The Lincoln County Process and the Law
For many years, the legal definition of "Tennessee whiskey" was bland and straightforward. At the federal level, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) requires that Tennessee whiskey be "a straight Bourbon Whiskey authorized to be produced only in the State of Tennessee." However, we can be very particular about our whiskey. With that in mind, governor Bill Haslam signed House Bill 1084 back in 2013. This state-level law outlines specific quality and production standards that a distiller must follow if they want to call their product Tennessee whiskey. One of these production requirements is that the whiskey must be "filtered through maple charcoal prior to aging" - a process more popularly known as the Lincoln County Process.
If a distiller is calling their product Tennessee whiskey, but is found to not be meeting the manufacturing requirements for the spirit, they can have their license revoked or suspended for at least a year. Naturally, every distiller wants to follow these requirements to the letter, which would explain why I get so many questions about the specifics of the Lincoln County Process.
- What ratio of charcoal-to-whiskey do I need for my stills?
- How long am I required to filter the whiskey for?
- Does the wood for the charcoal have to be grown in Tennessee?
The truth is, House Bill 1084 deliberately omits these details to give distilleries flexibility. Imparting a specific flavor profile to any whiskey is an extremely delicate process. Changing the amount of charcoal or filtering time will change the flavor of the final product, so a lack of specific guidelines for the Lincoln County Process gives distilleries the flexibility they need to make their own styles of Tennessee whiskey.
Many distilleries have unique or proprietary takes on the Lincoln County Process. Jack Daniel's first runs their charcoal through a grinder to get consistent bean-size pellets. The pellets are packed into vats 10 feet deep and the whiskey gets filtered by trickling through. The George Dickel distillery is similar, except they chill the whiskey first and allow it to fill a 13-foot vat instead of just trickling through.
Benjamin Prichard's Tennessee Whiskey foregoes the Lincoln County Process entirely. They can still call their product "Tennessee whiskey" because they meet the exemption requirements outlined in Section 1(c) of the legislation. Ironically, this also makes them the only distillery in Lincoln County that doesn't use the process!
As long as your Lincoln County Process involves some form of filtering through maple charcoal prior to aging, and you meet the other requirements from the law, your product can legally be called Tennessee whiskey in the eyes of the state. If you're worried your filtration process could be interpreted another way, or you have other concerns regarding regulatory compliance, contact me and I'll be happy to advise.