Bourbon: Tennessee or Kentucky?

This past weekend saw the running of the 137th Kentucky Derby, perhaps the biggest day of the year for oversized hats and Mint Juleps.  I was unable to watch the race.  However, a good friend and loyal reader went to a Derby-watching party Saturday and e-mailed me about it the following day.

During the festivities, he informed me, a spirited debate occurred – one that I would have immensely enjoyed.  The key question: what is the difference between Kentucky bourbon and a “Tennessee sipping whiskey,” such as Jack Daniels?  A fine question indeed, yet one I cannot readily answer, as I am admittedly ignorant when it comes to most American whiskeys.

Now, at this point in the post I would ordinarily proceed with an in-depth discussion of the geographical and historical differences distinguishing Kentucky and Tennessee whiskeys, an analysis of the legal definition of “bourbon” according to U.S. federal law and international trade regulations, and possibly even consideration of the Lincoln County distillation process, which uses coal as a filter.  But such a discussion would be largely academic – not personal or based on experience – as I do not regularly drink bourbon, regardless of where it truly originates.

So instead of engaging in my ordinary discussion, especially on a topic I am none too familiar, I thought it would be more enjoyable to replicate the original discussion by putting the question to you, the readers.  A few questions to get the crowd thinking:

What defines bourbon?  Is it location, distillation process, or something more, an intrinsic quality based on personal experiences and aesthetics?

What is your favorite bourbon?  And more importantly, why?

Published in: on May 9, 2011 at 11:05 pm  Comments (9)  
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  1. Yo THF!

    I’ll have to give this a bit of thought and come back with a reply. Perhaps while sipping some Bourbon. Stay tuned…


    • Looking forward to your thoughts. Sounds like a great excuse to rally the troops!

  2. Kentucky. I know it sounds cliche but Knob Creek with a little water…my brain thinks fire, but its warm and smooth. My dad enjoys JD religiously. He likes it enough that he bought a piece of JD distillery real estate.

  3. I’ve never understood the popularity of Jack Daniels. It’s not awful, but I just never acquired a taste for it.

    Bourbon is a completely different story. My first Bourbon drink was Old Granddad and Ginger Ale with a wedge of lime. That was my social event/open bar drink for a really long time.

    Around the early 90s I discovered the whole Small Batch Bourbon thing and was totally hooked after giving Knob Creek a try. Even after 18+ years, it is still one of my favorite whiskies. Knob Creek led me to Basil Hayden, Bookers, Bakers, Woodford Reserve, Eagle Rare 10 and 17, Elijah Craig, Evan Williams Single Barrel, WIld Turkey Rare Breed, and most recently, Parker Heritage Collection.

    So now you know what I like. But I still haven’t answered the “Why Bourbon?” question. Here goes…

    There’s something soothing about Bourbon. There are few things that I enjoy more on a brisk winter night or when I’m feeling a bit under the weather. Though it’s never really cured my cold, it did help to make it more tolerable.

    I also like Bourbon’s versatility. Though I prefer it straight with little or no water, It is also excellent as a mixer. Ginger Ale, Club Soda, or perhaps in a Manhattan. Bourbon can do it all!

    I’m sure I could say more about it, but I’ll stop there for now.


    • I completely agree, a splash of whisky makes a cold much more tolerable. Great comment!

      • Thanks THF! Nothing like some Booker’s Formula 125 (proof that is) to numb a cold for a couple hours. 🙂

  4. The website has an interesting article touching on this by Charles Cowdery, reprinted from The Bourbon County Reader. Relevant passages:

    “Today, ‘bourbon’ has a specific legal meaning that has little to do with its geographic origins. That definition, now enshrined in federal law, has existed in its present form only since about the end of the 19th century. According to federal law, bourbon must be at least 51% corn, distilled at less than 160 proof, and aged for at least two years in new, charred oak barrels. (There are some other requirements, but those are the main ones.) Bourbon also must be made within the United States. In other words, a foreign product that meets all of the other requirements still can not be sold in the U.S. as bourbon.

    “Contrary to popular belief, there has never been a legal requirement that bourbon be made in Kentucky, which is why most Kentucky producers call their product ‘Kentucky Bourbon.’ Today there are very few examples of non-Kentucky bourbon left, but Virginia Gentleman is one.”

    Before looking that up, I had not known that whiskey made outside Kentucky could legally be called bourbon (though I should have, as when younger I used to drink Walker’s, which used to be made in Peoria).

    Bourbon is by far my favorite whiskey; I’ve started to prefer the world’s greatest cocktail, the Manhattan, in its original rye-based version, but on its own, bourbon is unsurpassed. It has a warmth and richness that nothing else approaches, in my opinion. I am with RP in that my favorite is Knob Creek, though I prefer it neat. It just seems to hit exactly the right balance–neither too rough nor too smooth, powerful but not overpowering, deep and rich but not over-sweet. Elijah Craig would be a close second for similar qualities.

    • Thanks for the linked article R.A. And you’re right – the Manhattan is, by far, the greatest cocktail. I use either Maker’s Mark or rye in mine, but I’m currently out of rye (it’s too good to let sit).

  5. You guys rock, thanks for settling a big debate!

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