Kentucky Bourbon vs. Tennessee Whiskey: A Bold Verdict

Nashville, TN. Image: Vito Palmisano /iStock / Getty Images Plus

It’s a debate as old as time: Who makes better whiskey, Kentucky or Tennessee?

Okay, that contentious question hasn’t been asked for that long. But it has been debated for many, many decades.

Civic pride is powerful. Which city has the best bars? Where are the best burgers made? And, of course, where’s the best American whiskey produced?

Fawn Weaver is the CEO, co-founder and chief historian of Uncle Nearest Whiskey, headquartered in Shelbyville, TN. She’s also an author and real estate investor, which makes her a researcher and historian. The independent whiskey brand has plans to open a distillery in Shelbyville, Tennessee. If you ever have the opportunity to listen to Weaver speak, do it—she’s passionate, engaging, and loaded with knowledge.

Weaver gave her answer to the Kentucky vs. Tennessee question in New Orleans recently.

An Incredible Legacy

First, I want to introduce you to Uncle Nearest Whiskey in case you’re just now learning about the brand or are unfamiliar with their namesake. Uncle Nearest is named for Nathan “Nearest” Green, a slave whose contributions to distillation and whiskey would likely have gone widely unknown and unacknowledged without the devotion and tenacity of Weaver.

The Uncle Nearest team, actor Jeffrey Wright of Westworld, and others are helping to shine a long overdue and much deserved light on Nearest Green’s legacy. Wright made a short film to honor Green and tell his story. You can and should watch it here—you won't want to miss it.

Slaves were property without birth certificates and no knowledge of the calendar, so we don't know when Green perfected his whiskey. Weaver believes that year to be 1856, and one of the brand’s expressions—a blend of 8- and 11-year-old whiskeys—commemorates it. Uncle Nearest charged 20 historians, journalists and archivists with researching Green. That team, through 2,500 hours of research, has gathered 10,000 original artifacts related to the legendary distiller and his family members.

Green is now known as a master distiller. He’s the first-known African-American to be recognized as a master distiller in the USA. That’s a nice way of putting it—phrasing it that way sounds hopeful. Saying “first known” makes it seem like there are others who have received the same recognition. Weaver says, and the facts show, that Green is the first and only African-American master distiller. Using 1856 as the year Green earned his master distiller status, no African-American has been bestowed that honor in more than 160 years.

We may not know exactly the day, month or even year Green perfected his process and whiskey. However, we do know one incredible, important detail of his life and legacy: he taught an orphan named Jasper Daniel how to make whiskey.

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According to documentation, Green was a slave owned by the firm Landis & Green. That firm rented Green out to a preacher, grocer and distiller who owned a farm in Lynchburg, Tennessee. Green was given an apprentice, the previously mentioned orphan. You know that orphan, Jasper, by another name—Jack.

Green taught the art and craft of whiskey distillation to Jack Daniel.

The ABCs (and Ds and Es) of KY and TN Whiskeys

As far as Weaver knows, Uncle Nearest is the fastest-growing independent spirits brand in history. Save for a top prize at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, the brand has won basically every top award in the industry.

So, as you must have gathered by now, Weaver and her team believe Tennessee makes better whiskey than Kentucky. Her argument is compelling—making it no less controversial—and delivered with confidence and conviction.

First, let’s look at the requirements for bourbon to legally labeled as such. In a bar billed as “the whiskey destination on Bourbon Street,” Le Booze inside the Royal Sonesta hotel in New Orleans, Weaver had a member of her team break down the ABCDEs of Kentucky bourbon:

  1. America: Bourbon must be made in America.
  2. Barrel: Must be aged in new, charred oak barrels.
  3. Corn: Must be made of a grain mixture that is at least 51 percent corn.
  4. Distillation: Must be distilled to 160 proof or below, put in a barrel at 125 proof or below, and bottled at 80 proof or above.
  5. Extras: Except for water, the addition of extra ingredients is strictly prohibited.

Weaver then explained the ABCDEs of Tennessee whiskey:

  1. America: Tennessee whiskey must be made in, you guessed it, Tennessee. And I bet you know that Tennessee is in America.
  2. Barrel: Just like bourbon, must be aged in new, charred oak barrels.
  3. Corn: Must be made of a grain mixture that is at least 51 percent corn, just like bourbon.
  4. Distillation: Must be distilled to 160 proof or below, put in a barrel at 125 proof or below, and bottled at 80 proof or above, same as bourbon.
  5. Extras: This is the only difference between Tennessee whiskey and bourbon. Tennessee whiskey distillers are permitted to add up to two percent of coloring and/or flavor. Uncle Nearest, however, doesn’t add extras.

According to Weaver, Tennessee whiskey is straight bourbon. Her comparison of the key points of bourbon and Tennessee whiskey shows that they’re identical, save for a percentage or two of extras that some distillers add to the latter. Kentucky and Tennessee distillers also have access to the same limestone water source, a resource that contributes to great-tasting spirits and strong horses. It’s NAFTA, she explains, that decided to designate straight bourbon made in Tennessee as “Tennessee whiskey.”

The Differences

So, what, if any, are the differences between Kentucky bourbon and it’s Tennessee rival? Sherrie Moore oversees the production of Uncle Nearest whiskey. She’s the former the former director of operations at Jack Daniel’s and has more than three decades’ experience in Tennessee whiskey production.

Moore explains that Tennessee producers take an additional step that adds two weeks and 20 percent of distillate cost to production. They take sugar maple staves, leave them outside, and let them dry. Next, unaged distillate is used to start a fire to burn the staves and make charcoal. The charcoal is used to make a filter bed, and new-make whiskey is dripped (Jack Daniel’s) and sometimes steeped (George Dickel) through this bed. The filtering, known as the Lincoln County Process, can take more than a week to complete.

Surprisingly, Weaver admits that she entered the whiskey business with a bias against Tennessee whiskey. She developed a preference for cask-strength Colonel EH Taylor Small Batch Bourbon, made in Kentucky. Weaver had even heard through the grapevine—and took to heart—that Tennessee whiskey was inferior to its Kentucky counterpart.

But then she began making whiskey in Tennessee, and her opinion changed. Based on personal experience, she learned that it’s much more expensive to produce whiskey in the Volunteer State. Being a persistent researcher, Weaver dove into the topic of American whiskey. She noticed something interesting when she reviewed years and years of advertisements.

Price couldn’t be what made Kentucky bourbon superior to Tennessee whiskey, Weaver determined. If high price was an indication of quality, Kentucky bourbon was on the lower end of the spectrum. Weaver noticed that the bourbon produced in Bluegrass State was always on sale. On any given weekend, stores were selling it at discounted prices. But Jack Daniel’s, that was a different story. Jack Daniel’s was never on sale, never sold at a discount. So, it wasn’t price that made Kentucky bourbon superior to Tennessee whiskey.

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It couldn’t be the process that made it better than Tennessee whiskey, either. The requirements are the same, but Tennessee whiskey producers went steps further and developed a costly process to make their liquid smoother. It couldn’t be the water, a key ingredient—both states used the same limestone water source.

The Verdict

Weaver identified what is, in her opinion, the factor that separates the two states’ whiskeys: marketing. Kentucky bourbon producers had managed to sway public opinion in their favor. But if you look at what Jack Daniel’s did—refusing to follow competitors and discount their whiskey—they’re the superior marketers.

Combine marketing expertise with the Lincoln County Process and Weaver says, “There's no question that in the battle of the premiums, you gotta give it to Tennessee whiskey.” A bold proclamation from a bold business owner.

Click the following links to learn more about Uncle Nearest 1856, Uncle Nearest 1820, and their latest expression, Uncle Nearest 1884, curated by a descendent of Nearest Green. That descendent, Victoria Eady-Butler, has chosen the next descendent to curate a future expression, a process that will continue into the future.

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