If you’ve ever met a Kentuckian, you’ve probably heard their favorite statistic more than once, that 95% of the world’s bourbon is made in Kentucky. They’ll usually go on to add that they don’t know who makes the rest of it, but that they don’t drink it. This tidbit coupled with a mention of Kentucky basketball, bluegrass or horse racing tends to come out in the first two minutes of meeting a member of the Commonwealth; they’re like vegans… or CrossFitters.
I’ve heard many a Kentuckian chuckle over the great Tennessee Whiskey debate. They find it amusing parlor conversation. Comments range from earnest interest to mocking disbelief. The common thread is that no one understands why Tennessee wouldn’t hold on to this designation with all its might as has Bourbon, Scotch, Champagne, Cognac and countless wine appellations. I have the same question. I am a proud Tennessean and this is embarrassing.
The easy answers are that Tennesseans aren’t educated in the history, heritage and tradition of Tennessee Whiskey. We’re not as versed in the economic impact of the industry on our state. Our lawmakers aren’t informed. The deeper reasons range from plain old-fashioned ignorance to misguided religious convictions. Diageo (George Dickel) masterfully crafted a story about protecting the craft distillers from being forced to re-make Jack Daniel’s recipe. The more Brown-Forman (Jack Daniel’s) attempts to protect themselves in the marketplace- they did, after all, create the relevance of this conversation on a global scale- the louder are the cries implying the stifling of free enterprise.
Let’s put all that aside. Let’s imagine that this ridiculous bill to eliminate restrictions on calling a product Tennessee Whiskey passes. We’ll ignore the fact that both George Dickel and Jack Daniel’s have been making Tennessee Whiskey using the Lincoln County Process since before Prohibition. We can even suspend belief that the words Tennessee Whiskey mean something when seen in the market.
Here’s why Kentucky should start giving a damn:
- We’re neighbors. And good fences make the best neighbors. Tennessee Whiskey has been that fence for Kentucky & Tennessee. We make our brown water; they make theirs. Clear lines are drawn in the psyche and on the shelves.
- We’re brethren. Kentucky and Tennessee share similar histories. We both became states in the 1790s. We were both making whiskey when (and before) our statehoods were granted. We share a water-filtering limestone shelf that we both tout as being the magic source of of our whiskey excellence. We were both hit by Prohibition and we both struggled to resurrect our brown water businesses after its repeal.
- We’re inextricably intertwined. Tennessee & Kentucky are like conjoined twins. We share a border but we each perform individually. We are similar enough to share a category but different enough to have pride in our respective state’s products.
- We’re a legal cluster. There’s The Office of the United States Trade Representative Agreement on Recognition of Bourbon Whiskey and Tennessee Whiskey as Distinctive U.S. Products that lumps us together for purposes of export speak in international trade agreements. Mainly for this reason, “Tennessee” shows up no less than 19 times in the 2014 Economic and Fiscal Impact Study by the Kentucky Distillers Association (KDA).
And here’s the kicker-
- 95% of the world’s bourbon is made in Kentucky only if we don’t count all the bourbon that’s made in Tennessee. It is one of my favorite little statistics that Jack Daniel’s makes and sells more whiskey than the state of Kentucky combined. The Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS) reports 19.35 million 9-liter cases of bourbon and Tennessee whiskey were sold in the United States in 2014. The KDA reports “roughly half” of that as bourbon. Brown-Forman reports a total of 20 million cases of the Jack Daniel’s family of Tennessee Whiskeys is sold globally, with roughly half of that sold in the U.S.
Take away our quaint Tennessee Whiskey designation and we’re left with a whole bunch of bourbon down here. Chuck Cowdery adamantly stands behind this statement saying, “For all intents and purposes, Jack Daniel’s and George Dickel are bourbon in all but name.” He goes on to say, “Tennessee Whiskey is very much within the profile of Straight Bourbon Whiskey.” Tennessee’s 50% (not including Dickel and newer Tennessee Whiskeys) could do a bit of damage to that famed and beloved 95%.
The KDA is one of the oldest trade organizations in the country. On the contrary, the Tennessee Distillers Guild is in its infancy at just over a year old; they have neither the clout nor the funding to fight big bad Diageo on this issue. Now would be a great time for the KDA to step up as the older brother, shepherd Tennessee through these growing pains, and help secure a legal definition of Tennessee Whiskey at both the state and federal levels. If not because it’s the neighborly thing to do, do it for your statistic.
Proposed legislation eliminates House Bill 1084 that was passed on April 19, 2013, and was signed into law by Governor Bill Haslam on May 13, 2013. That bill defines the requirements to advertise, describe, label, name, sell, or refer to for marketing or sales purposes as Tennessee Whiskey as: