is a rectangle. That doesn’t mean we go around calling squares rectangles or Tennessee Whiskey Bourbon.

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