The science behind smooth Tennessee whiskey

Maybe you have heard the song lyrics “smooth as Tennessee whiskey.” There is something to that reputation for the beverage made in the state, and a topic of a research project at one university’s food science department.

The science behind smooth-- flavor from a complex and careful distilling and aging process. At the Sugarlands Distilling Company in Gatlinburg, they make some 30 different beverages.

First they ferment grains, and then use these stills that hold hundreds of gallons, to search for a rich, full-bodied flavor for moonshine and other liquors. One product they are excited about is their Roaming Man Tennessee Rye Whiskey.

Greg Eida with the distillery states, “Having the science behind it, any kind of science that we can get out of it, it’s a stepping stone to advance our development of whiskey and really cheat time.”

That is getting a whiskey like it has been aged many years, but in a shorter time.

John Munafo, UTIA professor of flavor science and natural products, consults with Tennessee distillers like Sugarland to get the mix just right.

Here in his lab on the Knoxville ag campus, researchers seek to unravel the mystery of what gives whiskey a smooth flavor.

“We really started focusing on Tennessee whiskey, and we really wanted to understand the differences in flavor that occurs during the whiskey production process,” Munafo states.

To be a Tennessee whiskey, it has to be made from at least 51 percent corn and aged for a minimum of two years in unused, charcoal oak barrels.

The unique step to further achieve Tennessee whiskey status is what is called the Lincoln County process, which is named after the spot in Tennessee that is home to Jack Daniels.

“The Lincoln County process is a unique charcoal filtration process where you take maple charcoal and you pass a fresh whiskey distillate through the charcoal, and it’s supposed to impart a smoother flavor to the whiskey,” Munafo adds.

This UTIA research was part of Trent Kerley’s graduate studies at the UT Herbert College of Agriculture in Food Science. He is now a distiller with Sugarlands.

“It’s been a great experience so far,” Kerley states. “It’s really fulfilling to take everything I’ve learned and read about and focused on with my thesis and kind of see the application here with our mashing, our distilling and everything. It’s just a really complex process. There’s lots of science to understand. There’s always something to learn.”


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