Tennessee whiskey: 5 essential bottles to try

Tennessee distilleries are releasing plenty of delicious elixirs that are not "Tennessee whiskey." Legally, a "Tennessee whiskey" is a bourbon, manufactured in Tennessee, filtered through charcoal before it hits the barrel. Here's where to start to get the hang of this mellow, approachable spirit.

These can be found at the distilleries, all of which are stops on the Tennessee Whiskey Trail, as well as many liquor stores in Tennessee and elsewhere. Or if you're waiting for a flight, pick up a bottle or try a drink in the Nashville airport's Whiskey Trailhead shop and Three Casks bar.

The sign sits at the entrance of Jack Daniel's Old Time Distillery in Lynchburg, Tenn., July 3, 1965.

Jack Daniel's 12-Year-Old Tennessee Whiskey

For around 150 years, the black-labeled Old No. 7 has been the flagship whiskey of this iconic distillery. But there's much, much more to the Jack Daniel Distillery. In March, for example, master distiller Chris Fletcher released the latest in his age-stated series: an exceptional 12-year-old Tennessee whiskey.

Jack Daniel's 10- and 12-year aged Tennessee whiskies.

The big, bold 107-proof whiskey is rich with leathery notes of pipe tobacco, oak and sweet, toasted caramel with a grain bill of 80% corn, 12% malted barley and 8% rye. Like the rest of the distillery's portfolio, the 12 year is charcoal mellowed before aging in toasted American white oak barrels.

This is a limited batch, with only 18,000 bottles on the market. Look also for the 10-year-old whiskey, an exceptional release in its own right. -ML

Prichard's Tennessee Whiskey

When small distiller Phil Prichard decided to make a Tennessee-style whiskey in the aughts, he pored through the will of his fifth-generation grandfather Benjamin Prichard. The original Prichard owned a distillery in the 1790s. He used a white-corn mash, which was sweeter than the typical feed corn. He used a pot still — nothing else had been invented. And he did not filter his liquor through charcoal before aging it in barrels.

A bottle of Benjamin Prichard’s Tennessee Whiskey is on display at Prichard's Distillery Feb. 27, 2023, in Kelso, Tenn.

Prichard junior copied everything, he said.

In 2013, the state formally defined Tennessee whiskey as a charcoal-filtered bourbon. But they let Prichard continue as he was. After all, he pointed out, he used an old Tennessee recipe.

Prichard's Tennessee Whiskey is the most bourbon-like of Tennessee whiskeys, with extra sweetness from the white corn. While you're at the distillery, pick up a bottle of his aged rum. -DJD

Company Distilling Tennessee Three Wood

When Jack Daniel's master distiller Jeff Arnett lit out on his own, he didn't want to slap his name on a whiskey and sell by reputation. Or do what's expected: His new venture, Company Distilling, first released a bourbon.

In April, Company planned to release its first Tennessee whiskey, the Three Wood. Arnett called it his "soft, sweet entry point" for drinkers. It has a different kind of sweetness than the flagship product of his previous employer, because the grain blend is high in wheat, and Company finished the aging with apple wood.

That said, don't miss his bourbon, which I adored, and if you like rye, his rye, which I REALLY adored. -DJD

Nelson's Green Brier Tennessee Whiskey

By 1885, the German-born Charles Nelson was turning out 2 million bottles of Nelson’s Green Brier Tennessee Whiskey. Prohibition closed that distillery, which all but faded into obscurity until descendants Andy and Charlie Nelson learned about the family whiskey business and revived it in Nashville.

The recipe for Nelson's Green Brier Tennessee Whiskey dates to 1909.

The history buffs recreated their great-great-great granddaddy's label and bottle and began to piece together the original recipe for Nelson’s Green Brier Tennessee Whiskey. The flagship wheated whiskey is sweetly nutty and oaky, and a remarkable value at only around $30 per bottle.

As the folks at the distillery and local bartenders will tell you, it mixes up perfectly in a classic old fashioned. -ML

George Dickel No. 12 Whiskey

Tullahoma's Cascade Hollow Distilling Co. turns out some notable aged expressions of George Dickel whiskey, including the distillery's 9-year aged single barrel, which boasts plenty of spice, vanilla and wood.

But if you're newer to the world of Tennessee whiskey and are looking for a slightly more approachable, affordable entry point, try the Dickel No. 12, a 90-proof blend of whiskeys with a mash bill of 84% corn with a touch of rye and malted barley. The result is a sweeter profile with plenty of maple and fruit that works perfectly in a cocktail. At about $35 or so, it also won't break the bank. -ML

Mackensy Lunsford is the food and culture storyteller for USA TODAY Network's South region and the editor of Southern Kitchen. She's also the co-author of a barbecue cookbook. Danielle Dreilinger is an American South storytelling reporter and the author of the book “The Secret History of Home Economics.”