All Tennessee whiskey is technically bourbon but not all bourbon is Tenessee whiskey. The juice from Tennessee mandates one tweak that differs from its Kentucky cousin, charcoal filtration. With very few exceptions, all Tennessee whiskey has to be filtered through sugar maple charcoal before barreling to be classified in the regional style. Does that make Tennessee whiskey “better” than Kentucky’s bourbon?
That’s a question for the ages. And, like everything, comes down to a matter of taste.
Today, I’m going to try and answer that question for myself by blind tasting six Kentucky bourbons and six Tennessee whiskeys. I’ve picked mostly mid-range bottles that all clock in around the $30–$60 price point with some above and below that mark. There’s nothing super rare or old. Just good-but-pretty-standard whiskey you’re able to actually find. I also threw in one blend of Kentucky, Tennessee, and Indiana whiskeys to see if it would stand out or maybe even win.
Overall, the point is to find out which whiskey style (generally) reigns supreme.
Our lineup today includes:
- Woodford Reserve (KY)
- Bib & Tucker 6 (TN)
- Uncle Nearest 1884 Small Batch (TN)
- Noah’s Mill (KY)
- Paul Sutton (KY)
- Barrell Bourbon Batch 029 (TN, IN, KY)
- George Dickel Bottled-in-Bond Fall 2008 (TN)
- Benchmark Old No. 8 (KY)
- Bulleit Bourbon (KY)
- Nelson’s Green Brier Tennessee Sour Mash (TN)
- Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Travelers Sweet & Oaky (TN)
- Four Roses Small Batch Select (KY)
Let’s get tasting!
Also Read: The Top 5 UPROXX Bourbon Posts Of The Last Six Months
Part 1: The Tasting
This feels classic from the nose to the end with vanilla, chocolate oranges, and a hint of minty tobacco leading the way. The taste has a buttery toffee vibe next to dried stone fruits, cinnamon sticks, and a woody mid-point. The finish arrives with a return to the chocolate orange with mild hints of winter spice, old wicker, and a hint more of that mint tobacco.
Leather and wet cedar drive the nose toward woody vanilla with a hint of spiced apple pie filling. That pie filling leads the palate while old cedar boxes mingle with ginger snaps and spicy apple tobacco. That fruity spice fills out the finish with a final note of sweet oak.
The nose opens with sweet cornmeal, pecan cookies, and leather rubbed with cinnamon sticks. The palate smoothes out with a soft vanilla cream pie next to a tart apple crumble with plenty of brown sugar. The mid-palate sweetness edges towards walnuts, dried cherries covered in dark chocolate, and a hint of leather. That leather fades to an old potting soil earthiness on the short finish.
Nutmeg-laden eggnog opens the nose with lines of a cedar box full of dry tobacco and warm leather. Cinnamon candy arrives early on the palate as buttery toffee, chocolate Corn Pops, and dry wicker drives the taste. The mid-palate feels like a caramel and vanilla marriage that’s countered by more of the wicker and a sweet, fresh potting soil full of minerals with a winter spice tobacco warmth rounding everything off.
Barnyard funk and wet straw lead on the nose as salted caramels and cherries in a pine box counter. Sweet corn cakes with vanilla cream come together on the palate as chocolate-covered cherries lead to a slight eggnog vibe. Pecan pie filling drives the mid-palate toward dark chocolate and cherry tobacco on the finish.
Spiced oatmeal cookies pop on the nose with fresh leather, orange oil, and honey. Plums meet that honey on the palate with a sense of roasted almonds, toasted coconut, dark chocolate, and just a hint of crusty Tuscan bread. That final note lingers as a touch of fresh green savory herbs arrive on the finish with an echo of the nuts and orange oil.
Maple syrup and pecan pie lead the way on the nose with dried apple and worn leather. The palate has big notes of apple pecan crumble with a scoop of malted vanilla ice cream next to cherry syrup and dark chocolate powder. That powderiness leads the mid-palate to a cherry Necco Wafer and a touch of brown butter. The finish holds onto that cherry Necco as the nuttiness and mild spices from the crumble slowly fade away.
Lemon candies and honey lead to a vanilla wafer on the nose but not much else. The taste is classic bourbon with hints of leather, spice, and cornmeal next to vanilla extract, caramel, and buttered popcorn. The end is very faint and almost vodka-like.
Again with the classic nose of vanilla, caramel, leather, spice, and “oak.” There’s a thin line of cinnamon on the palate that leads to vanilla pudding, apple tobacco, and dry cornbread with a pad of butter. There’s a dry wicker deck chair woodiness near the end that’s augmented by brown sugar sweetness and wintry spice.
This pops with milk chocolate on the nose next to leather, cinnamon sticks, and rich caramel. There’s an apple-cinnamon toast vibe on the front the taste that leads to cherry wood and more of that milk chocolate with mild tobacco feel to it all. The cherry marries to that tobacco as wet cedar and apple skins fade away on the finish.
This is sweet from the nose to the finish with sour cherries leading to Cherry Coke, vanilla pudding powder, salted caramel, and wet barrels. The palate leans into the Cherry Coke with almond shells and Brazil nuts next to vanilla cream. That vanilla mid-point circles back to a cherry wood/cherry tobacco mix on the finish that ends with wet wicker, vanilla pods, and flat cherry root beer.
Old oats and dried raspberries with a hint of clove mix with worn leather and apricot on the nose. The palate lets dried dark berries mix with apricot jam as winter spices warm the sense. The mid-palate is all about vanilla sugar cookies with a thin layer of red spiced jam. The finish arrives with a sense of that worn leather tied to an old pine box, a sense of damp soil, and blackberry chewing tobacco.
Part 2: The Ranking
12. Benchmark Old No. 8 — Taste 8
Average Price: $11
The juice in this bottle is from Buffalo Trace’s Mash #1, which has a scant amount of barley and rye next to mostly corn. This is the same mash that’s used for bigger hitting brands like Eagle Rare, Stagg, and E.H. Taylor. In this case, this is a four-year-old bonded that’s sort of like a proto-E.H. Taylor Small Batch.
This felt like a $10 budget bourbon from top to bottom. Even the vanilla extract was more like the plastic bottle than the actual fluid. I guess I’d mix this with Coke or ginger ale.
11. Bulleit Bourbon — Taste 9
Average Price: $33
Bulleit embraces a high-rye mash bill that’s comprised of 68 percent corn, 28 percent rye, and four percent malted barley. The juice is then rested for six years before blending, cutting down to proof, and barreling.
This was fine, but nothing to write home about. Again, I can see mixing with this or drinking it with ginger ale when I want a sugar rush.
10. Bib & Tucker 6 — Taste 2
Average Price: $60
Bib & Tucker pulls barrels of Tennessee whiskey from an old and quiet valley in the state. They then blend those barrels to meet their brand’s flavor notes. While they are laying down their own whiskey now, this is still all about the blending of those barrels in small batches.
This felt like a cocktail whiskey through and through. That’s not a bad thing at all. It’s more of a shrug and a “yup, tastes good. Next.”
9. Woodford Reserve — Taste 1
Average Price: $40
The mash bill on this bourbon is mid-range rye with 18 percent of the grain added for support. The triple distilling in pot stills and blending with column distilled whiskey is utilized. The juice then rests for six to seven years before barrels are pulled for blending, proofing, and bottling.
This was where things get “fine” in that this whiskey felt like it could easily be an on the rocks sipper or cocktail base. It wasn’t challenging or bland. It just… was.
8. Uncle Nearest 1884 Small Batch — Taste 3
Average Price: $49
This whiskey is built from a batch of barrels that are a minimum of seven years old. Nearest’s Master Blender, Victoria Eady-Butler, builds the blend according to classic flavor notes first put into Tennessee whiskey by her ancestor, Nearest Green, back in the 1800s.
This, again, feels perfectly fine though maybe a little more suited to mixing than sipping. There was nothing offensive by any stretch. This was more just lost in this big middle section of the tasting.
7. Paul Sutton Bourbon — Taste 5
Average Price: $65
Paul Sutton is a new bourbon from an old family recipe. I know, we’ve all heard it before. The new whiskey is not a blend of sourced bourbons. The brand took the time to release its contract distilled whiskey. The bourbon mash bill has a touch of rye in it and it aged for up to five years in medium char barrels.
That barnyard funk on the nose is enticing. It really helps this whiskey stand out. There’s just not much after that that feels like it commits to that unique opening volley. It’s classic through and through, which is fine as both a sipper on the rocks or cocktail base.
6. Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Travelers Sweet & Oaky — Taste 11
Average Price: $34 (Heineman Travel Shops Only)
This limited edition, traveler’s exclusive is classic Jack Daniel’s at a much higher ABV. The mash is 80 percent corn, 12 percent malted barley, and eight percent rye. That whiskey is then aged in Jack Daniel’s vast warehouses after going through the iconic Lincoln County Process of sugar maple charcoal filtration. The barrels are then hand-picked by Master Distiller Chris Fletcher for their uniqueness and flavors that lean into what’s advertised on the label.
Goddamn, this was sweet compared to all the other whiskeys. That helped in stand out and really hide those higher ABVs. That puts this squarely in the middle for me. It’s pretty damn good for what it is and stands out in interesting ways.
5. Barrell Bourbon Batch 029 — Taste 6
Average Price: $110
This release from Barrell Bourbon is a blend of whiskeys from Kentucky, Indiana, and Tennessee. The final mix is a blend of six, seven, nine, ten, 14, and 16-year-old barrels that are vatted and then bottled at barrel proof.
This is where things get interesting. The proof on this sort of outshined the nuance of the flavor profile, but that’s not insurmountable. A little water or a rock will really let this whiskey shine.
4. Nelson’s Green Brier Tennessee Sour Mash — Taste 10
Average Price: $32
Nelson’s Green Brier is a heritage brand that has a great comeback story. The family’s shingle was killed by Prohibition until descendants of the former owners stumbled upon the old distillery. Now, they’re making one of the finest, wheated Tennessee whiskeys at one of the most accessible price points of any whiskey.
Honestly, I’m pretty shocked to see this so high. That pure chocolate throughline really enticed me today. It was a really easy sip neat but I can see this working well on the rocks.
3. George Dickel Bottled-in-Bond Fall 2008 — Taste 7
Average Price: $45
Nicole Austin has been killing it with these bottled-in-bond releases from George Dickel. This release is a whiskey that was warehoused in the fall of 2008. 13 years later, this juice was bottled at 100 proof (as per the bottled-in-bond law) and sent out to the wide world, where it received much adoration.
I thought this would be number one. I generally really like this whiskey but it didn’t quite stand up to the next two in true depth. It’s excellent, even as a neat sip, but didn’t wow me on this tasting.
2. Noah’s Mill — Taste 4
Average Price: $60
This is Willett’s high-proof bourbon that’s barely cut down to a very high 114.3 proof. This is kind of like the big and bolder sibling of Willett’s Rowan’s Creek bourbon, which is cut down to 100.1 proof.
This felt like “grown-up” whiskey. There was so much going on that I wanted to really take my time with this dram and go back into the glass to find more of the nuance. This feels damn near perfect compared to the rest of this list.
1. Four Roses Small Batch Select — Taste 12
Average Price: $64
This expression uses six of Four Rose’s 10 whiskeys in their small-batching process. The idea is to blend both high and very high-rye bourbons with yeast strains that highlight “delicate fruit,” “slight spice,” and “herbal notes.” The whiskeys tend to spend at least six years in the barrel before blending and proofing with just a touch of Kentucky’s soft limestone water.
This really shined the brightest. It was all-around a more nuanced and flavorful whiskey that seemed super dialed in. I wanted to go right back and pour another of these once I finished.
I did. It was excellent.
Part 3: Final Thoughts
Four Roses pulling off the win feels like a bit of an upset. But it’s really not. That whiskey is really good for a mid-range bottle that you can actually find.
When it comes to Kentucky bourbon versus Tennessee whiskey, well… It looks like Kentucky took the gold medal home. But two Tennessee whiskeys made the top five with a blend landing in fifth place. Also, the lowest two slots both went to Kentucky bourbon. What I’m getting at is that it was a pretty even result at the end of the day.
That said, there was just no beating Noah’s Mill and Four Roses today and that’s a clear win of Kentucky.