Fight rages over definition of Tennessee whiskey

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Fight rages over definition of Tennessee whiskey
FILE - In this file photo from March 18, 2014, Full Throttle distillery owner Michael Ballard, right, and business party Jesse James Dupree, the lead singer of the hard rock band Jackyl, speak to the House State Government Committee in Nashville, Tenn. Ballard and Dupree support a repeal of a state law establishing a legal definition of Tennessee whiskey. State lawmakers on Tuesday, March 25 decided not to rewrite the legal definition of Tennessee whiskey this session, meaning the rules supported by Jack Daniel's will govern other distillers in the state for at least another year. (AP Photo/Erik Schelzig, file)
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)
Bottles of Popcorn Sutton’s Tennessee White Whiskey and Jack Daniel’s Tennessee whiskey sit side by side at a Louisville, Ky., liquor store. The owner of the Jack Daniel’s trademark has filed a federal lawsuit claiming the shape of the Popcorn Sutton bottle amounts to a trademark infringement because it so closely resembles the Jack Daniel’s bottle. AP Photo/Bruce Schreiner.
FILE - This file photo taken May 20, 2009 shows Jeff Arnett, the master distiller at the Jack Daniel Distillery in Lynchburg, Tenn., filling a bottle with whiskey after drilling a hole in the barrel in one of the aging houses at the distillery. The maker of Jack Daniel's Tennessee Whiskey has posted a 5 percent increase in second-quarter profit Thursday, Dec. 9, 2010, as strong international sales offset sluggish U.S. performance. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, file)
FILE - In this May 23, 2005 file photo, a bottle of Jack Daniel's whiskey, a Brown-Forman brand, sits on the bar at Nessun Dorma in Milwaukee. Liquor company Brown-Forman Corp. said its second quarter profit edged up 3 percent on strong sales of Jack Daniel's whiskey and boosted its guidance for the full year.(AP Photo/Morry Gash, File)
Bottles of George Dickel Tennessee whiskey are displayed in a liquor store Tuesday, June 10, 2014, in Nashville, Tenn. Alcohol regulators ended their investigation into whether George Dickel, a subsidiary of liquor giant Diageo, violated state laws by storing whiskey in neighboring Kentucky. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
IMAGE DISTRIBUTED FOR GEORGE DICKEL - George Dickel brand ambassador Doug Kragel, left, toasts with barbecue chef Adam Perry Lang at the George Dickel Experience during Meatopia, Sunday, Nov. 3, 2013, in San Antonio. (Darren Abate/AP Images for George Dickel)
** ADVANCE FOR SUNDAY, SEPT. 21 ** Dewayne Evans hunts for leaks in the barrels of whiskey aging in a warehouse at the George Dickel Distillery near Tullahoma, Tenn., Tuesday, Sept. 16, 2003. The distillery is resuming production more than four years after the last barrel was filled. The barrels are constantly checked for any leaks, which are then plugged or sealed. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
FILE -- In this Sept. 2003 file photo, Gary Hinshaw tests the proof of the whiskey at the George Dickel Distillery near Tullahoma, Tenn. Alcohol regulators ended their investigation Tuesday, June 10, 2014, into whether George Dickel, a subsidiary of liquor giant Diageo, violated state laws by storing whiskey in neighboring Kentucky. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File)
Whiskey Sour Cocktail - Bourbon with Lemon Juice, Sugar Syrup and Egg White

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.

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