Sunday, May 21, 2023
Today is International Tennessee Whiskey Day. Unlike most other days I have heard about at the last second, too late to do much about it, I knew this one was coming from a mile away. Not because I particularly like Tennessee whiskey but because it came at me from every mailing list, podcast, Instagram post and text message alert I signed up for.
I follow a lot of those accounts, in case this is a surprise to anyone.
And while it feels like 90% of the words out of my keyword involve some sort of food or beverage item, there is no chance I’m letting this day pass by without a tribute to all things whiskey.
Especially, I suppose – much as it pains me – Tennessee whiskey.
The thing about Tennessee whiskey is that it’s boring.
It’s made not entirely unlike the best bourbons that I like, with one important exception. It is filtered through maple charcoal prior to aging.
Some people say that makes it “smooth.” Other people, who like things with flavor, call it boring. Filtering it strips out all of the oils that make whiskey so great. And turns it into this adultered version of what might otherwise have been a really good pour.
But it has its fans. I just don’t happen to be one of them.
I’m not saying it’s bad. I’m saying if you poured it into my glass I wouldn’t kick you out of the house, but if you asked, I would choose a hundred other things first.
Smooth is just the classy way of saying it had no bite at all going down. Which is part of what makes the whiskey drinking experience so great in my opinion.
First you swirl it around in your glass a little, snobbish-like. You see how it clings to the glass, whether it’s viscous or watery and say things like “look at those legs.”
You appreciate the caramel hues of it, then stick your nose in the glass and let the ethanol wash over you. You close your eyes and say things like “I get a lot of oak,” snobbish-like.
Then you taste it, and your eyes water a bit and you go hoooooooooo! Then talk about how you get a little apple on the palate, or maybe some toasted marshmallow, or fresh tar on a hot summer day.
And if someone you’re drinking with says they get roasted turnip if it was served on a cedar plank on a late October afternoon, you nod and completely believe it.
Oh, and the other thing about Tennessee whiskey that is required: it has to be made in Tennessee. Which seems obvious, but you never know. Bourbon can be made anywhere. Whiskey can be made anywhere, or if you’re Australian or in Scotland/Canada/some other countries, “whisky.” Or if you’re Maker’s Mark and want to be cool so you leave the E out anyway and confuse everyone by making Kentucky bourbon that you brand as whisky.
Don’t even get me started on the missing E. Clearly they did not read my blog post about E and missed the memo on why you need it.
But Tennessee Whiskey comes from only one place.
To be fair, I do own a few bottles from local distilleries. The best one I’ve ever had comes from Leiper’s Fork, which they manage to make really flavorful even with the filtering.
Worst Tennessee whiskey I’ve ever had? George Dickel aged in Tabasco barrels. I mean, I give distillers props for experimenting, it’s just that sometimes those experiments don’t need to be bottled and sold at a hundred bucks a pop.
I tried it during a tour of their distillery, which is quite beautiful. Needless to say, in spite of my collecting habit and love of all the bottles, I did not purchase it.
So what is the significance of the date? May 21, 1937 is the day that Tennessee lifted the ban on manufacturing alcoholic beverages – four years after it ratified the 21st amendment repealing prohibition.
For all its noise about whiskey, Tennessee still has a lot of dry areas. Many locations don’t allow alcohol sales by the drink. Many others don’t allow retail locations to sell alcohol at all.
Lynchburg, where Jack Daniels distills, is in a dry county. It is illegal to sell alcohol in the county, but you can buy it at the distillery. How that loophole works is beyond me. But why dry counties exist in the first place in 2023 is also beyond me.
I will wrap this up with a few important Rules Of Whiskey, courtesy of My Opinion.
Whiskey must be consumed from a clear glass. Norlan, a company that makes special glassware for snobbish whiskey people like us, makes these black powder-coated whiskey glasses, which I absolutely do not understand. They are not inexpensive, so you shouldn’t be shooting cheap, bottom-shelf moonshine from them. And if you’re drinking the good stuff, enjoying the color and visual appeal of it is part of the fun.
Glencairn glasses are stupid. I know, they’re supposed to concentrate the aroma so you can get the nuances of wet, dusty basement after a November rain. And you can be extra-snobbish by cupping them in your palm and warming the liquid. But I don’t particularly care for tipping my head back like I’m being waterboarded to get the last drop.
If we are sharing a glass of the same whiskey and I get banana and you get maple cream, both of those things are equally true. Being snobbish about whiskey happens in your own head, where you think you know everything and are so cool for getting banana. But it should never extend to out-snobbing other people. It’s not wine, after all. Everyone should enjoy what they enjoy, in the way they enjoy it. Talking about it is the other half of the fun.
Come on, just drink it neat, people. Fine, if you enjoy it chilled, go ahead. But give it a try the way the oak barrels intended it first. Of course, the same is not true if you pour a glass of water into your whiskey. That’s just wrong.
Ralph just asked me if I want a pour, and I probably don’t have to tell you how I answered, so I’m going to enjoy the fruits of this day and feel not one iota guilty about doing it before 5pm.
Photo: my favorite bottle of Tennessee whiskey in the center, a Leiper’s Fork finished in maple syrup barrels. Flanked by George Dickel, which was meh, but the master distiller signed the bottle so I kept it as a souvenir, and Greenbrier, which is marginally less meh but mostly just works in cocktails.