Whisky & Culture

Tennessee fights

Lincoln County once rivalled Robertson County whiskey, with both regions in a bigger battle with Kentucky Bourbon
By Chris Middleton
Lynchburgh, Tennessee
Lynchburgh, Tennessee
From the 1830s Robertson County and Lincoln County were the two largest whiskey-producing regions in the state. These regional appellations are situated in Middle Tennessee and include the surrounding counties that also produce whiskey. Robertson County whiskey included Davidson, Cheatham and Montgomery Counties, with Lincoln County whiskey representing Bedford, Coffee and Franklin Counties. Moore County, created in 1872, was formed from these four counties.

Tennessee distilleries were early adopters of the sour mash method and all practised charcoal filtration, known as leaching, to rectify the spirit; in Kentucky most distillers continued to practise sweet mash fermentation by adding new yeast to each new batch of mash. Both made good-quality whiskeys, reflected in their retail prices.

Bourbon often commanded a 40 per cent premium over Tennessee’s regional whiskeys. They all held a significant premium over other whiskeys from the midwest and the east coast states. Pricing was not the only premium tool in Tennessee’s box, as Tennesseans spelt their state’s spiritus frumenti ‘whisky’, making a deliberate orthographic differentiation from Kentucky’s Bourbon ‘whiskey’.

Tennessee, America’s grain basket
Both Tennessee and Kentucky shared similar pioneering histories when the midwestern territories opened to European settlement from the 1770s. Middle Tennessee, the state’s primary distilling zone, was officially occupied after the Cherokee and Chickasaw nations ceded the land under the 1805 Third Treaty of Tellico.

Whiskey making had been underway in the northern part of the state since 1787, three years after Evan Williams is alleged to have started distilling in Louisville, Kentucky. John King was the first Tennessee distiller when he began his Nashville distillery in Davidson County. By 1799 Davidson County had 61 registered stills – a still for every 65 people. Some distilleries were of substantial scale with Fredrick Stump’s Nashville distillery having four pot stills making 600 gallons of whiskey a year. The rolling hills and fertile stream valleys populated with virgin forests of American white oak and sugar maple are ideal for corn cultivation and distilling of whiskey. Similar to Louisville, the metropolis of Nashville rapidly became Tennessee and the surrounding states’ wholesale centre for goods and whiskey.

Pricing was not the only premium tool in Tennessee’s box, as Tennesseans spelt their state’s spiritus frumenti ‘whisky’, making a deliberate orthographic differentiation from Kentucky’s Bourbon ‘whiskey’


From 1812 Tennessee distillers began to make whiskey a little differently, using the sour mash method in their fermentation and charcoal filtration to rectify the spirit. A leaching pioneer in Lincoln County was William Pearson, who immigrated from South Carolina with his family’s charcoal technique. Settlers from Virginia and the Atlantic coast states arrived with similar charcoal filtration recipes and the sour mash method.

By the 1840s these regional whiskeys started gaining a ‘high reputation’. These were also heady days for agriculture in Tennessee as it became the country’s largest grain-growing state. Tennesseans grew white corn of the old Southern dent family, with red cob corn the most popular Cherokee varietal cross. Red cob along with gourd-seed, shoepeg, hickory king and other white varieties remained the preferred corn. Tennessee farmers favoured the low oil content of white corn for hominy with distillers believing oily corn ‘injurious to distilling’.

The northern states grew yellow flint cross varieties for livestock feed. Distillers discovered the cheaper yellow corn with higher oil, starch and sugar content was better suited for distillation rendering a higher alcoholic yield and sweet flavour. Corn’s abundance in Tennessee manifested in the mash bills of more than 80 per cent; George Dickel continues to use 84 per cent corn today. Less rye and more corn meant a sweeter, less spiced whiskey. The quality and reputation of the Robertson and Lincoln Counties’ corn was the cornerstone of their whiskey’s popularity.

Each distiller may have had variations on their grain bills, and all adopted the sour mash method with variations on the percentage of setback from 10 to as high as 40 per cent. A slight downside was sour mash fermentation took at least 72 hours. Kentucky sweet mash distillers took 48 hours, benefiting from bolstering each fresh mash with new yeast creating a thicker beer.

Life was not easy for Tennessean distillers after the Civil War as new regulations came into effect. In May 1869 IRS laws on charcoal rectification had no clarity between a rectifier, compounder and distiller


Differences between Robertson and Lincoln whiskeys
The Lincoln County distillers were less innovative than Robertson County distillers. Perhaps the remote rural location isolated them from new technology, capital and ideas. Small distillers used 30 to 40-gallon pot stills. Rustic distillers continued to use log stills with boilers. Larger distilleries who could afford to upgrade in the decades after the Civil War modernised from pot stills, tub steam stills and wooden triple-chambered patent stills to higher volume tin-plated copper column stills engineered in cities like Louisville and Cincinnati.

The scale of production determined whether they leached through barrels, hogsheads or purpose-built vats. Distillery processes also varied in the depth and coarseness of the charcoal powder, and they applied different methods on how the distillate passed through the charcoal bed. Today distilleries have differing filtration techniques. Cascade Hollow Distillery in Coffee County chills its spirit before flooding it into vats. GreenBrier Distillery in Davidson County puts its spirit through a barrel.

Life was not easy for Tennessean distillers after the Civil War as new regulations came into effect. In May 1869 IRS laws on charcoal rectification had no clarity between a rectifier, compounder and distiller: “A rectifier is not merely a person who runs spirit through charcoal, but anyone who rectifies or purifies spirit in any manner whatever, or who makes a mixture of spirits with anything else and sells it under any name, is a rectifier.” Distillers using charcoal faced double tax jeopardy. This definition on charcoal filtration used by all Tennessee distilleries fell under an additional tax.

Another contentious definition was the term ‘continuous distillation’, which meant a closed system, whether pot stills, column and pot, wooden triple-chambered stills with a doubler, or using pipes or tubes between distilling plants. Congress noted, “The notion of continuous distilling, when singling spirit (i.e. usually 20% ABV) comes out into the open air, it must be considered as a completed process, for otherwise it may be carried off before the government gets its tax.” This definition put many traditional Tennessee distilleries at a financial and process disadvantage.

To address this ambiguity, William Bassett, surveyor of distilleries in Tennessee, successfully lobbied Captain Church of the revenue department when he visited Nashville to have the inhibition of charcoal removed. In November 1870 the IRS amended the definition so distillers were “allowed to purify or refine distilled spirits in the course of original or continuous distillation”. The government gave distilleries permission for redistillation, leaching or vaporising through charcoal, wood shavings, flannel or similar purifiers. Herein lies a clue to the inventiveness of some Roberston County distillers.

After the Civil War Robertson County distilleries continued to lead the state in production. They were also more experimental in distilling plant and process. Many of the government’s new qualifications accommodated distilleries in Robertson County’s unique technologies and methodologies. Large distilleries used ‘heated states of oxygenation’ and methods of vaporisation as part of their closed distilling systems.

Tennessee’s halcyon days were over by 1890. While state Prohibition was two decades away, the greatest competitive threat was America’s spreading corn fields fanning out from Ohio to Illinois and across to Nebraska into the corn belt.


A popular configuration was to include purifying columns packed with charcoal between the column still, doublers and flake-stand holding the condenser worm. One apparatus reported in the newspaper used heated charcoal. Others added modified purifiers with doublers allowing them to claim ‘thribble distilled’. Henry Kirk’s February 1868 patent for his Springfield distillery in Robertson County involved both boiling the singling run with charcoal and constructing the distillation to work in a closed system to avoid the risk of paying 50 cents per barrel excess for rectification. Mounted on the head of the column still was a cylindrical unit containing charcoal that rotated to drop fresh charcoal into the still. Presumably, the spent charcoal fell to the bottom of the column still with the grain draff or slops. His apparatus employed two doublers after the low wines column still so he claimed ‘treble’ distillation. Some Robertson County distillers claimed to use invasive heating methods involving heated rods to expedite ageing. They advocated this made a one-year-old whiskey taste like three years in wood by heating or filtering out fusel oils through charcoal and infusing the whiskey with a sweeter taste and cleaner flavour.

In July 1868 the government deferred the collection of excise by 12 months, extending maturation in the standard 40-gallon barrel and relieving distillers the tax liability on their cashflow. In 1878 it was extended to three years. Distilleries no longer had to pay excise at distillation but could age the whiskey before the tax duty fell. Before the Civil War ‘old’ whiskey generally meant at least three years in wood. Robertson and Lincoln County whiskeys originally aged at least two years. Without any enforceable standard, terms like ‘old’ were legally meaningless – especially with the rise of rectifiers, compounders and adulterators manipulating grain spirit with chemicals and flavourings to make rapid whiskey and give imitation taste and colour to resemble ageing.

Drinkers in Tennessee had a good selection of American whiskey to buy from the barrel in the 1870s. Locally, Kentucky Bourbons competed with Tennessee sour mash whiskey, white whiskey, corn whiskey and common whiskey. There was even a log-stilled ‘home-made’ whiskey from Lincoln County. Barrels with brand names appeared in grocery stores, liquor dealerships and saloons with Newsom’s, May Queen, Smith’s, Dean’s, Dr Draughton’s, Ward and Carry’s and Pike’s Magnolia whiskey presaging modern-era whiskey marketing.

Tennessee’s halcyon days were over by 1890. While state Prohibition was two decades away, the greatest competitive threat was America’s spreading corn fields fanning out from Ohio to Illinois and across to Nebraska into the corn belt. Rail economically transported huge volumes of grain to industrial-sized distilleries.

By 1880 Peoria, Illinois became the world’s distilling capital, churning out 18.5 million proof gallons a year. The world’s largest distilleries, the Great Western, Monarch, Corning, The Grove, Clarke Brothers and other behemoths, lay along ‘distillery row’ by the Peoria River. These and 27 other distilleries from Ohio to Kentucky were now part of the Distillers and Cattle Feeders Company (the Whiskey Trust) run by Joseph Greenhut of Peoria. The 1880s was the era of combines and big business. The trust was distilling 80 per cent of America’s whiskey and industrial spirits and attempting to monopolise pricing. The relatively small Tennessee distilleries now faced a more formidable rival than Kentucky Bourbon.

The regions of Robertson and Lincoln Counties no longer hold any meaning in trade or to the public as whiskey appellations, but Tennessee whiskey does


Tennessee after Prohibition
After enacting state Prohibition in January 1910, no distillery operated until 1938 when the Jack Daniel’s distillery reopened in Lynchburg. Confusingly, Jack Daniel registered his pure sour mash brands as ‘whiskies’, and on later labels he printed ‘Jack Daniel’s Pure Lincoln County Corn Whiskey’. In 1958, Tennessee’s second distillery Cascade was restarted in Coffee County by Schenley. Four years later they released George Dickel, recycling Tennessee’s 19th-century spelling of whisky.

In the 1950s the Jack Daniel’s marketing executives created the term Lincoln County process, perhaps in homage or as a misconception to the brand’s old moniker being Lincoln County whiskey using Lincoln County corn. As the only distillery in America using charcoal filtration by applying their specific leaching process, it has become the generic term for Tennessee charcoal rectification. To protect the product identity of Tennessee whiskey, the State House passed a statute in May 2013 requiring whiskey labelled as Tennessee be distilled and stored within the state, and filtered through sugar maple charcoal. The sour mash method is optional, but the whiskey manufacturing standards must mirror the federal product identity regulations of Bourbon whiskey grain bill, distillation, oak containers and minimum ageing requirements.

The regions of Robertson and Lincoln Counties no longer hold any meaning in trade or to the public as whiskey appellations, but Tennessee whiskey does. Tennessee whiskey and Kentucky Bourbon hold more than 95 per cent of America’s straight whiskey production and sales. The world’s leading American whiskey is Tennessean. Owned by one of Kentucky’s largest Bourbon distillers, the competitive rivalry has given way to corporate collaboration.
Jack Daniel Distillery
Jack Daniel Distillery
Charcoal mellowing vats
Charcoal mellowing vats