Sometimes the devil really is in the details

“I’ll have a chilled Hangar One, up, no garnish,” I said before taking my seat at the midtown bar.

I was minding my own business; having easily procured my drink all was well with the world. Life is so very much easier when your cocktail of choice is just one ingredient. Mixed drink? Probably not, but 30 seconds from order to completion and it can really be that easy. I was already halfway through my cocktail before my companion even finished ordering his Manhattan.

“Bourbon or rye?” the bartender asked. And it was downhill after that.

What brand? What kind of vermouth? What bitters? What garnish? Up or on the rocks? What glass? Shaken or stirred? All would surely follow. And that is not even getting into proportions. Or corrections for that matter.

“I want bourbon,” my friend said.

“What kind of bourbon?”

“I don’t know,” he answered weakly. “Jack Daniels?”

“Jack Daniels isn’t bourbon, it’s Tennessee whiskey.”

My friend looked at me. I just shrugged.

“I thought you’d chime in there,” he said later.

Technically speaking the bartender was right. Jack Daniels is not bourbon whiskey. But technicalities aren’t everything.

According to the Federal Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits established in 1964, bourbon whiskey is: “whiskey produced at not exceeding 160? proof from a fermented mash of not less than 51 percent corn, and stored at not more than 125? proof in charred new oak containers; and also includes mixtures of such whiskies of the same type. Whiskies which have been stored in the type of oak containers prescribed, for a period of 2 years or more shall be further designated as ‘straight.'”

There was no legal requirement for Tennessee whiskey until the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was ratified in 1994. It finalized a definition. Tennessee whiskey is: “a straight bourbon whiskey authorized to be produced only in the State of Tennessee.”

End of the debate right?


Lawmakers in the state of Tennessee decided early last year to define Tennessee whiskey further, adding to the existing straight bourbon regulations one stipulation and one exemption.

The stipulation: Tennessee whiskey must be “filtered through maple charcoal prior to aging,” often called the Lincoln County Process or charcoal mellowing.

The exemption: complicated legalese that essentially allows only one distillery, Benjamin Prichard’s, not to use this process for its Tennessee whiskey.

The top-selling brand of American whiskey in the world today is Jack Daniels Tennessee whiskey with sales of more than $200 million dollars a year. The world’s bestselling bourbon, Jim Beam, comes in at about $116 million. Bourbon as a category outsells Tennessee whiskey, but only because there are far more bourbons on the market than there are Tennessee whiskies.

“Why didn’t you say anything?” my friend asked again.

I looked at the bartender who had just put my friend through the ringer about his cocktail only to browbeat him after the fact on a tiny technicality.

“I don’t think it would have mattered.”

Leaving me with this these thoughts:

• There is no such drink as “Just a Manhattan” anymore.

• Someone once said, “The teacher appears only when the student is ready,” which can be frustrating for a student who thinks that he’s ready.

• The only whisky distillery located in Lincoln County, Tennessee, is Benjamin Prichard’s. Ironic because it is also the only Tennessee whiskey producer that does not use the Lincoln County Process.

• Benjamin Prichard’s also produces a “double barreled bourbon.” Good luck getting a legal definition on that.

• When researching bourbon whiskey on the Internet you often read that “Kentucky is the only state allowed to place its name on the bottle” — a stipulation that exists in no law anywhere.

• Early Times Kentucky whiskey is also not bourbon. But not because of a technicality in wording, but rather because it ages its product in previously used barrels. Kentucky whiskey has no legal definition.

• Much bourbon whiskey produced today is also charcoal filtered. Evan Williams used to put “Every Ounce Charcoal filtered” right on its label. However bourbon is typically filtered after aging, while Tennessee whiskey is filtered before. Discuss ad nauseam.