Of the annoying conversations it is possible to have, as a liquor-enthusiast, the one that begins with some variation of “Well, you know that Jack Daniel’s isn’t a bourbon, right?” is the one that is most likely to send you to the nearest cyanide-pill dispenser or fire-axe. The main problem, of course, is that, as someone who actually enjoys drinking, you spend as much time savoring the taste of Jack Daniel’s as you do jello shots or, you know, Drano. Who cares what Jack Daniel’s (or, yes, I know, George Dickel) are classified as? They’re amateur-hour.
Nevertheless, it’s interesting to deal with a couple of the arguments about why Jack Daniel’s isn’t bourbon, from a strictly legal perspective. Also, you can use them to shut Annoying-McDoesn’t-Know-Whiskeys-Face up. You might need this as a handy reference. First, of course, you will be informed with nauseating smugness that JD and GD are “Tennessee Whiskeys” (check out my scare-quotes, right?), rather than bourbons. Note that there is no legal definition of Tennesse Whiskey (and also that first link on the Google page will attempt to break your computer, for reals).
Well, of course bourbon has to be made in Bourbon County, Kentucky, right? Or at least in Kentucky? Of course not (told you to read that). This person claiming these things knows nothing about liquor. Set them on fire and go back to enjoying your drink (which is probably made with rye, you snob). To be bourbon, it must first be technically whiskey (which means essentially that it has to taste, smell, and look like whiskey, because laws are awesome), and then it also must be made from not less than 51% corn and aged in new oak barrels at not more than 125 proof for, well, technically for any length of time. In and out is totally cool. And, whoa hey, it looks like Jack Daniel’s is made from a primarily corn mash and is totally aged in new oak barrels. The only iffy part is it might be 135 proof.
I was going to keep up the sarcastic tone while I discussed maple-mellowin’, but I think everyone is bored of it by now. So let’s just be clear. Nothing in the definition of bourbon makes it illegal to maple mellow, although the alliteration police may find it less than amusing. Basically, filtering new distillate through that huge amount of charcoal is a way to speed up the flavoring process normally done in-barrel, with the added bonus of cleaning up some unpleasant congeners from the low-proof distillate. Nothing wrong with it at all, certainly, and I am sure it contributes to both Jack Daniel’s and George Dickel’s distinctive tastes. But it does not make it a not-bourbon.
So why aren’t they bourbons? Well, for two reasons, I assume. First, and probably most importantly, the bulk of the whiskey produced in the US is bourbon, and so Jack Daniel’s is able to distinguish itself and carve out a market niche by refusing to be categorized as such, and making up its own category. Second, not being a bourbon removes some restrictions on processing, especially, apparently, in terms of proof of the distillate, but possibly also in mash-bill and the need to have new oak barrels all the time.
The people who get amazingly huffy about this distinction, therefore, are clearly idiots. This is a clear case of “if it walks like a mid-shelf bourbon and quacks like a mid-shelf bourbon, try drinking something that actually tastes interesting.”