Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Whiskey Wednesday: Tennessee Smackdown

Grab your coonskin cap, put some BB King on the juke box and break open your copy of Inherit the Wind, it's time for a Tennessee Whiskey Smackdown!

Ahh,Tennessee Whiskey, that nearly-Bourbon whiskey, filtered through sugar maple charcoal and made by only two distilleries: Jack Daniel's and George Dickel.

Scots and Kentuckians alike shiver when they are reminded that a Tennessee Whiskey, not a Scotch or a Bourbon, is the world's biggest selling whiskey. That's right, not Johnnie Walker, not Jim Beam...Jack Daniel's is the world's best selling whiskey.

I've tasted my share of Bourbons, ryes and even American single malts, but like many American whiskey drinkers, I've largely ignored the land south of Kentucky. I made up for it by sitting down with three different Tennessee whiskies to see how they compared, both to Bourbon and to each other.

One thing is certain: the price is right. All of the bottles tasted are in the $20 range for a standard 750 ml bottle.

Jack Daniel's Old Number 7, 40% alcohol

Jack truly needs no introduction. As noted above, it is the best selling whiskey in the world. Its label graces thousands of t-shirts, leather jackets, aprons and jars of barbecue sauce. It is as ubiquitous as whiskey gets.

Well, Jack is popular for a reason. It's an easy-drinker. It has a nice, sweet taste and a light mouth feel. It's a light, perfectly decent whiskey and, though it lacks much in the way of complexity, it is smoother than some similarly situated Bourbons. It's amusing that, for all its rebel image of bikers taking swigs on their hogs, Jack is mostly smooth and sweet. As for me, it's not my favorite; it lacks the boldness that I seek in whiskey.

Gentleman Jack, Rare Tennessee Whiskey, 40% alcohol

Gentleman Jack markets itself as a more refined, slightly more upscale Jack. It has a sweet honey aroma, which is followed up on the palate by fruit and candy flavors. It's much sweeter than Old No. 7 and tastes a lot less like Bourbon than its black labeled counterpart. Frankly, I found it too sweet and lacking in complexity. If I want liquid candy, I'll drink a liqueur.

George Dickel, Superior No. 12, (what is it with Tennessee whiskey and the numbers?) 45% alcohol

George Dickel is forever the other Tennessee whiskey. He is Ashlee Simpson to Jack's Jessica (Shaun Cassidy to Jack's David for us older folks), always in the shadow of his more successful sibling.

But what George lacks in stature, he makes up for in flavor. George is a solid, oaky whiskey with some real complexity. The sweetness of Jack is replaced by some of the flavors you get in a good Bourbon: polished wood, tobacco, leather. Having met George, I don't think I'll be hanging with Jack much anymore. This is a sophisticated whiskey and one that clearly deserves more attention than it's getting.

On second thought, I think the better sibling analogy would be George as adventurous Branford to Jack's smoother, people-pleasing Wynton Marsalis.

And the winner of the Great Tennessee Smackdown is...

George Dickel, hands down, a great whiskey that could stand up to good Bourbon. Jack comes in second with its perfectly drinkable, if not particularly exciting old No. 7 and Gentleman Jack, which I found too sweet, picks up the rear.

Next Wednesday: A Whiskey Bar in LA?
In Two Weeks: You've met Jack and George, now meet Johnnie

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