If Angel’s Envy Is Bourbon, Then so Is Jack Daniels!

When I was a kid, I thought that Jack Daniel’s was about as cool as the musicians I saw drinking it. My walls were plastered with photos from Circus and Metal Edge magazine, and it certainly wasn’t uncommon to see Nikki Sixx, Slash or Lemmy pulling from a bottle of JD. In my youth, Jack Daniel’s represented rock-and-roll, rebellion and good ol’ bad-assery. As a middle-aged bourbon aficionado…not so much. Die-hard bourbon fans just aren’t interested in Jack Daniel’s because it’s a “Tennessee Whiskey” and not a bourbon. Well, my opinion changed recently when I decided to buy a bottle of JD Single Barrel Select and give it a fair shot. I actually liked it. I liked it a lot! And that got me thinking about how biased I had been against the brand, simply because of its’ classification as something other than a bourbon. I know there are scores of bourbon purists out there that feel the same way, which is a shame. It’s not like I feel sorry for Brown-Forman. Jack Daniel’s is the number one selling whiskey in the world, after all, and I’m sure they’ve gone out of their way to separate the brand as a Tennessee Whiskey. I also understand why a bourbon fan wouldn’t be into the standard JD offering. It’s only 80-proof, it’s syrupy sweet, and it’s lacking in complexity. Be that as it may, it seems that Brown-Forman is now releasing some quality JD expressions, and I think it’s unfortunate when folks won’t try them simply because they aren’t bourbons… or so they think. I’d like to make the argument that Jack Daniels is, technically speaking, a bourbon! So, if the only reason you won’t give JD a chance is its classification, please read on, and perhaps I can help you to see it in a different light.

jd

 

Before I present my case, let me just say that I’m not the first person to suggest that Jack Daniel’s is a bourbon. Well-respected whiskey authors such as Chuck Cowdery, Fred Minnick, and Blake from Bourbonr have written about this topic, not to mention myriad blog and social media comments floating around out there; all of which got me thinking deeply about this topic. This is not some conclusion that I have drawn on my own based on years of industry experience (that I don’t have). Nope! This is just me, arguing a point that many others have argued in the past. So why am I bothering to write this post, you ask? Well, I think it appeals to me because it’s a fairly contentious topic, and what’s more fun to write about than a contentious topic? Besides, writing about it helps me formulate my thoughts. Your next question might be, “Why do I care?” The answer to that one is easy: I’m a nerd!

Let me also say that I’m in no way suggesting that Jack Daniel’s (or other brands like George Dickel) be labeled as a bourbon. My goal is to simply eliminate the misconception that these are not bourbons and are significantly different than bourbons in their production and characteristics, despite the carefully crafted marketing behind the brands suggesting otherwise. It annoys me when minor technicalities prevent someone from trying a product because “they will only drink bourbon”.

Ok, so let’s break this down, starting with the federal regulations. If you search online for rules and regulations for bourbon, you’ll find many similar, but sometimes slightly different representations. Almost all of them have the following in common:

  • must be produced and aged in the US
  • must be distilled from a mash of grains, 51% of which is corn
  • must be distilled at 160-proof or lower
  • must be aged in charred new oak barrels
  • must enter the barrel at 125-proof or less
  • nothing added but water to bring it to proof; no coloring or flavoring
  • must be bottled at 80-proof or higher

All of the above are consistent across most of the posted representations of the regulations, however, I have also come across some that state things like:

  • barrels must be white oak or American white oak barrels
  • bourbon must be aged for a minimum of 2 years
  • bourbon cannot be filtered in any way

Some of these variations are actually from credible publications and news organizations, and given these subtle variations, I thought I should dig deeper, so I turned to the Code of Federal Regulations (http://www.ecfr.gov/); specifically “Title 27: Alcohol, Tobacco Products and Firearms: Subpart C – Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits”. If you’re feeling energetic (and nerdy like me) you can refer to Appendix A, where I listed the sub-sections from the regulations that I thought were relevant. The short of it is:

  1. I didn’t find anything referencing “white oak” or “American white oak”
  2. Bourbon only needs to be aged for 2 years if it’s going to be labeled “straight bourbon whiskey”
  3. I didn’t find anything that states that the whiskey cannot be filtered.

The reason I’m even mentioning the type of oak, which may not seem germane to my argument, is to simply prove that there are indeed widely spread misconceptions about the bourbon regulations. Oh, and by the way, bourbon doesn’t even need to be aged in barrels at all. The regulations require “charred new oak containers”, so if you want to age your bourbon in a charred Himalayan oak sphere, well, there’s nothing stopping you. Go for it! Now, with regards to filtration, this is only section that I can find that indirectly references it:

Section 5.23 – Alteration of class and type

(b) Extractions. The removal from any distilled spirits of any constituents to such an extent that the product does not possess the taste, aroma, and characteristics generally attributed to that class or type of distilled spirits alters the class and type thereof, and the product shall be appropriately redesignated. In addition, in the case of straight whisky the removal of more than 15 percent of the fixed acids, or volatile acids, or esters, or soluble solids, or higher alcohols, or more than 25 percent of the soluble color, shall be deemed to alter the class or type thereof.

I do not believe that the Lincoln County Process, which involves filtering the distillate through Sugar Maple charcoal before barreling, is in violation of the Standard of Identity for Distilled Spirits. If anything, I’d bet that chill filtration removes more acids, esters and soluble solids than the Lincoln County Process does, and chill filtration is common across the bourbon industry.

One argument that almost made me reconsider my position, and one that I come across often online, is that the Lincoln County Process violates the regulations because it’s adding something other than water to the distillate. I beg to differ. Charcoal filtration is a subtractive process, not additive, which is why many water filtration systems use charcoal.

The only other argument that gave me pause, is that the Lincoln Country Process significantly alters the flavor of the whiskey before it’s barreled. So many people claim that this is why Jack Daniels is so syrupy sweet, due to the Sugar Maple, but I strongly disagree. Yes, the sap of a Sugar Maple tree when tapped during the winter is what gives us our sweet maple syrup, but Sugar Maple charcoal tastes like, well… charcoal! And what does charcoal taste like? It sure as hell isn’t sweet. I’m sure the charcoal filtering helps to mellow the whiskey, but I do not believe that it’s responsible for that JD sweetness. People hear the word “Sugar” and it gets stuck in their heads. In my humble opinion, the reason that JD is sweet is a combination of its high-corn/low-rye mash bill (80% corn, 8% rye and 12% barley), its barely legal alcohol volume, and perhaps its age. I haven’t had the chance to taste the barrel-proof expression of JD Barrel Select single barrel yet, but the 94-proof bottle I do have is not overly sweet at all. I’m guessing that’s due to age, proof and location in the warehouse.

Despite my lack of scientific expertise and industry experience, I do not believe that the Lincoln County Process significantly alters the flavor of the whiskey. If it does, I believe it’s subtle, and I’m fairly certain that if you compared the juice going into JD barrels, to the white dog from a distillery using the same mash bill but not charcoal filtering, you wouldn’t taste a huge difference. I can’t prove this, of course. If only I had the connections to arrange a white dog blind tasting!!! And for the purists out there that turn their noses up at any expressions that don’t meet what they consider to be the traditional bourbon flavor profile, why is it that so many die-hard bourbons fans will pay $300 or more to get their hands on a bottle of cask strength Angel’s Envy, finished in port barrels? I’d say that cask strength Jack Daniel’s is closer to the traditional bourbon flavor profile than Angel’s Envy or Parker’s Heritage Collection #5, yet Jack Daniels still receives such a bad rap in the bourbon world while they receive praise. If you don’t like JD based on its flavor, that’s totally understandable. But don’t hate on it because of misconceptions and prejudice. The only reason you think it’s not bourbon, is because Brown-Forman doesn’t want you to think it’s bourbon. 🙂

 

 

Appendix A – Regulations Snippets

Title 27: Alcohol, Tobacco Products and Firearms

PART 5—LABELING AND ADVERTISING OF DISTILLED SPIRITS

Subpart C—Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits

§5.22 The standards of identity.

 

(b) Class 2; whisky. “Whisky” is an alcoholic distillate from a fermented mash of grain produced at less than 190° proof in such manner that the distillate possesses the taste, aroma, and characteristics generally attributed to whisky, stored in oak containers (except that corn whisky need not be so stored), and bottled at not less than 80° proof, and also includes mixtures of such distillates for which no specific standards of identity are prescribed.

(1)(i) “Bourbon whisky”, “rye whisky”, “wheat whisky”, “malt whisky”, or “rye malt whisky” is whisky produced at not exceeding 160° proof from a fermented mash of not less than 51 percent corn, rye, wheat, malted barley, or malted rye grain, respectively, and stored at not more than 125° proof in charred new oak containers; and also includes mixtures of such whiskies of the same type.

(iii) Whiskies conforming to the standards prescribed in paragraphs (b)(1)(i) and (ii) of this section, which have been stored in the type of oak containers prescribed, for a period of 2 years or more shall be further designated as “straight”; for example, “straight bourbon whisky”, “straight corn whisky”, and whisky conforming to the standards prescribed in paragraph (b)(1)(i) of this section, except that it was produced from a fermented mash of less than 51 percent of any one type of grain, and stored for a period of 2 years or more in charred new oak containers shall be designated merely as “straight whisky”. No other whiskies may be designated “straight”. “Straight whisky” includes mixtures of straight whiskies of the same type produced in the same State.

§5.23   Alteration of class and type.

(a) Additions. (1) The addition of any coloring, flavoring, or blending materials to any class and type of distilled spirits, except as otherwise provided in this section, alters the class and type thereof and the product shall be appropriately redesignated.

(b) Extractions. The removal from any distilled spirits of any constituents to such an extent that the product does not possess the taste, aroma, and characteristics generally attributed to that class or type of distilled spirits alters the class and type thereof, and the product shall be appropriately redesignated. In addition, in the case of straight whisky the removal of more than 15 percent of the fixed acids, or volatile acids, or esters, or soluble solids, or higher alcohols, or more than 25 percent of the soluble color, shall be deemed to alter the class or type thereof.

11 thoughts on “If Angel’s Envy Is Bourbon, Then so Is Jack Daniels!”

    1. Thanks Los!! I appreciate you reading the post. I hate when people immediately dismiss JD just because they don’t think it’s a bourbon. Cheers man!

  1. Definitely bourbon, although it does seem the bourbon community is as set on classifying it otherwise as JD is. My first attempt at choking down whiskey of any kind was a bottle of JD Honey. I later realized that JD didn’t really need any sweetening up. I am yet to crack my barrel proof but I am intrigued by it, as well as the Sinatra select. Haven’t tried either, but I wouldn’t feel the need to defend either on my shelf. Cheers!!

    1. Thanks for reading the post, Evan. If you do end up cracking that barrel proof, be sure to post your notes on Instagram or write a review on your blog. I’m interested to hear what more folks have to say about it, although I’ve heard there’s some inconsistency with the quality across barrels. Hopefully you got a good one. Cheers dude!

  2. ??? I loved the read. I have and always thought it was a bourbon. I am sipping on some stuff right now. It just feels and taste like a traditional bourbon! Cheers

    1. Thanks for checking out the post, Ronnell. I’m glad to hear that you, too, are willing to give JD a chance. Cheers man!

  3. Once again. Great post. You really knows how to write em. You properly knew this, but the rumor goes that Jack Daniels didn’t wanted there whiskey labeled as Bourbon, because if you can be no. 1 in your own class (the Tennessee Whisky) why try to compete in the Bourbon class. I think it sounds plausible, because as you argued, Jack D could be labeled as a bourbon if they wanted to. Let’s face it, if they really wanted to, but couldn’t because of there process, I’m sure they would change it. By the way, I have a Single barrel Jack D and enjoy it. Tennessee whiskey or not ? The only thing I got agains it, is the price tag. I don’t know what you guys pay for it, but it’s a bit over the top here I Denmark. Cheers.

    1. Thanks Hasse! I appreciate the kind words, and your taking the time to read the post in the first place. Yeah, I certainly don’t think JD should call themselves a bourbon. I guess I was getting annoyed every time I heard someone say, matter-of-factly, that JD isn’t bourbon, and it annoys me even more when someone states that as their sole reason for not trying it. If folks don’t like JD based on how it tastes or other characteristics, that’s fine, but they shouldn’t dismiss it simply because it’s “not a bourbon.” BTW, the JD Single Barrel Select (non-barrel-proof) is around $45-50 in the States. A little over priced for what it is, but not too bad. I’m sure it’s much worse outside the U.S. Cheers man! Thanks again for reading.

  4. As a KY boy I was always told Tennessee Whiskey is technically bourbon but the Tennessee folks didn’t want it top be called something that came from Kentucky. There is enough bad blood between the two states to support that.

  5. Dude you are the Tolkien of whiskey blogs!!! Which might only matter to fellow whiskey freaks but it’s great reading and you have opened my eyes to the JD barrel proof.The flavor is in your face I find new reasons to like it with every pour!!! I always thought of myself as a “bourbon purist” but now I realize I just like whiskey!!! By the way what’s it gonna take to get a sample of some of that rare stuff my brotha!!!

    1. Haha! Thanks man! I really appreciate it. And I’m glad I could help to expand your whiskey horizons a little more. Regarding samples, I’m happy to send you a couple. DM me on Instagram and we’ll try to figure out what I have open at the moment that you’d like to sample. Cheers man!

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