NASHVILLE, Tenn. – If it isn’t fermented in Tennessee from mash of at least 51 percent corn, aged in new charred oak barrels, filtered through maple charcoal and bottled at a minimum of 80 proof, it isn’t Tennessee whiskey. So says a year-old law that resembles almost to the letter the process used to make Jack Daniel’s, the world’s best-known Tennessee whiskey.
Now state lawmakers are considering dialing back some of those requirements that they say make it too difficult for craft distilleries to market their spirits as Tennessee whiskey, a distinctive and popular draw in the booming American liquor business.
But the people behind Jack Daniel’s see the hand of a bigger competitor at work – Diageo PLC, the British conglomerate that owns George Dickel, another Tennessee whiskey made about 15 miles up the road.
It’s really more to weaken a title on a label that we’ve worked very hard for, said Jeff Arnett, the master distiller at the Jack Daniel’s distillery in Lynchburg, Tenn. 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.
Republican state Rep. Bill Sanderson emphasized that his bill wouldn’t do away with last year’s law enacted largely on the behest of Jack Daniel’s corporate parent, Louisville, Ky.,-based Brown-Forman Corp. The principal change would be to allow Tennessee whiskey makers to reuse barrels, which he said would present considerable savings over new ones that can cost $600 each.
Sanderson acknowledged that he introduced the measure at Diageo’s urging but said it would also help micro distilleries.
This isn’t about Diageo, as all of our Tennessee whiskey is made with new oak, said Diageo Executive Vice President Guy L. Smith IV. This is about Brown-Forman trying to stifle competition and the entrepreneurial spirit of micro distillers.
A half-century ago, Congress declared bourbon 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 can’t be sold as bourbon. One example is Brown-Forman’s own Early Times, which is marketed as a Kentucky whisky because it is made in reused barrels.
Tennessee craft distillers are divided about the state law. Charles Nelson, the CEO of Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery in Nashville, said he supports tighter regulation.
Holding ourselves to a higher standard will ultimately be better for all the people in the category, he said. If we lower the standards, it could lead to more products and brands that could lower the reputation of Tennessee whiskey.