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The Proof: Celebrate America’s independence with Jack and Jim


The Proof: Celebrate America’s independence with Jack and Jim

30 Jun 2016

I spend a lot of time writing about (and drinking) spirits from independent bottlers and distillers. In the interest of Independence Day, however, I’ve decided to ignore the independents in favor of America’s most popular whiskies.

Perhaps the first name in American whiskey is Jack Daniels. By most counts, it’s the best-selling American whiskey in the world.

This might be unexpected, considering that our nation is best known for bourbon, and Jack Daniels, though similar, doesn’t market itself as one, opting instead for “Tennessee whiskey.” Based on current laws and regulations, there’s no major difference between the two types, except, of course, that Tennessee whiskey has to call that state home.

Jack’s defining flavor comes from a special step after distillation but before barreling. The raw spirit is filtered through sugar maple charcoal, a process called “mellowing.” As the term implies, this rounds out some of the spirit’s harsher edges.

Some whiskey purists balk at this, but it’s hard to argue with Jack’s sales numbers, even in this era when they face hundreds, if not thousands, of new rivals on the market.

It’s been a while since my last taste of Jack, back when I had yet to refine my palate, so I don’t really know what to expect. I choose a sip of Old No. 7, also known as Black Label, which is their basic bottling and what you get if you order Jack at a bar.

Old No. 7 starts with a sweet smell, plus a hint of the charcoal used to filter it. On the tongue, the whiskey is smooth with a round flavor dominated by caramel. Despite the sweet smell, the taste is surprisingly dry. It finishes with a little burn, which is a pleasant surprise after the smoothness of the rest of the experience.

I’m surprised that Jack still manages to taste unique even with so many other options out there.

Back in the day, if it wasn’t Jack Daniels you were ordering, it was likely Jim Beam. Beam is a full-fledged Kentucky bourbon out of the tiny community of Clermont. The company is almost as old as America itself, first selling a corn whiskey in 1795.

Beam doesn’t use the same charcoal filtration process as Jack. The result is a purer whiskey flavor, and a spirit that comes with a little more kick. Don’t be scared off, though. Even Beam’s basic white label bourbon is aged four years, so the burn is a feature rather than a drawback. It feels pleasantly warm on the tongue.

In addition to the alcohol burn, Beam is known for its signature spice. This comes in part from a slightly higher rye content than spirits like Jack. I usually prefer more spice in my whiskies. All in all, Beam is a drink most anyone can enjoy, but with a little extra punch to make it interesting.

So do our founding fathers proud at your cookouts this holiday weekend, and skip the six-pack in favor of a classic American whiskey.


Zach Powers is a writer and novelist. When he’s not busy imbibing, he helps run the literary arts nonprofit Seersucker Live. Get to know him at