Difference between Kentucky Bourbon and Tennessee Whiskey

Published on December 1, 2016

Whiskey is one of the most complex liquors out there. Connoisseurs can detect various flavors and scents in a fine whiskey, such as sugar, smoke, and even hints of spice. In the USA, two varieties dominate the whiskey scene: Kentucky bourbon and Tennessee whiskey. Both types of whiskey are strictly defined by law and have differing flavor profiles that only experts can discern. 

Definitions

Kentucky Bourbon vs Tennessee Whiskey
Jim Beam is a type of Kentucky bourbon

Many people say that all Kentucky bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon. Many urban legends say that this liquor’s spiritual home is Bourbon County, Kentucky, where early settlers of Scottish origin established the first distilleries. Other experts hold that the name came from Bourbon Street in New Orleans, which is a major port for the export of American whiskey.

Whatever its origin, the use of the word “bourbon” is strictly regulated by federal law. These laws include the following requirements:

  • The whiskey must be made within the United States
  • During production, the grain mixture (mash) used must be at least 51% corn
  • Aging must take place in new charred oak barrels
  • Alcohol content should be no more than 80% by volume (160 proof)
  • Before it enters the barrel, the alcohol content should be no more than 62.5% by volume (125 proof)
  • Alcohol content when bottled should be no less than 40% alcohol by volume (80 proof)

In addition, manufacturers cannot add any flavor or other ingredients besides water (and this is only for the bottling process). Local distillers claim that Kentucky spring water passes through layers of limestone, which eliminates its iron content and gives Kentucky bourbon its unique flavor. The composition of the mash and the length of the aging process also determine the flavor of the finished product. For example, younger bourbons usually taste like cornbread or wheat flakes, while mature bourbons have faint hints of caramel.

Tennessee whiskey
Jack Daniel’s is a variety of Tennessee whiskey

Tennessee whiskey has a similar production process to Kentucky bourbon and it contains the same amount of alcohol. However, international trade agreements state that only Tennessee distillers can produce whiskey marked as “Tennessee Whiskey.” Tennessee state laws take the requirements further by including one more step – all but one Tennessee whiskey distillers must filter the product through maple charcoal before it reaches the barrels. This step, experts say, produces a mellow, softer liquor.

Kentucky Bourbon vs Tennessee Whiskey

So what is the difference between Kentucky bourbon and Tennessee whiskey? While many argue that Kentucky bourbon and Tennessee whiskey are different only in name, different legal requirements and production processes lead to different products. Here are some of their differences:

Point of Origin

While bourbon can be made anywhere within the United States, “Kentucky bourbon” can come only from the state of Kentucky. In the same way, Tennessee whiskey must be made in Tennessee. Thus, Kentucky bourbon and Tennessee whiskey have different points of origin.

Manufacturing Process

Kentucky bourbon and Tennessee whiskey have similar production processes. Both require aging in new charred barrels. Distillers also adhere to the same levels of alcohol content, from distillation to aging to bottling. However, Tennessee whiskey requires filtration through sugar maple charcoal prior to aging in the barrel, when Kentucky bourbon does not.

Flavor

Because of the differences in the composition of the mash and the length of the aging process, there is a lot of variation among whiskeys or bourbons of the same variety. Generally speaking, however, liquor tasters claim that Kentucky bourbon has a stronger flavor, while Tennessee whiskey is more mellow.

Comparison Chart

Kentucky Bourbon Tennessee Whiskey
Kentucky bourbon comes only from Kentucky, although bourbon may be produced anywhere in the USA By law, only distillers in Tennessee may produce Tennessee whiskey 
Made from 51% mash; aged in new charred barrels Made from 51% mash, filtered through sugar maple charcoal, and aged in new charred barrels
Strong, robust flavors Soft, mellow flavors
Leading brands include Jim Beam and Maker’s Mark Leading brands include Jack Daniel’s and George Dickel