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Fight rages over definition of Tennessee whiskey

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - To many, Tennessee means whiskey. But inside the state, the question is: What does Tennessee whiskey mean?

A battle between two worldwide liquor companies - owners of rival brands Jack Daniel's and smaller rival George Dickel - is being waged over who has the right to label their drink as following authentic Tennessee style. It's among the epicurean battles being waged around the world over what food and drink should carry special status as local and unique.

British-based liquor conglomerate Diageo PLC opened a heated legislative fight earlier this year seeking to overturn the state's newly established legal definition for Tennessee whiskey that has been championed by Jack Daniel's, which is owned by Louisville, Kentucky-based Brown-Forman Corp. Among the new rules are requirements that whiskey must be aged in new, charred oak barrels in Tennessee and filtered through maple charcoal prior to aging.

Jack Daniel's whiskey is made and aged in Tennessee. Diageo's George Dickel whiskey is also made in Tennessee but stored in neighboring Kentucky.

On Tuesday in a separate but related case, the Diageo subsidiary George Dickel came out on top when state attorneys in Nashville abruptly dropped a complaint that Dickel had violated a state statute prohibiting the aging of Tennessee-made whiskey outside its borders. Dickel had challenged the statute in federal court, claiming it violated laws on free interstate commerce.

The calm is likely to be short-lived, however. State lawmakers this summer are expected to return to the struggle of crafting the legal definition of Tennessee whiskey, whose history and lore is entwined in the state's identity as much as lobsters in Maine and crab cakes in Maryland.

The two distilleries located just 15 miles apart in southern Tennessee are hardly equals in the marketplace, with Jack Daniel's outselling Dickel by a ratio of 88 cases to one.

Jack Daniel's argues that the state laws governing which products can be labeled Tennessee whiskey will protect the category against low quality knockoffs. They say Diageo's motivation is to undercut Jack Daniel's global growth while its own flagship brand, Johnnie Walker scotch, stagnates.

Dickel's owners say they conform with the traditional methods laid out in the state law, but argue that that new distillers in the state shouldn't be bound by state law to follow the old ways. Some observers believe a successful challenge of the storage statute could give way to a legal challenge of the overall Tennessee whiskey law.

Adam Levy, a blogger on liquor trends and organizer of spirits competitions, said the production and storage requirements aren't arbitrary.

"If you want to be considered a Tennessee whiskey, then you have to make it in Tennessee and store it in Tennessee," he said. "It is fundamental to what the result is."

The fight over labels on whiskey bottles comes amid a global drive to seek labeling protections by a smorgasbord of regional foods such as cheeses, hams and wines.

While the U.S. has resisted claims to items like parmesan and feta cheeses by their Italian and Greek countries of origin, wine makers have succeeded in introducing standards for products labeled for regions such as California's Napa Valley.

"In America, everything is up in the air and new traditions are invented all the time," said Ken Albala, a history professor and director of food studies at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California. "And so I think we're edging toward some sort of appellation system here, and whiskey would make perfect sense."

Albala said the boom in American whiskeys has led to quality concerns.

"Distillers in every state are jumping on the whiskey bandwagon now, and the companies are worrying that they need to be able to distinguish their product and keep competitors out," he said.

Unlike for bourbon, federal law is silent on what constitutes Tennessee whiskey. But the North American Free Trade Agreement of 1994 includes provisions under which Canada and Mexico agreed to recognize Tennessee whiskey as "a straight Bourbon Whiskey authorized to be produced only in the State of Tennessee."

In return, the U.S. recognized tequila and mescal as unique to Mexico, and Canadian whiskey as a distinctive product that can only sold elsewhere in North America if it is made in Canada.

Join the discussion

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David S. June 11 2014 at 3:36 PM

If this is all Tennesse lawmakers have to worry about, their state must be in great shape.

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4 replies
David June 11 2014 at 4:46 PM

Tennessee whiskey should be totally made in Tennessee from start to finish.
That means distilled and aged in Tennessee.

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2 replies
realfloopyguy David June 11 2014 at 5:27 PM

Should the grain be grown in Tennessee? How about where the bottles and labels are made? The cap? How about the ink to print the label. The wood for the barrels? Does the yeast have to be designed and bred in Tennessee?

It is a slippery slope. If someone in California opened a BBQ joint and called it Kansas City style BBQ or North Carolina style BBQ, it simply tells people what type of BBQ it is.

I am a brewer. I occasionally make whiskey and wine. Sometimes the name of a place becomes a description of a style. IPA(Indian Pale Ale) is not made for or by India. English Bitter is a style of beer. Irish Stout, ect. Tennessee whiskey is a style - not an exact recipe. If I make a whiskey in the style that is known as Tennessee whiskey, it is certainly still Tennessee whiskey even if it isn't made there. Are there American scotch manufacturers? Is vodka still vodka even if it is made in Texas? Since Whiskey is a Gaelic name, should nobody outside of Ireland be allowed

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4 replies
CPA11973 David June 12 2014 at 1:35 AM

further the bottle can never leave the state. so to be called T W it also must be consumed there. then they can change the state's motto to "land of the drunks" and their state flag should have a picture of the bottle on it. (: Really what a waste of taxpayer's money

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1 reply
Roger CPA11973 June 12 2014 at 7:02 AM

and a village idiot.

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jbiggs01 June 11 2014 at 1:51 PM

As long as it gets you buzzed call it what you want

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1 reply
onionson jbiggs01 June 11 2014 at 3:09 PM

Spoken like a true fan of the 40.

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3 replies
Ricky D Hargrove June 11 2014 at 2:05 PM

Both companies have huge sales and profits, the economy has no affect on booze sales. Being known as Tennessee whiskey will not make or break them.

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1 reply
odbinoc Ricky D Hargrove June 11 2014 at 2:15 PM

Yea, being called tennessee whisky won't make Full Throttle stop tasting like piss.

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2 replies
David odbinoc June 11 2014 at 6:16 PM

And you know what piss tastes like how?

Flag +3 rate up
Mac odbinoc June 11 2014 at 11:35 PM

Figure of speech, come on...

Flag +1 rate up
dgosbee June 11 2014 at 3:00 PM

Couldn't Jesse and Ballard afford a suit to show up in court? In my experience, if you want to be heard well, don't dress down and irritate the judge. Show up like you respect the court.

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1 reply
tony dgosbee June 12 2014 at 12:15 AM

at least appear to respect the court. lol, what a joke.

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harleybv June 11 2014 at 3:44 PM

Kind of reminds me of Ted Cruz...Born in Canada,his father born in Cuba. his mother supposedly born here and yet he is considered "Natural Born Citizen" Kind of like calling a maserati an american car because it was sold to an american and driven on american roads...No matter how you look at it, it still is a maserati and NOT an american car

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5 replies
dwtomczyk June 11 2014 at 3:47 PM

send me an bottle of each one. i'll settle the issue once & for all.

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David June 11 2014 at 6:33 PM

All you boozers need to wise up and quit. I did over twenty years ago (by choice, not out of necessity, and I drank a lot),I never regretted it and haven't had a hangover since. If you can't do it alone, get help. I have first hand knowledge of the lives of friends and family the have been destroyed and lives lost due to alcohol. The only difference between an alcoholic and a junkie is that booze is leagal.

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4 replies
kodeex June 11 2014 at 4:46 PM

That's ok Evan Willams beats them both....

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1 reply
hmaybe44 kodeex June 11 2014 at 10:55 PM

dickel will never beat jack daniels no matter what the name is

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1 reply
Mac hmaybe44 June 11 2014 at 11:38 PM

El wrongo.

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shodanrobinsong June 12 2014 at 12:44 AM

What a bunch of goofy B.S. whine,whine, whine

Flag Reply +1 rate up
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