TENNESSEE WHISKEY: Distilling the Uniqueness and Legacy of the Lincoln County Process

early Tennessee whiskey makers
This historic photograph features Jasper Newton Daniel, also known as Jack Daniel, with early members of the Jack Daniel’s Distillery crew. Seated next to him on the left is George Green, Nearest Green’s son. Another unidentified son likely sits in the top left corner. According to whiskey historians, George and his brothers, Lewis and Eli, continued the Lincoln County Process with Jack when he moved to the Holler in Lynchburg. (Historic Photo)

Sunday will be May 21 known around the world as International Tennessee Whiskey Day and it’s a special day here in southern, middle Tennessee as it celebrates the unique legacy of the Lincoln County Process and the two men, Nearest Green and Jack Daniel, whose partnership launched a brand that would eventually become known and respected around the world.

When it comes to American whiskey, Tennessee Whiskey stands out as a distinct and cherished category. Renowned for its smoothness, rich flavor, and unique production method, Tennessee Whiskey captivated the palates of whiskey enthusiasts around the globe. From the folks down in the Holler’s perspective, it also didn’t hurt that Ol’ Blue Eyes himself, Frank Sinatra, was a huge fan. He served as the ultimate Jack Daniel’s Black Label “social media influencer” before such a thing existed. Legend holds that his daughter, Nancy, slipped a mini-bottle of our local product in his suit before he was buried.

At the heart of this remarkable spirit lies the Lincoln County Process, a distinctive charcoal filtering technique that sets Tennessee Whiskey apart from its bourbon counterparts. On this year’s International Tennessee Whiskey Day, we thought we’d delve into the history, significance, and artistry of the Lincoln County Process, and explore what makes Tennessee Whiskey truly exceptional.

The Legacy of Tennessee Whiskey

Tennessee has a long and storied history of whiskey production, dating back to the early days of the state. Our temperate climate, abundant resources, and plethora of skilled distillers made it an ideal environment for whiskey production to flourish. In fact, according to local historians, by the 1880s, there were around 15 registered distilleries located in Moore County. Interestingly, at the time, the most productive was the Tom Eaton’s Distillery, not the now-famous Jack Daniel’s Distillery.

While Tennessee Whiskey and bourbon share many similarities, there is one crucial distinction: the Lincoln County Process. This extra step in the production process lends Tennessee Whiskey its distinctive character. So, what exactly is the Lincoln County Process, and how does it contribute to the uniqueness of Tennessee Whiskey?

The Lincoln County Process is a charcoal filtering method that involves passing newly distilled whiskey through charcoal before it goes into the barrel for aging. The charcoal, often made from sugar maple trees, is meticulously crafted to create a filter known as the charcoal mellowing vats. This filtration process is the key differentiator for Tennessee Whiskey.

The Lincoln County Process takes its name from Lincoln County, Tennessee, where it originated. Moore County is home to the city of Lynchburg. Lynchburg and Moore County merged into Metro Moore County in 1988. Prior to 1871, Moore County didn’t exist. Founders carved it from parts of the surrounding counties – Lincoln, Bedford, Coffee, and Franklin – so putting a pin on a modern map marking the exact location where the “Lincoln County Process” was actually born proves difficult.

Although its exact origin remains shrouded in history, the process gained prominence in the mid-19th century. It is believed that early Tennessee distillers, including Jack Daniel, practiced this method to refine their spirits.

Its roots likely come from slaves brought over from West Africa, where charcoal-filtering was already being used to purify water supplies and food. Many whiskey historians posit that Nearest Green, the former slave who would eventually teach Jack Daniel the Lincoln County Process on the Dan Call Farm, likely brought it with him.

“As far as Nearest being credited with helping to perfect the Lincoln County Process, we didn’t know that until Fawn (Weaver) did the proper research,” said Victoria Eady Butler, who is both a Green descendent and the Master Blender at the distillery that now bears his name. “We think, based on the information available, it was something brought over from West Africa, where they purified water through charcoal. Nearest, in his infinite wisdom, thought if it worked for water, it would work for whiskey. He didn’t invent the Lincoln County Process; he just perfected it with sugar maple charcoal.”

Godfathers of Tennessee Whiskey

It’s never been a secret around Lynchburg that Nearest Green exists and served a vital role in the creation of the Tennessee Whiskey that now sits on shelves from Tullahoma to Tunisia. Much like the Moltlow family who inherited the distillery from Jack, the Green family have been revered in Lynchburg for years. If you are a local, you’ve always known.

In 2016, Clay Risen of The New York Times wrote a piece entitled, Jack Daniel’s Embraces a Hidden Ingredient: Help From a Slave that launched both a national discussion and eventually a brand honoring Green and his descendent in Bedford County. (To read that original article, click here.) The brand’s founder, Fawn Weaver, is one of the foremost experts on the relationship between the two unlikely friends. The following year, Risen wrote a follow up piece interviewing Weaver about the new distillery that bears Green’s name and the history she’d uncovered while researching Green. (To read that article, click here.)

The Shelbyville distillery gives a great historical accounting of the relationship between Nearest and Jack on their website:

“While the young boy worked for the preacher, he kept asking about the smoke coming up through the hollow on the 338-acre property. He knew there were men hurrying back and forth from that area with mules and wagons but he was never allowed to go. Finally, after some time of working as a chore boy, the preacher (Dan Call) agreed to give in to the boy’s curiosity and to take him to the area on the property where the smoke came from. Introducing the young boy to a ‘coal black negro,’ as later described in the boy’s biography, by saying, ‘This is Uncle Nearest. He’s the best whiskey maker I know of,’ and asked Nearest to teach the young boy everything he knew about distilling, and especially his process of sugar maple charcoal filtering.”

The distillery also does a great job of telling the history of the godfathers of Tennessee Whiskey in The Story of Nearest Green video featuring Emmy-Award winning actor Jeffrey Wright. To view it, click here.

Legal Definition of Tennessee Whiskey

To execute the Lincoln County Process, freshly distilled whiskey is poured into large vats containing layers of charcoal. The whiskey slowly drips through the charcoal, effectively removing impurities, such as harsh grain flavors, and imparting a distinctive smoothness and mellow character to the spirit. This charcoal filtration also helps in removing unwanted congeners, resulting in a cleaner, more refined whiskey.

The Lincoln County Process contributes significantly to the flavor profile of Tennessee Whiskey. The charcoal filtration helps to soften the spirit, resulting in a smoother, less aggressive taste compared to other whiskeys. Additionally, the process has a subtle influence on the whiskey’s aroma, enhancing its complexity and depth.

In 2013, the Tennessee General Assembly enacted a legal definition for Tennessee Whiskey, further emphasizing the significance of the Lincoln County Process. The definition stipulates that Tennessee Whiskey must be produced in Tennessee and undergo charcoal mellowing before aging in new charred oak barrels. This legislation ensures the authenticity and preservation of the traditional production methods that make Tennessee Whiskey unique.

It’s also interesting that nearly every bottle of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey from Black Label to the newest 12-Year-Old Age Stated Whiskey is made from the exact same grain bill: 80 percent corn, 12 percent barley, and 8 percent rye. The strict adherence to that grain bill on most new bottles coming out of Lynchburg coupled with The Lincoln County Process steeps each bottle in both traditional and innovation.

This weekend in Nashville, they’ll celebrate with the 2nd annual TN Whiskey Trail Experience. Over 30 distilleries will gather for a “grand tasting” event that also includes a Blend Your Own Bottle, a roundtrip tour and BBQ at Jack Daniel’s, a Pre-party at Ole Smoky, the Grand Tasting, and a Women in Whiskey Brunch. Jack Daniel Assistant Distiller Lexie Phillips and George Dickel’s Nicole Austin will be panelists at the Women in Whiskey Brunch. Local distilleries and those with Lynchburg ties include Jack Daniel’s Distillery, Company Distilling, Nearest Green Distillery, and Cascade Hollow (George Dickel). To learn more, click here.•

{The Lynchburg Times is an independently-owned, community newspaper located in Lynchburg, Tennessee the home of The Jack Daniel Distillery. We focus on public service, non-partisan, rural journalism. We cover the Metro Moore County government, local tourism, Moore County schools, high school sports, Motlow State Community College, as well as whiskey industry news and regional and state stories that affect our readers.}