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State Battle Brewing Over Tennessee Whiskey Law

State Battle Brewing Over Tennessee Whiskey Law

By    |   Monday, 17 March 2014 06:13 PM

State lawmakers and the parent company of Jack Daniel's could be headed for a barroom brawl over a year-old law stipulating the requirements that must be met to market spirits as Tennessee whiskey.

According to The Associated Press, the law requires Tennessee whiskey to be:
  • fermented from mash of at least 51 percent corn;
  • filtered through maple charcoal;
  • bottled at a minimum 80 proof;
  • aged in new, charred oak barrels, never before used for the purpose.
If that complicated and time-consuming list reads like the strict overview followed in making Jack Daniel's, it's because the law was passed at the urging of Jack Daniel's corporate ownership.

Jeff Arnett, Jack Daniel's Lynchburg, Tenn.-based master distiller, argues that they "worked hard" to adhere to that process, and by doing so, Jack Daniel's has earned its Tennessee whiskey label.

"As a state, I don't think Tennessee should be bashful about being protective of Tennessee whiskey over, say, bourbon or scotch or any of the other products that we compete with," Arnett told AP.

But lawmakers want to dial back some of those requirements, saying they say make it too difficult for craft distilleries to market their spirits as Tennessee whiskey.

Republican state Rep. Bill Sanderson is behind the proposed changes, the main one to allow Tennessee whiskey makers to reuse specialty barrels, which can cost upwards of $600 each.

"There are a lot of ways to make high-quality whiskey, even if it's not necessarily the way Jack Daniel's does it," Sanderson said. "What gives them the right to call theirs Tennessee whiskey, and not others?"

According to Arnett, whiskey is clear when it goes into the barrel and acquires its color and flavor through the aging process. He said enabling distilleries to reuse barrels might encourage the use of artificial colorings and flavorings, leading to an inferior product carrying the state's name.

"We've been making whiskey a long time, and we know that would not uphold the quality that people expect from Tennessee whiskey," Arnett said. "So we wouldn't dare consider doing it, even though it would save us millions of dollars every year."

Sanderson countered that the flavor and color of the whiskey is determined more by the charring of the inside of the barrels, a process he said can be easily repeated. Consumers would ultimately decide whether the end product matches up.

"If they're making an inferior product, the market will decide," he said.

Labeling this simply a battle between big business — Jack Daniel's corporate parent is Brown-Forman Corp — and the little guy would be taking the issue too lightly.

Sanderson acknowledged that he introduced the measure at the behest of Diageo PLC, the British conglomerate that owns George Dickel, a competitor of Jack Daniel's which is made just 15 miles away.

Nevertheless, he said his motives are driven out of concern for smaller distilleries, which would be more inclined to refill old barrels rather than throw them away.

Diageo executive vice president Guy L. Smith IV agreed.

"This isn't about Diageo, as all of our Tennessee whiskey is made with new oak," he said. "This is about Brown-Forman trying to stifle competition and the entrepreneurial spirit of micro-distillers.

"We are not sure what they are afraid of, as we feel new innovative products from a new breed of distillers is healthy for the entire industry."

The standards and special branding of Tennessee whiskey are the byproduct of the special designation granted to bourbon more than 50 years ago, when Congress declared bourbon to be a distinctive product of the United States.

By law, bourbon must be made of a grain mix of at least 51 percent corn, distilled at less than 160 proof, have no additives except water to reduce the proof, and be aged in new, charred white oak barrels. Spirits that don't follow those guidelines are marketed as a Kentucky whiskey.

A similar differentiation with Tennessee whiskey would be impossibly complicated and confusing, according to Billy Kaufman, the president of Short Mountain Distillery in Woodbury, Tenn.

"If I made whiskey in Tennessee in a used barrel, what it would be called then?" he asked. "Whiskey, made in Tennessee?"

Not surprisingly, craft distillers in Tennessee are split in their opinions of the state law in place.

Darek Bell, owner of Corsair, questioned the motivation of Diageo.

"Diageo says it would help craft distillers, but I'm not sure how that would be the case," he said. "A big company like that doesn't need to speak on behalf of craft distilling — we support those definitions."

Supporting Diageo's argument is Phil Prichard, president and founder of Prichard's, a small distillery that opened in Davidson County in 2013, inspired by a five-generations-old recipe. He was the only small distiller to argue against the Jack Daniel's legislation when it was introduced last year, and if he had not received an exemption, he would not have been able to label his product Tennessee whiskey.

"We won the battle last year, but we didn't win the war," Prichard said. "Jack Daniel's won."

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State lawmakers and the parent company of Jack Daniel's could be headed for a barroom brawl over a year-old law stipulating the requirements that must be met to market spirits as Tennessee whiskey.
Monday, 17 March 2014 06:13 PM
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