Tennessee whiskey, Tennessee Fire

Unless you don’t care at all about whiskey, you’ve probably heard by now about the debate in Tennessee. In brief: Last year the state legislature passed a law officially restricting use of the term “Tennessee whiskey” only to products that meet all the requirements of bourbon and undergo charcoal mellowing. This is the traditional definition of Tennessee whiskey and the law was backed by Jack Daniel’s, the brand owned by Brown-Forman.

On the other side is a new effort to relax the law, such as by allowing distillers to skip charcoal mellowing or age their whiskey in used oak barrels. This effort is pushed by Diageo, owner of the George Dickel brand of Tennessee whiskey, which also complies with the traditional definition.

The debate has divided whiskey enthusiasts and libertarians, two groups with substantial overlap on a Venn diagram. Purists like Chuck Cowdery come down in favor of Daniel’s and against Dickel. My libertarian-leaning friend Doug Winship does too, though with a few more caveats. Elizabeth Nolan Brown at Reason notes that the existing law is a wee bit protectionist.

What’s a libertarian whiskey lover to think? I’m a bit conflicted myself. Below is my attempt at working it out, seen through the lens of a much easier case: bourbon.

Unless one holds that the position that there should be no legally defined standards of identity at all, one is probably OK with the standards for bourbon. (Basically, it has to be at made from at least 51% corn, aged in charred new oak barrels, and distilled and aged within certain ranges of proof.) Whether or not these were ideal standards at the time of passage, it would be a tough case to make that they should be changed now. Any distiller lobbying to do so would rightly be seen as trying to water down established standards.

With that in mind, here are five things I think the bourbon standard of identity has going for it:

1. Clearly defined processes within a well-established tradition among multiple producers.

2. Market recognition of the designation.

3. Long-standing law.

4. Broad geographic application (bourbon can me made anywhere in the US, not just Kentucky).

5. Doesn’t restrict competition from other distillers making other kinds of whiskey (they must simply refrain from using the word “bourbon”).

Now let’s compare this to Tennessee whiskey. Historically, this product is identical to bourbon in all but one essential aspect, the use of the Lincoln County process. This is the filtration of unaged spirit through charcoal, a step that mellows the finished whiskey.

Taking the five points above, how does a “Tennessee whiskey” designation compare to that of bourbon?

1. Clearly defined tradition among multiple producers: Tennessee whiskey definitely has the tradition part down. So much so, in fact, that despite my obsession with liquor laws, it’s easy for me to forget that it wasn’t legally defined until last year. Charcoal mellowing is deeply and historically entwined with Tennessee whiskey. The multiple producers part is not as solid. Until recently, there was only Jack Daniel’s and George Dickel (thank you, Prohibition). Now there is also Collier and McKeel and Prichard’s, the latter of which doesn’t use the process. Score: Daniel’s 1, Dickel 0.

2. Market recognition: This one’s more of a judgement call, but my impression is that consumer association of Tennessee whiskey is very strongly associated with Jack Daniel’s, and by extension with the processes used to make it. Moderately informed whiskey drinkers can tell you about the mellowing process that makes it unique. Score: Daniel’s 2, Dickel 0.

3. Long-standing law: There is no federal standard of identity for Tennessee whiskey. The Tennessee law went into effect less than a year ago. However NAFTA defines Tennessee whiskey as a bourbon produced in Tennessee, which does get at the requirement of using new barrels, but omits the charcoal mellowing. There’s a conservative case for not changing established law without good reason, but it’s weak here. I’m calling this a draw. Score: Daniel’s 2, Dickel 0.

4. Broad geographic application: Bourbon can be made anywhere in the United States. Tennessee whiskey, obviously, can only be made in Tennessee. This presents problems. What do you call charcoal-mellowed bourbon made in another state? What do you call a whiskey made in Tennessee that isn’t mellowed or doesn’t use new oak barrels? It would be nice if there was some other word for traditional Tennessee whiskey that didn’t involve a place name. Instead, non-traditional producers will have to use a work around like “whiskey distilled in Tennessee” (and is that really any less confusing for consumers?). Score: Daniel’s 2, Dickel 1.

5. Doesn’t restrict competition: Bourbon regulations apply equally to everyone. The Tennessee law doesn’t. It protects the three producers who follow the traditional recipe. It also protects Prichard’s, which doesn’t use the mellowing step, but was grandfathered in and is allowed to call its product Tennessee whiskey anyway. Any newer producers making a product otherwise identical to Prichard’s have to call theirs something else. This is a legal mess. Score: Daniel’s 2, Dickel 2.

So the final score is a tie. I’m not saying that’s a definitive measure or that all of these considerations should be weighted equally, but after giving this some thought my reluctant conclusion is that I just don’t care that much. There’s a good case to be made that Tennessee whiskey and its associated processes have a long, well-established tradition worthy of legal protection (at least as worthy as many other standards of identity). There’s also a pretty good case that legal protection is unnecessary and that the existing, extremely young law is too muddled to be worth defending. Keep it in place and Jack Daniel’s will continue to be the best-selling Tennessee whiskey by a mile. Repeal and it and Jack Daniel’s will also continue to be the best-selling Tennessee whiskey by a mile.

The upshot is that unless you’re invested in Brown-Forman, Diageo, or another Tennessee producer, this law isn’t going to affect you. On the merits, I lean ever so slightly to keeping the law as is. But if it’s repealed, I’ll be fine with that too.

There are, however, a couple thoughts to take away from this. One is that regardless of how this plays out, other states should not follow suit. As the boom in small distilleries continues there is going to be a temptation in other states to impose new legal standards on their own products. I’ve already heard talk from Oregon distillers about the possibility of creating a standard of identity for “Oregon whiskey.” Given the huge diversity of distillers here — we’re at more than 60 now — I can’t imagine a definition that will work for everyone and reflect established traditions, of which there really aren’t any. Trying to define one would be putting the cart before the horse.

As a bartender and spirits writer, I can deal with a special designation for Tennessee whiskey. But if I find myself having to remember 50 different state designations, regret for this sort of thing is going to set in very quickly. If I wanted to memorize a bunch of arcane place-related trivia I would have become a sommelier. I’d much rather see what individual creative distillers come up with, regardless of where they’re located.

Secondly, neither company strikes me as particularly sincere in their efforts to sway consumers, legislators, and the press. It’s hard to believe that Diageo executives are truly losing sleep over the plight of small Tennessee distillers whose creative impulses are being stifled. They’ve already taken plenty of heat for that stance and I won’t pile on here.

But how about Jack Daniel’s? They are pitching their brand as the stalwart defender of the Tennessee whiskey tradition. From their press release:

“When consumers around the world see ‘Tennessee Whiskey,’ they expect it is a premium product representing a world-class standard and utmost quality,” said Jack Daniel’s Master Distiller Jeff Arnett. “What we have here is nothing more than an effort to allow manufacturers to deviate from that standard, produce a product that’s inferior to bourbon and label it ‘Tennessee Whiskey’ while undermining the process we’ve worked for nearly 150 years to protect.” [...]

“Using quality grains, quality water, quality barrels and other natural ingredients has been the backbone of Tennessee Whiskey and, frankly, the bourbon industry for decades. Why in the world would we want to change that now by inserting artificial ingredients into our processes? And why in Tennessee would we willingly give the bourbon industry the upper hand in quality by cheapening the process we use to make our whiskey,” Arnett said.

And that’s all well and good, but I just looked online and there are six different varieties of Jack Daniel’s barbecue sauce, two steak sauces, and four different EZ Marinaders. EZ what now?

If you like marinating, you’ll love Jack Daniel‘s® EZ Marinader®, the country’s first ready-to-use liquid marinade in a flavor-sealed bag. In three EZ steps and without any mess, you are ready to cook! All the flavor with none of the fuss.

But it’s made with genuine Tennessee whiskey, right?

The product contains no alcohol. We use Jack Daniel’s® Tennessee Whiskey flavoring, which keeps the bold, hearty flavor associated with Jack Daniel’s®.

OK then. Jack Daniel’s also makes a honey liqueur. And this arrived in my mailbox this weekend:

This, to be fair, isn’t labeled Tennessee whiskey. It’s a “finely crafted cinnamon liqueur blended with Jack Daniel’s Tennessee whiskey.” Which is fine. I don’t begrudge anyone the right to make liqueurs with their spirits or to make money, the latter of which is pretty clearly the motive here. Cinnamon whiskey liqueur has become immensely popular and the company wants to get in on that. And though I don’t make a habit of drinking the stuff and haven’t done a side-by-side tasting, I can honestly say that Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Fire is better than the others I’ve tried in the category.

The problem is that Jack Daniel’s case for legally defining Tennessee whiskey is that its brand has worked hard for decades to build that standard and establish it with consumers around the world. To a large extent, they’re right. But they’re also willing to slap that brand onto everything from EZ Marinader® to cinnamon whiskey liqueur. And if you can tell me with a straight face that small distillers ageing whiskey in used bourbon barrels are a bigger threat to the pure image of Tennessee whiskey than these heavily marketed items, then the first shot of Tennessee Fire® is on me.

Comments

  1. Matej says:

    Hey Jacob,

    Great post. Definitely made me see this in a different, more balanced, light.

    This line stood out, though:

    “It would be nice if there was some other word for traditional Tennessee whiskey that didn’t involve a place name.”

    I guess the historical connection between Bourbon whiskey and Bourbon County isn’t all that strong anymore, but it does prove that a product can be made outside of the place it’s named after. Similarly, I could imagine a Tennessee whiskey being made elsewhere in the US; though that doesn’t solve what you call a non–Tennessee or Bourbon whiskey brewed in Tennessee.

    So what’s my point? Time for some whiskey! Obviously.

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