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Jack Daniel's opposes changing Tenn. Whiskey law

- Mar. 17, 2014 5:04 AM EDT

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - 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.

"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?"

Sanderson acknowledged that he introduced the measure at Diageo's urging, but said it would also help micro distilleries opening across the state. Diageo picked up on the same theme.

"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.

"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," he said.

The standards and special branding of Tennessee whiskey are an outgrowth of the special designation granted long ago to bourbon. 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.

Billy Kaufman, the president Short Mountain Distillery in Woodbury, Tenn., said it is more difficult to distinguish spirits not meeting the Tennessee standard.

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

David McMahan, a lobbyist representing Dickel and Popcorn Sutton Distilling, said the law passed last year would require all Tennessee whiskies to taste like Jack Daniel's.

"It's not unlike if the beer guys 25 years ago had said all American beer has to be made like Budweiser," McMahan said. "You never would have a Sam Adams or a Yazoo or any of those guys."

But 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."

Whiskey is clear when it goes into the barrel. It's during the aging process that the whiskey acquires color and flavors. Jack Daniel's Arnett said other distillers reusing barrels might resort to using artificial colorings and flavorings that wouldn't match the quality of the whiskey stored in new barrels.

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

Jack Daniel's stores its whiskey in new barrels made at a Brown-Forman plant.

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

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


Schreiner reported from Frankfort, Ky

Join the discussion

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Big Daddy March 17 2014 at 3:52 PM

Dont change! simply said JD is the best people will know from the first sip!

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1 reply
ttoozz Big Daddy March 17 2014 at 4:19 PM

It's not about cheapening Jack. It's about lesser qualityspirits being able to use the designation 'Tennessee Whiskey.'

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Spinnaker March 17 2014 at 1:57 PM

I drink 30 y/o single malt scotch.............so ....Still Jack Daniels should remain true to tradition.

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splintercottage March 17 2014 at 1:56 PM

This reeks of campaign gifts. Much of the early Whiskeys were made here in PA and the same practises created Bourbons. Her eis was the economy of taking a cask to market rather than a mule train of a ton of grain.
There is a difference between a style and recipe and a location. However, to restrict a distillery located in a district from from using sherry casks or reusing whiskey casks is silly. It would make much better sense to use something like "traditional recipe" etc.

Hard as it is to believe, the qualities of these products were developed without MBAs & Lawyers, and in fact have managed to get along despite them. Perhaps its time to concern with public benefit (ie not to be colored by "artifical means") and leave the rest to existigng use of traemarks & patients.

There are issues ofpublic safety and issues of political never ending campaign collection devices.
Often the latter defined by whiskey not the ither way around.

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bvichinsky March 17 2014 at 1:56 PM

if it is not broke ... why try to change it fix it??? gov't at its nanny over regulation meddling in every thing it does not belong.

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2 replies
Mitch bvichinsky March 17 2014 at 2:02 PM

JD wanted the regulation. Sanderson is trying to relax the regulation.

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PHILL AND TRISHA bvichinsky March 17 2014 at 2:04 PM


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musicman21548 March 17 2014 at 1:55 PM

Jack Daniels will always be the standard for Tenn. whiskey no matter what the law allows. People will still buy it over lower price brands when they want quality

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1 reply
brave1b3 musicman21548 March 17 2014 at 3:31 PM

Quality?......its SWILL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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Welcome Sean March 17 2014 at 1:55 PM

Another government attempt to screw with our already beleaguered economy. We should be thankful that ANYTHING is made in the united States anymore. I would cut off a finger to work for a company like Jack Daniels. LEAVE THEM ALONE.

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1 reply
PHILL AND TRISHA Welcome Sean March 17 2014 at 2:05 PM

SO...just stop voting for the tea baggers/conservatives who are trying to stick their noses into a private company!
we have been saying all along..they are hypocrites!

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jacqueline March 17 2014 at 1:53 PM

leave the law alone!

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Scottilla March 17 2014 at 1:51 PM

We're Republicans! We're all in favor of free enterprise! Unless the government is not there to protect us from competitors!

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jerry stone March 17 2014 at 1:48 PM

don,t change a thing about the great jack daniel's all of this is just politics with the politicians with there hands

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1 reply
Jeff jerry stone March 17 2014 at 2:23 PM

Nobody's TRYING TO CHANGE Jack Daniels -- which appears to be PRECISELY WHAT most of you folks seem to keep GETTING out of this article. Does that mean most of you stay so drunk on the stuff you can't read and comprehend a paragraph clearly!

It's THE OTHER WAY AROUND! Jack Daniels is trying to say that EVERY OTHER DISTILLERLY IN TENNESSEE MUST MAKE THEIR WHISKEY THE SAME WAY THEY DO IF they want to call it "Tennessee Whiskey." Read the story again, get a better education, quit listening to all the warped propaganda that's being spread by every special interest in this country and START PAYING REAL ATTENTION to issues. The ONLY WAY the Knaves can control the masses is when the masses are so blinded by their own pre-conceived notions of what is going on that they never even READ, SEE, OR HEAR a story clearly enough to understand when GOVERNMENT is attempting to do things AGAINST their own interests AT THE BEHEST of big businesses that already have NO NEED OF GOVERNMENT ASSISTANCE, which is PRECISELY what Jack Daniels is trying to get the State of Tennessee to do for IT right now.

These kinds of laws are certainly on the books other places, as well, I just don't know the particulars, off-hand, or I could point them out for you here and now. Let me make up an example that may get through some of the apparent liquored-up haze... Let's say you live in Michigan, the home of Kellogg's (the cereal company), and Kellogg's tries to get the Michigan State Legislator to pass a law stating that no other maker of cereal can call it cereal unless it's made THE SAME WAY THEY MAKE cereal? Would you support that -- especially when we've all been eating such cereals for MANY YEARS? Well what Jack Daniels Distillery is doing in Tennessee is along the same lines.


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tlmorgan45502 March 17 2014 at 1:41 PM

How I see it, ya make it in Tenn it is Tenn whiskey most drink what taste the best not cause of a name.

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