Jack Daniel’s in recent years, the famed Tennessee Whiskey that is bourbon-like but eschews the word bourbon, has gotten better. It went through a period until about seven or eight years ago when the whiskey seemed unbalanced with an acerbic banana/acetone flavour. This is all in the past now and I think it is simply the result of better batch preparation; the mingling of the barrels to produce the regular Black Label seems to get more attention.
Regular Jack Daniel is on the sweet side, sometimes still with a banana or other yellow fruit note, but the whisky, even at the current 40% ABV (save special releases) is almost always very sound, whiskey which can stand up and then some to the Kentucky bourbon. Indeed today when long-aged bourbon is at a premium, Jack even at its 4-5 years of age is a good value.
But where things really ramp up at the House of Jack is the single barrel version. 10 years ago or so these were higher-alcohol versions of regular Jack and while selected from one barrel, as today, they didn’t offer anything really different. That was then. In the last few years, the single barrels show a demonstrably higher quality, or in my opinion they do. Each bottling, too, is different: some more woody, some more sweet or ashy, some with the trademark Bananas Foster note, and some with no banana esters at all.
This reflects the peculiarities of each barrel and its position on the rack in the warehouse. The weather too each year is different. In the result, the “honey barrels” as they are called, aged in the top (hotter) portion of the warehouse, each end by being a different “vintage”.
The one pictured above, bottled in August of this year, is a virtually perfect Jack. It is viscous, slightly sweet, with a minty/fudge/campfire flavour. Very smooth on the tongue too for something almost half ethanol alcohol.
A fine malt, fine Canadian and fine American whiskey are typically quite different. Jack is a pure American expression of the whiskey-maker’s art. You can see behind it the British influences which the Scots and Scots-Irish brought to Appalachia and environs. I think the charred barrel smoky notes may have been intended to replicate Islay and Ulster whisky of the 1700’s which used peated malt. The grain bill of an American straight – generally corn, rye, barley malt – is kind of like an Irish single pot still approach in that a good part of the mash derives from unmalted grains.
But no Irish whiskey, no Scots malt, tastes anything like a honeyed, slightly charcoal and wintergreen shot of American whiskey. The warm climates of Kentucky and Tennessee have something to do with that. And the Tennessee straight style adds that week of percolation through a stack of maple charcoal before the “white dog” (new whiskey) is barrelled for aging. The maple charcoal treatment, a vestige of a 19th century whiskey “cleansing” process, adds the final fillip to the legend that is Jack.
Anyway, words can’t do it justice, but we have to try. A few drops of Jack SB make the words flow better, I declare.