by Chris Chamberlain 

When the iconic Lynchburg, TN distillery Jack Daniel’s first released their Single Barrel Rye in 2016, it was kind of a big deal. After all, the venerable distillery has not produced a truly new mash bill recipe for wide commercial distribution since before Prohibition, with their flagship Jack Daniel’s Black Label, Gentleman Jack, Single Barrel TN Whiskey and Sinatra Select all coming from the same recipe of 80% corn, 8% rye and 12% malted barley. Corn is king at Jack, and they are proud of the individual character that their whiskeys exhibit.

Notable is the low rye content in their flagship brands, and outside of a very brief period during Tennessee’s Prohibition (which began a decade before the 18th Amendment dried out the rest of the country) and Jack Daniel’s distilled Jefferson County Rye, the distillery has never been known for making a rye whiskey. However, almost a decade ago, the distillery began to make plans to introduce an entirely new product to their fans.

Jack Daniel’s master distiller Jeff Arnett explains, “We created Jack Daniel Rye for our brand loyalists who wanted to explore rye. The rye whiskey category grew by 20% last year, and we’re glad to be a part of it.” The distillery actually tipped their hand about their intentions a few years before releasing the single barrel product. In 2012, they offered a limited release of Unaged Rye to allow fans to sample the “white dog” version of what would be re-released as Rested Rye in 2014 after a couple of years in oak. By 2016, their rye whiskey had matured enough for a wider release of 94 proof Single Barrel Select and an even more rare Barrel Proof version in proofs ranging from 125 to 140.

Now with the release of Tennessee Rye, Jack Daniel’s is ready to take their rye to the masses. “Following the launch of Single Barrel Rye in 2016, we’ve heard from so many of our friends who like Jack Daniel’s rye whiskey,” added Arnett. “Our goal with Tennessee Rye was to create a versatile whiskey with a balance of flavors that can be enjoyed neat, on the rocks or mixed in a classic American whiskey cocktail.”

Packaged in Jack’s famous square bottle, but with a green wrapper and tan label, Tennessee Rye is immediately recognizable as a Jack Daniel’s product. As opposed to many other ryes in the marketplace that come from only a few sources (“There are a lot of different labels, but not a lot of different liquids,” notes Arnett.) Jack Daniel’s strived to create a product that is unique. Most ryes are made with a mash bill that is either 51% rye or 95% rye, and Arnett consciously chose to split the difference in an effort to make a rye whiskey the Jack Daniel’s way.

Arnett says “95% ryes are like a cannonball off the high dive. As a grain, rye is big and bold, and can be harsh and edgy. With too much of it in the recipe, it’s kind of like a one bean coffee blend. We intentionally chose to use 70% rye to leave enough space for the other grains to matter.”

They settled on a mash bill of 70% rye, 18% corn and 12% malted barley, similar to the Jack Black recipe but with the corn and rye proportions swapped. “We use the corn to soften the edges of the rye,” says Arnett. “We had two specific intentions in mind. First, we wanted to create an acceptable and affordable option for our bartender friends to use as a starting point for cocktails. Secondly, we wanted to offer something with enough balance that you can still drink it neat.”

The rye whiskey is run through the traditional Lincoln County Process where it is dripped through sugar maple charcoal to mellow the whiskey before entering the barrel, but it doesn’t have as much exposure to the charcoal as Jack Daniel’s Tennessee whiskey products. Arnett describes the reason for this decision, “Because we use less corn, it needs less mellowing, Besides, ‘mellow rye whiskey’ is an oxymoron. It’s not as sweet as our Tennessee whiskey, but it still exhibits a spicy center that is big enough for cocktails.”

While there is no age statement on the bottle, that means that Tennessee Rye must spend at least four years in oak. As opposed to the single barrel product, Tennessee Rye is blended in larger batches of 150-200 barrels so that the characteristics of individual barrels can combine to create a consistent product. The result is a lovely whiskey that is definitely recognizable as a Jack Daniel’s product but which would never be confused with their Tennessee whiskeys.

The house yeast at Jack Daniel’s contributes notes of banana and pear that show up in all of their products, including the new rye. The spicier grain exhibits fruity flavors, specifically dried fruits such as raisins and dates. Arnett describes it as “like a dry trail mix.”

Now widely available in Tennessee, Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Rye is priced similarly to their traditional Black Label. When you consider that the rye whiskey is 90 proof as opposed to the 80 proof of their Tennessee whiskey, there’s actually a bit of a built-in discount there. At whatever price, it’s worth picking up a bottle or two of this truly historic new product.

While you might think that a staid company like Jack Daniel’s has been trading on the same recipe for more than a century, Arnett wants to remind consumers that they are constantly looking to provide for their fans. “Our customers range from folks who’ve just reached legal drinking age to damned near dead. We created this new product because we wanted our fans to be able to stay loyal to the brand while still exploring the expanding rye space.”