By Chris Middleton

Setting the record straight

When Jack Daniel’s was Kentucky straight Bourbon
One of the most contentious debates in the world of whiskey is whether Jack Daniel’s is Bourbon. Let’s set the record straight. The answer is yes, it was – but only from 1936 until circa 1940, when it was a Kentucky straight Bourbon whiskey sourced from Schenley.

Upon Prohibition’s repeal in December 1933 Lem Motlow, nephew to Jack Daniel, intended to rebuild the Lynchburg distillery and bring back the Jack Daniel’s brand. However, Tennessee did not repeal its ban on the state manufacture of alcohol until September 1937 while Moore County, the home to Jack Daniel’s Lynchburg distillery, prevented distilling until June 1938. The years between production and releasing a four-year-old straight whiskey presented a legal imperative for Jack Daniel’s company to source a straight whiskey to protect their brand trademark. Hence, a Four Years Old Kentucky Bourbon came to market in Missouri and Illinois by the late 1930s out of legal necessity. Lem Motlow had previously entered into a litigious bottling agreement with Schenley in 1930, to sell the remaining Jack Daniel’s pre-Prohibition bonded stock as medicinal whiskey.

While it starts as raw Bourbon distillate, the difference is charcoal filtration or leaching through carbonised sugar maple


There’s one major difference in production and organoleptic taste that makes Jack Daniel’s Tennessee whiskey, not Bourbon. While it starts as raw Bourbon distillate, the difference is charcoal filtration or leaching through carbonised sugar maple, before mandatory periods of aging in new charred white oak containers.

This rectification removes some unpleasant flavour compounds and fusel oils and adds a sweeter taste. Since the 1880s every stencilled jar, embossed bottle and paper label made by Jack Daniel, the Motlows and Brown-Forman in Tennessee never referred to Jack Daniel’s as Bourbon. Before the Civil War Tennesseans promoted their proud whiskey tradition as an alternative style to Kentucky Bourbon, with the state’s most famous appellations of Lincoln and Robertson County sour mash whiskeys leached through hardwood charcoal. After the Civil War, in July 1868, the government introduced a Rectifiers Special Tax discriminating against Tennessee distillers. As charcoal filtration techniques were distinctive to Tennessee’s whiskey, the government amended the regulations in November 1870.

Only during the late 1930s, when the distillery had no Tennessee whiskey, was Jack Daniel’s labelled Kentucky straight Bourbon. For the record, Jack Daniel’s Tennessee whiskey is NOT Bourbon.


In February 1905, after the government legally defined straight versus blended whiskeys, Jack Daniel’s trademark was re-registered as ‘straight whiskey’ on October 5 1909. After Prohibition new whiskey regulations from July 1936 modified product identity terminology, leading to new interpretations. When Motlow applied to register Jack Daniel’s labels in 1940 he again wanted to describe Jack Daniel’s as straight whiskey; instead, the IRS requested the addition of the word Bourbon. This was a red rag to a bull, a historic affront to the only distillery in America still using charcoal filtering.

In October 1938 the distillery commenced operations after securing funding and local distilling permits. They continued to use the same mash bill of 80 per cent Lincoln County famous grade 1 white corn, rye and malted barley, distillation at 140 proof, leached through vats of sugar maple charcoal and aged in new charred oak 40-gallon barrels for more flavour extraction.

The first Jack Daniel’s straight whiskey returned as Green Label in late 1942, reaching its minimum legal age to be straight whiskey. By March 1941 the IRS agreed with the distillery’s submission: “On the basis of these analyses and a study of the process, it has been concluded that the whiskey has neither the characteristics of Bourbon or rye whiskey and is a distinctive product which may appropriately be labelled whiskey.” In June 1967 a federal judge reaffirmed Jack Daniel’s “even more distinctive than such irreplaceable Bourbon, because the unique method by which it was produced gave it a taste distinction from both rye and Bourbon, and was unlike any other whiskey on the market”.

Only during the late 1930s, when the distillery had no Tennessee whiskey, was Jack Daniel’s labelled Kentucky straight Bourbon. For the record, Jack Daniel’s Tennessee whiskey is NOT Bourbon.