Alcohol

Jack Daniel's Favors Tennessee Whiskey Law Defining Tennessee Whiskey as Jack Daniel's

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Tennessee whiskey maker Jack Daniel's is an unsurprisingly big fan of a local law that basically defines whiskey by standards set by Jack Daniel's. Under current Tennessee law, only locally-made spirits fermented 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 can legally be labeled "Tennessee whiskey." Not coincidentally, that's "almost to the letter the process used to make Jack Daniel's," The Associated Press reports. 

This narrow definition of Tennessee whiskey is harming craft distilleries, claim opponents, who are pushing a new bill that would loosen the state's whiskey definition. Either smaller distilleries go their own way and forego the label (and its marketing benefits), or they make whiskey that ends up tasting more or less like Jack Daniel's. "This would be similar to Anheuser-Busch saying, 'You have to use this recipe to call yourselves an American beer,'" state Rep. Ryan Haynes (R-Knoxville) told The Tennessean. "I don't think it's right that we put something in our law that is basically protectionism."  

But there's more intrigue in this whiskey war: Jack Daniel's says the true instigator of changing the law is British conglomerate Diageo PLC, maker of George Dickel, another official "Tennessee whiskey" and Jack Daniel's biggest competitor. Republican state Rep. Bill Sanderson (R-Kenton), who introduced the new measure, acknowledged that he did so at Diageo's bequest. But he also said the bill would help the state's burgeoning micro-distillery scene. 

… 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.

"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?"

[..] "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.

In neighboring Kentucky, the new/old barrel distinction is similarly critical when it comes to bourbon. Early Times, from Jack Daniel's parent Brown-Forman, is marketed as Kentucky whiskey rather than bourbon because it's made in reused barrels. The bourbon standards, however, were set by the federal government about a half-century ago.