Lincoln County Process – Geeking in TN

This is the first article on the press trip to Brown-Forman distilleries in the United States. This time, Jack Daniel’s. Or rather, something very specific, almost a detail, within the enormous set that is the mythical Jack Daniels.

It’s just that I’m not exactly me, in distilleries. It’s like that AppleTV series, Severance. When I go through the gates of a distillery, I forget who I am, and my innie becomes a curious and unpleasant being, who pokes the equipment, sticks his face in the washback and takes photos next to the stills.

During the visit, my partners – much more normal than me – were intrigued by the story of the number seven. No one knows for sure why Jasper chose that number. Others expressed curiosity about the bottle’s square shape, which was something revolutionary at the time. I was not. This time, the trigger was the Charcoal Mellowing, or Lincoln County Process. But my unhealthy curiosity combined with the patience of Jack’s team bore fruit. Which is the article below, which I bring to you, dear readers.


Lincoln County Process, also called Charcoal Mellowing, is the filtering of the new-make spirit that will later become Tennesse Whiskey through columns of activated maple charcoal. The process is generally carried out before the whiskey is matured, although Jack Daniels Gentleman Jack, for example, undergoes a second filtering after maturation.

Like any filtration process, charcoal mellowing is a subtractive process. The charcoal works as a natural filter, retaining certain components of the distillate – more specifically, the larger molecules – and altering its sensory profile. The texture of the whiskey becomes more delicate, and the flavor less “grainy” – that taste of fresh cereal.

According to Jack Daniel’s itself, “Once distilled to “140 proof” (that’s 70% ABV), we send our clear, unaged whiskey on a meticulous journey. Drop by drop, it crawls through our artisan charcoal in a rhythm dictated by gravity and nothing else. The journey takes 3 to 5 days to complete and, once completed, the whiskey is transformed.

Before proceeding, I must make a small digression about the name. One wold presume the distillery that employs it is located in Lincoln County. It turns out that neither Jack Daniel’s nor George Dickel – which also uses the process – are currently located there. However, it was in Lincoln County that Jack was founded, back in 1860. County boundaries were revised at the end of the 19th century, so that – amazingly – everyone in any county could reach a courthouse in less than a day horseback riding. Yes, horseback riding. And Jack Daniel’s was then transferred to the county without leaving the place.

Jack Daniel’s Stills are here

The Lincoln County Process seem simple, but is not. It’s much more than simply pouring distillate onto the charcoal on the barbecue. It begins by cutting maple trees into slats and drying them outdoors. This process takes months – much longer than it would take if an oven was used. Air drying allows the charcoal to burn at higher temperatures. Once dry, the slats are stacked in a shape similar to that of a gigantic “São João” bonfire – you, brazilians, got the reference – and set on fire.

The fire burns for approximately four hours, until it is put it out using water hoses. There is an interesting curiosity here. Jack Daniel’s is the only distillery in the world that has a fire station on its premises. The team is made up of Jack employees. The fire takes, on average, an hour to extinguish. The result is clean coal, which is subsequently ground to produce what they call “chips”.

In Jack’s words “Three days a week, three times a day, we stack pallets of hard sugar maple five feet high and douse them in raw unaged whiskey before setting the wood ablaze. It might seem like a waste of perfectly good whiskey, but we don’t see anything as a waste when it comes to making Jack Daniel’s. The inferno peaks at over 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit before burning down into smoldering embers. These pellets are then raked over until finally cool and ready to slowly mellow our Tennessee Whiskey.”

The men responsible burning maple for over 20 years

These small pieces – the aforementioned pellets – are arranged in large tanks, the “mellowing vats”. There is a network of pipes, arranged over these tanks, with small holes. The new-make travels through these pipes, and drips onto the coals. Here, there is an important detail: the “mellowing vat” has to be saturated with spirit all the time, otherwise, it can find an easier path between the chips, and reduce filtration efficiency.

Afterwards, the spirit is transferred to barrels, where it matures until it is considered suitable to become the most famous Tennessee Whiskey in the world – Jack Daniel’s. All Jack whiskeys go through this process at least once. Even the Rye Whiskey. Some, like Jack Daniel’s Gentleman Jack and the “gold” version, typical of Duty Frees, undergo a second filtration in maple charcoal, after maturing, and before being dilluted for bottling.


Because of this subtractive process, Jack Daniel’s claims that its whiskey is more than just bourbon. That, of course, and other details, such as the yeast and the distillation process. Chris Fletcher, Jack’s Master Distiller, even declares “we have everything it takes to be bourbon. And even more.” Therefore, perhaps, the ideal is not to classify it. Jack can be bourbon, and it is Tennessee whiskey. But most of all, Jack is Jack.

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