If you come across bottles of Jack Daniel’s and Evan Williams at your local whiskey shop, a number of things become apparent immediately.
In addition to these whiskeys most likely sharing the same shelf, both come in square 750mL bottles with white lettering on black labels. The words ‘Sour Mash’ are featured prominently on the front of each label.
These aren’t coincidences.
Imitation is indeed the best form of flattery. And when it comes to the No. 1 selling American whiskey in the world, who wouldn’t want to emulate that success?!
But if you take a look behind the label, you’ll notice a lot of differences — beyond the placement of the apostrophe in the name. In this post, we’ll compare and contrast these two top-volume American whiskey brands to see who comes out on top in this sour mash mashup.
Round 1: History
In 1875, a young distiller named Jack Daniel founded a distillery in Moore County, Tennessee. This was before the invention of modern continuous distillation techniques. As a result, mass production was troublesome, and quality varied widely from batch to batch.
As a means of quality control, Jack Daniel contributed two innovations to the world of American whiskey — the sour batch process and the Lincoln County process of charcoal filtration.
Not to be outdone, the history of Evan Williams goes back to 1783. The brand claims to be the oldest distillery in Kentucky. In fact, the history of the brand goes back to a time when Kentucky was still a territory of Virginia.
Round 1: Draw. Who knew two dudes this old could throw punches so hard?
Round 2: Ownership
Both of these high-volume brands come from a large commercial distillery. But any bourbon maker could tell you that quantity and quality aren’t always correlated — plenty of great whiskeys are made by the big makers while there’s no lack of small Craft distillers making awful products.
Jack Daniel’s is the flagship brand for international spirits producer Brown-Forman. Today, Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey is the No. 1 selling American whiskey in the world. Only the Johnnie Walker brand of Scotch whisky sells more bottles each year.
Evan Williams is the best-selling brand for international spirits producer Heaven Hill. In terms of sales, Evan Williams is no slouch, either. The brand is considered the No. 2 brand of Kentucky Bourbon after industry-leader Jim Beam White Label.
Round 2 is a draw. Both of these brands are owned by a world-recognized company with centuries’ worth of distilling expertise.
Round 3: Mashbills
Both brands are made to the production standards of Bourbon whiskey — although Jack Daniels refuses that designation. As a result, each is made with at least 51 percent corn in the mashbill, with the remainder made up of grains — malted barley, wheat and rye.
This is a sour mash mashup.
The term sour mash describes the process of holding a portion of the previous fermentation to add it to the upcoming mash. Each brand uses this method to help adjust the pH and create a more healthy environment for the yeast to thrive. The term has a connection to the making of sourdough, which also uses earlier batches to boost fermentation.
Round 3: Draw. The smell of sour mash fills the air.
Round 4: Maturation
Both brands are aged in new American charred oak barrels. Whiskey matured in a new charred barrel enjoys the benefit of interaction with the charcoal layer, which acts to filter any congeners and fusel oils that made it through the distillation process, and the red char layer, which imparts those distinctive tastes associated with oak maturation — vanilla, tobacco and baking spices.
While Jack Daniel’s has no age statement and nothing on the bottle to indicate age, Even Williams is labeled a Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey. Legally, ‘Straight Whiskeys’ must contain liquid from barrels that have been aged for two years as an absolute minimum.
One interesting tidbit related to maturation: Brown-Forman boasts its very own cooperage, allowing Jack Daniel’s to be in total control of its barrel inventory from beginning to end.
Round 4 Kentucky gets on the scorers’ card. While Jack Daniel’s could easily be aged two years, the Straight designation of Evan Williams gives him the edge.
Round 5: Distillation & Production
Both brands are distilled using modern, industrial-scale column distillation techniques.
Jack Daniel’s is distilled in Lynchburg, Tennessee. Fermentation is done using a sour mash technique. The distillate goes through a bed of maple charcoal, called the Lincoln County process, before being racked into new American charred oak barrels for maturation.
In addition to being produced within the state, the Lincoln County process is a requisite for any bottling that wants to label itself a Tennessee whiskey — a designation that receives international recognition similar to what Bourbon enjoys.
Evan Williams is distilled at the Heaven Hill Distillery in Louisville, Kentucky, and bottled in Bardstown. It does not undergo the Lincoln County process. However, Evan Williams’ marketing materials over the years have at times mentioned ‘charcoal filtering’ — an almost certain allusion to activated charcoal filtration.
Round 5 — Draw!
Round 6: Price Point & Value
Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey is available for about $24 for a 750mL bottle, bottled at 80-proof, or 40 percent alcohol by volume.
Evan Williams Black Label is available for about $15 for a 750mL bottle and is bottled at 86-proof, or 43 percent ABV.
The judges score Evan Williams the better value. This round goes Kentucky’s way!
Round 7: Tasting Notes
Nose: Oak and charcoal, with hints of pine and a buttery caramel aroma.
Palate: A spicy pepper flavor, with notes of clove.
Finish: Spicy with lingering pecan, black pepper and cherry.
Nose: Oak, vanilla, baking spices and leather, with a corn sweetness.
Palate: Stone fruits, baking spices, honey and buttery caramel.
Finish: Butterscotch, a touch of spice from the rye grain, and a peppery spice.
What’s your flavor? Both of these brands come from a historic distillery. Each deserves a try.
While Evan Williams edged out Jack Daniel’s based on price and maturation, you don’t become the No. 1 selling American whiskey in the world by accident. And there’s a certain allure to walking into any bar on the globe, picking out a bottle and knowing exactly what you’re going to get.
Now that you know how they match up on paper check them out while you’re at your favorite bar or whiskey shop to see which one you think has the preferred flavor profile.