Whisky Advocate

Hello LA Times: Jack Daniel’s isn’t a bourbon!

February 2nd, 2009

Education is key to helping consumers select a whiskey they will enjoy. It’s going to be hard to teach the average whiskey drinker the difference between the various whiskey categories so they can make intelligent, informed decisions if we have major print publications getting it wrong. 

Saturday’s LA Times discusses how “liquor” sales are slumping, with the exception of whiskey. “Sales of bourbons such as Jack Daniels and Maker’s Mark are bucking a slump in demand for distilled spirits…” the article goes on to say. You can read the whole story here.

This isn’t the first time this has happened, and it won’t be the last. I’ve blogged about misleading articles several times over the past year. Some of the other ones were far worse, but I think that perhaps the biggest misconception in the whiskey industry is that Jack Daniel’s is a bourbon.

(For those of you lurking who don’t know the difference, Jack Daniel’s is a Tennessee whiskey. So is George Dickel. They undergo on additional step beyond bourbon–the spirit is charcoal “mellowed” through vats of sugar maple charcoal before being put into barrels for aging. They taste different than bourbon.)

This shows that we still have a long way to go educating the mainstream press who have so much influence on the consumer because what they write is read by so many people.

29 Responses to “Hello LA Times: Jack Daniel’s isn’t a bourbon!”

  1. Rob K says:

    I hope you emailed that writer and steered him in the right direction.

  2. John Hansell says:

    Working on the email now, which will go out shortly.

  3. Matthew says:

    Funny side note, I was watching The Shining the other day, and Jack Nicholson ordered a bourbon from the bartender in his mind at the Overlook Hotel. The bartender pulled out some Jack Daniels and poured it for him.

    All I could think was “Bad ghost bartender!”

  4. Rick Duff says:

    I was surprised by the number of “Bourbon cask” aged scotches on a trip to Scotland, and when you took a look at the cask, it was stamped Jack Daniels.
    Abelour was guilty of this in their bottle-your-own room.

  5. Colin says:

    It would be nice to see an article describing the differences. I’m a long time scotch drinker, but new to the American whiskies. To be honest, I’m not sure what the differences are between American whiskey, bourbon and all the other drinks in the American distilled taxonomy.

  6. John Hansell says:

    Hi Colin, I write a 3000+ word special whisky supplement for The Wall Street Journal back in November which covers a lot of the fundamentals. I blogged about it. I have a PDF of what ran. If anyone wants me to email them a copy, I will be happy to do so. (Email me privately at

  7. Lucas says:

    Made the same mistake in the past several times. But now I’m all smart, not only pretty;P

  8. Alex says:

    I DJed a wedding last year and the couple brought their own liquor to make drinks. The main drink was supposed to include bourbon. However, they bought Jack, which they called a great bourbon. I cringed a little each time they said it, but there is a time for correcting people (when they write articles in the LA Times) and there are times not to (at their wedding). I said nothing.

  9. John Hansell says:

    A wise man you are, Alex. No doubt you would want them to pay you for your services at the end of the evening. Before that time, I suppose they could call JD whatever they wanted to. 😉

  10. Mike Dereszynski says:

    Hi John ,
    Just read it.
    Makes it even odder,when he ends the article quoting Mr. Cressy “Bourbon and Tennessee whiskeyare unique and historic products of the United States…”.
    I also had to wince when I saw the writers last name.
    but the perhaps he isnt related.

  11. John Hansell says:

    Mike, but if he assumes that JD is a bourbon, Mr. Cressy’s statement isn’t going to help him to much. He probably never put together that JD is from Tennessee and maybe it’s a Tennessee whiskey. My guess is he doesn’t know JD is from Tennessee (or he was just in a hurry to publish the story).

  12. sam k says:

    Lew Bryson and I were asked to leave a bar in Wilkes-Barre one evening when we tried to instruct the bartender on the difference between the two. I asked him what bourbon he had at the bar, to which he replied “Jack Daniels.” There was no telling him that Jack isn’t bourbon.

    Yes, I know you’re shocked that Lew and I could ever be kicked out of a licensed establishment!

  13. Greg Gilbert says:

    I’ve done my fair share of international travel and always get something other than bourbon. I ordered a Jim Beam and coke during one business trip to Zimbabwe. What I got was J&B and coke. Got the same thing on a cruise ship. I’ve learned to be specific and point out the bottle I want in order to ensure I get bourbon.

  14. Tom Troland says:

    What’s the big deal? Jack Daniel’s, as I understand it, meets all federal requirements for a bourbon. But the marketing guys prefer to establish a separate category of whiskey. Is there anything in the federal regulations that would prohibit Jack Daniel’s from being called a bourbon? I doubt it. The only difference is the charcoal filtration. Yet some bourbons (e.g. Jim Beam’s Choice) are also labeled “charcoal filtered”.

  15. John Hansell says:

    Tom, I’m glad you asked. All whiskeys are filtered to remove the chunks of charred oak and other stuff that is in the whiskey. The process unique to Tennessee (called the Lincoln County Process) is not as much about filtering as it is, what they call, “mellowing,” The spirit slowy trickles through these huge vats of sugar maple charcoal. Organics in the spirit adsorb onto the surface of the charcoal and are removed from the spirit. This is different than the filtering of solid material from the spirit.

    Pro-Tennessee whiskey fans say it mellows the whiskey and makes it easier to drink. Anti-Tennessee whiskey people will tell you that it strips flavor from the spirit.

    I hope this helps to clarify.

  16. Red_Arremer says:

    I have an old mixology book, The Standard Bartenders Guide: written 1940, revised 1962. It divides whiskey between bourbon and scotch– no mention of tenessee or irish. Also– no surprise– there’s no distinction made between blended and malt scotch. In fact, the definition of scotch reads:

    “A product of Scotland distilled from a mash of grain, primarily barley.”

    “…Primarily barely”? A crazily off definition, but of course single malt was hardly a phenomenon in ’62 let alone ’40 so it’s understandable.

    What’s surprising is that the primitive understanding of whiskey contained in this arcane volume is still more or less representative of the knowledge of whiskey possesed by many food and drinks writers and enthusiasts today.

  17. Marc Gargiulo says:

    Right on, John!

    I’ve also noticed flyers in my local newspaper from liquor stores announcing sales on bourbons including Jack Daniel’s.

    Those in need of a whiskey education sometimes includes those who sell it as well.

    Great blog!

  18. John Hansell says:

    Marc, yes the sad part is that I have even been with whisky company salespeople who didn’t know what they were selling. It’s not just the consumer and press, it also includes people who sell the product. It just perpetuates the problem. (And thanks for the kind words on the blog.)

  19. Dave Gonano says:

    Just to add,

    JD spirit is charcoal mellowed after distillation but before entering the barrel. This step alters the taste. Long ago JD sent a letter to the Federal government inquiring as to whether they could call their product Bourbon.
    The response was “no”.

    Bourbon’s are filtered after barrel dumping. At that point they are already classified as “Bourbon”.

  20. Gary Gillman says:

    John, the connection between Tennessee whiskey and Bourbon will always be controversial I think. There seems to me more that separates George Dickel and Jack Daniels than joins them. The latter is highly flavored, and at its best, full-bodied and rich, especially the Single Barrel iteration.

    George Dickel seems milder, elegant, refined: quite different in taste and rather, well, bourbon-like.

    I accept that the Tennessee maple charcoal leaching method puts something special in the whiskey, but just what it is is hard to say.


  21. sam k says:

    Hey Dave…did you ever break into that wooden chest containing barrel proof Old Overholt from the 40s that you brought to Baltimore a couple years ago???

  22. JC Skinner says:

    You guys have my sympathy.
    On this side of the pond, where one might hope that people would have a decent grasp on whisk(e)y, the most common error I come across is the bald statement that whisky was invented in Scotland.
    Now, fair enough, the documentary record is sketchy, but no one I’ve ever met in the industry would say that.
    It gets especially annoying to see that sort of statement in Irish newspapers.

  23. Leither says:

    Firstly, sorry to come in on this one a bit late.

    Gary, you mention the JD Single Barrel – I’ve been enjoying this one very much recently (it’s quite new to the UK market I think) and it has far more of a bourbon-style. Much more full bodied and rich as you say, than regular JD and other JD expressions.

    Do you, or anybody else, know why that might be? My assumption is that it is subject to much less charcol-filtration? Any comments or insight?

  24. John Hansell says:

    Gary, to me, the charcoal mellowing makes for a sweeter, slightly sooty whiskey. I agree with you about the difference between JD and Dickel.

    Leither, my favorite of the JD line is the Single Barrel. The standard JD Black isn’t mature enough for me and Gentleman Jack is actually too smooth and easy-drinking for my palate. (It is actually charcoal mellowed twice–before going into barrels for aging, and then again after the barrels are dumped prior to bottling.) The JD Single Barrel is nicely matured, and they pick some really nice barrels for the bottlings.

  25. Gary Gillman says:

    Agreed, John, and I must say I think Jack Daniels Single Barrel has improved a lot over the last two years. The barrels just are richer and better than they were. Why this is, I do not know, but I am convinced of it (not that JDSB was ever bad of course).

    Apparently the rooms where the Dickel maple charcoal vats are located, or the very vats themselves, are chilled year round, whereas this is not so for Jack Daniels. Maybe that has something to do with the less marked sooty character of Dickel. I think I read too that the Dickel vats are shorter than ole Jack’s, so the whiskey perhaps does not receive as thorough a dousing in the maple charcoal.


  26. JC Skinner says:

    Gentleman Jack is a total vanilla bomb.
    It’s overkill, which is a pity because I suspect there might be a decent whiskey buried under all that vanilla.
    They could forget about at least one and preferably two of those charcoal mellowings and might find that the drink improves.
    That is, of course, my highly subjective opinion!

  27. John Hansell says:

    JC, Gentleman Jack is my least favorite of the line. I think the extra “melllowing” takes too much out of the whiskey. Can a whiskey be too smooth? I think so.

  28. Kyle Nadeau says:

    I’d like to throw in my two cents on these main stream media publications and their reporting on wine and/or spirits. Having worked in the industry for almost 10 years now, my biggest complaint about these publications, aside from false information, is the pricing they often quote along with such articles and reviews. I understand that pricing can vary widely, but do your research as any good person and publish an accurate median price for the items you have reviewed.

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