Defining Tennessee Whiskey returns to Tennessee General Assembly

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The law defining Tennessee Whiskey returns to the agenda of the Tennessee House State Government Subcommittee today. Item 39 of the noon session is HB0638– “As introduced, eliminates restrictions on advertising, describing, labeling, naming, selling, or referring to, for marketing or sales purposes, an intoxicating liquor as “Tennessee Whiskey,” “Tennessee Whisky,” “Tennessee Sour Mash Whiskey,” or “Tennessee Sour Mash Whisky.” – Amends TCA Section 57-2-106.”

House Bill 1084 was passed on April 19, 2013, and was signed into law by Governor Bill Haslam on May 13, 2013. The bill defines the requirements to advertise, describe, label, name, sell, or refer to for marketing or sales purposes as Tennessee Whiskey as:

  1. Manufactured in Tennessee;
  2. Made of a grain mixture that is at least fifty-one percent (51%) corn;
  3. Distilled to no more than 160 proof or eighty percent (80%) alcohol by volume;
  4. Aged in new, charred oak barrels in Tennessee;
  5. Filtered through maple charcoal prior to aging;
  6. Placed in the barrel at no more than 125 proof or sixty-two and one- half percent (62.5 %) alcohol by volume; and
  7. Bottled at not less than 80 proof or forty percent (40%) alcohol by volume

Today’s bill eliminates these restrictions entirely and would allow for any whiskey made in Tennessee to carry the moniker of Tennessee Whiskey if passed.

This debate has been widely covered as a feud between iconic Tennessee Whiskey brands Jack Daniel’s and George Dickel, but the roots of rivalry run much deeper. Jack Daniel’s is a giant in the worldwide whiskey industry, selling 11 million cases annually. By comparison, George Dickel’s sales are about 130,000 cases per year. While on the surface this appears to be a David versus Goliath battle, many have inappropriately identified the little guy. Parent companies Brown-Forman Corporation (Jack Daniel’s) and Diageo (George Dickel) are reversed in correlation; Diageo reported roughly five times the global sales of Brown-Forman in 2013. A commonly asked question, “Why is Diageo trying to lessen its own brand?” is answered by noting that Diageo owns the two top selling brands in the world, Johnnie Walker and Smirnoff.

Diageo’s attempt to devalue the Tennessee Whiskey brand in the worldwide marketplace can safely be called out as an attempt to protect their near-stagnant Johnnie Walker brand as Jack Daniel’s is inching closer to taking over as the global best seller in the whiskey category. Their efforts to deflect this focus have included a “big brother” arm around the shoulders of smaller, craft distillers coming up in Tennessee, claiming that the definition hinders their ability to create their own unique version of a Tennessee Whiskey. Tennessee craft distiller Clayton Cutler of Tenn South Distillery responds to this claim with, “Anyone who finds the charcoal mellowing process to be limiting their options lacks imagination.” Tenn South’s Clayton James Tennessee Whiskey embraces the traditional Lincoln County Process methods, but in a completely new way, creating a product like no other Tennessee Whiskey on the market.

Makers of other highly restricted products such as Bourbon, Champagne, Cognac, Irish Whisky, and even Scotch Whisky are scratching their heads as to why Tennessee legislators would diminish the heritage and integrity of Tennessee Whiskey. Legislators will be asked to do the same today as lobbyists from both Brown-Forman and Diageo take this issue to task once more.