Is Jack Daniel's Bourbon? Yes, Find Out Why

Alex author
by: ALEX WANG
Founder, writer

Is Jack Daniel's Bourbon? You've come to the right place to find out

Is Jack Daniel’s bourbon? There’s been a lot of debate about whether the best selling brand of Tennessee whiskey falls under the bourbon umbrella. And I, in my infinite unwisdom, am joining the debate.
To answer that question, I’m going to go through a fact and logic-based list that covers the various rules for both types of whiskey, discuss what’s happening in the industry, and provide additional input where needed.
My approach is a little different, but there are many ways to answer this question. There’s a whole rabbit hole to explore regarding how Jack Daniel’s is classified under tax law, how it’s classified as an export product, and other legal stuff. I’m not going to do down that path.
Oh and by the way, Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Rye is undoubtedly not bourbon, so I’m not talking about that. It’s an obvious statement, but thought I should mention that anyways.
But first there’s the higher level and easier question to answer.

First off, Jack Daniel's is whiskey

This is not a controversial point. Jack Daniel’s is a Tennessee whiskey, so it absolutely is whiskey as well. It’s even in the name. Whiskey is just the broadest term for distilled grain that’s aged in oak barrels, regardless of factors such as the grains used (e.g., corn, rye, wheat, barley, rice), where it’s made, the barrels used, and more.
The more contentious question is whether Jack Daniels is bourbon. Bourbon is a specific type of whiskey, and in more mathematical terms, a subset. All bourbon is whiskey, but because bourbon has additional rules, not all whiskey is bourbon.
So while Jack Daniel’s is whiskey, we have to do more digging to figure out whether Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey meets all the specific requirements to also be called bourbon. There are many possible factors that will help us determine whether it is in fact bourbon.
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Is Jack Daniel's Bourbon? Let's find out step by step

In the easy part, let’s compare the rules that govern bourbon and Tennessee whiskey, and see how similar they are.

Where is it made?

Tennessee Whiskey: Only in Tennessee

Bourbon: Only in the United States

Verdict: Tennessee is in the United States, meaning so far it’s possible that Tennessee whiskey is a type of bourbon

What's the mashbill?

Tennessee Whiskey: At least 51% corn

Bourbon: At least 51% corn

Verdict: The same

How is it aged?

Tennessee Whiskey: Must be aged in virgin oak barrels (the barrel has never been used to age anything else)

Bourbon: Must be aged in virgin oak barrels

Verdict: The same

Maximum distillation proof

Tennessee Whiskey: No higher than 160 proof

Bourbon : No higher than 160 proof

Verdict: The same

Maximum barrel entry proof

*Proof of distillate going into the barrel

Tennessee Whiskey: No higher than 125 proof

Bourbon: No higher than 125 proof

Verdict: The same

*It is ok if the ABV exceeds 125 proof after oak aging

Minimum ABV in the bottle

Tennessee Whiskey: 80 proof

Bourbon: 80 proof

Verdict: The same
So up to this point, bourbon and Tennessee whiskey have the same requirements. The next two areas are where the debate really begins.

Is Jack Daniel's Bourbon? The more contentious part

The Lincoln County Process before barrel aging (aka charcoal filtering)

In short, the Lincoln County Process is the process of filtering a spirit through charcoal. While Tennessee Whiskey must be charcoal filtered before barreling (with one exception), from what I can find, bourbon does not have any rule(s) requiring / not allowing charcoal filtering at any point in the process. Bourbon is indifferent about charcoal filtering of any kind. Filtered before or after barreling, it doesn’t matter. This also means that Jack Daniel’s, being charcoal filtered, possibly could be bourbon.
While comparing rules is useful, what Brown Forman (the owner of Jack Daniels) does is the most telling of whether bourbon can also be charcoal filtered.
Turns out that Jack Daniel’s owners also produce Coopers Craft, a Kentucky straight bourbon that’s also charcoal filtered. Brown Forman states, “Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey taken through a unique beech and birch charcoal-filter finishing process”. If I’m reading that correctly, Cooper’s Craft is charcoal filtered (after the barrel is dumped) and called bourbon.
This is an interesting and important tidbit – Brown Forman, the owners of Jack Daniel’s, is saying that bourbon can be charcoal filtered. Brown Forman definitely knows and cares about the rules around Tennessee whiskey, so if it offers a charcoal filtered bourbon, then we can say that bourbon can also be charcoal filtered.
As another side note, Heaven Hill has been putting “charcoal filtered” on some of their bourbon labels for decades. The Bourbon Hill 15 Year (image below) is sourced from Heaven Hill and says “charcoal filtered” on the label at the top.
Example of a Kentucky bourbon that’s charcoal filtered (circa ~2006)
Verdict: Since bourbon can also be charcoal filtered (or not, it doesn’t matter), Jack Daniel’s being charcoal filtered does not stop it from possibly being bourbon. Something else could, but this isn’t it
Coopers Craft Bourbon – A charcoal filtered bourbon from Brown Forman

Jack Daniel's says that it's not bourbon

I’m not going to comment directly on whether what Jack Daniel’s says is correct or not. Instead, I’m going to talk about what’s going on in the industry that suggests what Tennessee Whiskey, and in turn Jack Daniel’s, truly is. That is by far more telling because actions speak louder than words.
For years, many companies such as Barrell (e.g., Stellum Bourbon) and Bardstown Bourbon Company (e.g., Discovery Series 5) among many others have been sourcing Tennessee whiskey from George Dickel, the second largest Tennessee Whiskey maker, and calling it bourbon. It’s not a secret, and Jack Daniel’s and George Dickel are definitely aware of it.
I say that because I presume that the group(s) governing Tennessee whiskey / George Dickel / Jack Daniel’s are highly motivated to enforce and protect the Tennessee whiskey name / brand. So if they thought that bottlers were incorrectly calling it bourbon (and many would have been doing it improperly for years), I’m certain that action would have already been taken to require bottlers to name it properly.
To my knowledge they haven’t done that yet, which is why there’s so much Tennessee-sourced whiskey being called bourbon. I know this line of reasoning isn’t bulletproof because action could be taken in the future, but this seems like a logical takeaway from companies sourcing Tennessee whiskey and calling it bourbon, and Jack Daniel’s and George Dickel not correcting for many years.
Verdict: George Dickel Tennessee Whiskey is Tennessee whiskey (duh) and also bourbon. I’ll get back to Jack Daniel’s in a moment.

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Putting it all together to determine if Jack Daniel's is bourbon

Let’s take this home. First off, we know that Tennessee Whiskey and bourbon follow the same rules regarding:
  • mashbill
  • maximum distillation proof
  • type of barrel used for aging
  • maximum barrel entry proof
  • minimum bottling ABV
  • US origins
We also know that bourbon can be charcoal filtered (or not, it doesn’t matter) and Tennessee whiskey must be charcoal filtered (with one exception). 
Now here’s the final step and I’ll break it down.

Part 1

If 

George Dickel Tennessee whiskey is Tennessee whiskey
And

George Dickel Tennessee Whiskey is bourbon
Then
Tennessee whiskey is bourbon

(the other way around is not necessarily true because bourbon can be made anywhere in the US)

Part 2
If
Jack Daniel’s is Tennessee whiskey
And
Tennessee whiskey is bourbon
Then
Jack Daniel’s is bourbon

(but not the Tennessee rye)

Is Jack Daniel's Bourbon?

Yes it is
There you have it – Jack Daniel’s is bourbon. It’s not a matter of my personal opinion. It is the combination of the rules and industry behavior that indicate that Jack Daniels is bourbon.
That said, they can still can call it Tennessee Whiskey and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that because it’s also correct.
But here’s the thing, Jack Daniel’s being bourbon doesn’t change anything or take away from Tennessee Whiskey. It’s just a label to help us better understand what it is and how it’s made. And when exported, another special identifier (e.g., champagne, cognac, etc).
And if you enjoy Tennessee Whiskey, keep doing it. And if you don’t, then that’s ok too, but I wonder if it’s because you don’t like Old No. 7 and Gentleman Jack. I recommend trying Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel before solidifying that opinion (it’s very good), because I was the same way.
If you agree with my line of thinking, then please share it with others when it up comes up conversation again (because it will). Cheers, and thanks for reading!
Alex author
Meet the Author: Alex

I have far too much fun writing about whiskey and singlehandedly running The Whiskey Shelf to bring you independent, honest, and useful reviews, comparisons, and more. I’m proudly Asian American and can speak Cantonese, Mandarin, and some Japanese.

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