Jack Daniel's opposes changing Tenn. Whiskey law

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Jack Daniel's opposes changing Tenn. Whiskey law
File ? In this Nov. 27, 2009, file photo, visitors view barrels of aging whiskey while on a tour of the Jack Daniel's distillery in Lynchburg, Tenn. Jack Daniel's is fighting efforts in the state Legislature to dial back the legal definition of Tennessee whiskey, including a provision that requires the spirit to be aged in new oak barrels (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File)
In this photo provided by the State of Tennessee, Governor Bill Haslam, right, speaks at the Jack Daniel Distillery in Lynchburg, Tenn. Thursday, Aug. 22, 2013. It was announced that the distillery will undergo a $100 million-plus expansion and will add about 90 jobs. (AP Photo/State of Tennessee, John Russell)
In this Dec. 5, 2011 photo, bottles of Jack Daniel's Tennessee Whiskey, line the shelves of a liquor outlet, in Montpelier, Vt. Liquor maker Brown-Forman Corp. reported a 2 percent gain in second-quarter profit Thursday, Dec. 8, 2011, on the strength of sales spikes for its flagship Jack Daniel?s Tennessee Whiskey along with its vodka and tequila brands. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot)
In this March 4, 2011 photo, a bartender begins to pour a drink from a bottle of Jack Daniels at a bar in San Francisco. Liquor company Brown-Forman Corp. is reporting a 30 percent gain in third-quarter net income Tuesday, March 8, led by surging international sales and a strong showing by its flagship Jack Daniel?s brand. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma)
A bartender gets a bottle of Brown-Forman brand Jack Daniels whiskey off the shelf at a bar in San Francisco, Friday, March 4, 2011. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma)
Matt Miller, of St. Louis, smells the aroma coming from a fermenting vat while on a tour of the Jack Daniel's distillery on Friday, Nov. 27, 2009 in Lynchburg, Tenn. While others are battling crowded stores and hurrying from sale to sale the day after Thanksgiving, some people opt for a leisurely day at the famous distillery, home of the Old No. 7 whiskey with its iconic black label. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
A tour group pauses by a statue of Jack Daniel while on a tour of the Jack Daniel's distillery on Friday, Nov. 27, 2009 in Lynchburg, Tenn. While others are battling crowded stores and hurrying from sale to sale the day after Thanksgiving, some people opt for a leisurely day at the famous distillery, home of the Old No. 7 whiskey with its iconic black label. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
This May 20, 2009 photo shows Jeff Arnett, the master distiller at the Jack Daniel Distillery in Lynchburg, Tenn., drilling a hole in a barrel of whiskey in one of the aging houses at the distillery. The whiskey is tested as it ages so it can be removed at the proper time. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
A 3-liter bottle of Jack Daniel's whiskey, a size that cannot be sold in the U.S., is displayed Thursday, Nov. 15, 2007, in Nashville, Tenn. The bottle, along with the boxes of bottles along the wall, are among those that may be destroyed because authorities suspect they were being sold by someone without a license. Officials seized 2,400 bottles in October during raids in Nashville and Lynchburg, the southern Tennessee town where the whiskey is distilled. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
Bottles of Jack Daniel's Tennessee Whiskey is seen at an Overland Park, Kan. liquor store Tuesday, May 24, 2005. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
A display of Jack Daniel's Tennessee Whiskey is seen at a Kansas City, Mo. liquor store Tuesday, May 24, 2005. Brown-Forman Corp. on Wednesday, May 25, 2005, said its fiscal fourth-quarter profit rose 7 percent, as strong consumer demand for spirits, favorable foreign exchange rates, and lower expenses offset weaker revenue. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
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By ERIK SCHELZIG and BRUCE SCHREINER
- 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

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