April 14, 2015 – There’s been “a storm in a still” going on for a couple of years now and it’s all about who can use the term “Tennessee whiskey”. Jack Daniel’s has been using it for a long time and they want to keep the term exclusively theirs.
It refers to making corn-based whiskey, aging it in new oak barrels, and filtering through charcoal. Known as the Lincoln County Process, it has been used in Tennessee for over 100 years. That’s how Jack Daniel’s does it. And they don’t want new distilleries diluting a term near and dear to Jack. Craft distilling is a growing movement all over the country with more than 30 opening up in Tennessee.
The state legislature, at the behest of Jack Daniel’s, passed a law in 2013 defining Tennessee whiskey as corn-based spirit made and aged in Tennessee in new barrels, and filtered through charcoal. Soon after passing the law, the lawmakers had second thoughts and there was a move to reverse it.
Last year there was a skirmish between rivals Jack Daniel’s and George Dickel. Jack Daniel’s owned by Brown-Forman Corp produced 11.5 million cases in 2014. The next largest producer at 130,000 cases, who also uses the term “Tennessee whiskey” is George Dickel owned by UK-based drinks giant Diageo. The two companies locked horns over George Dickel being stored in neighboring Kentucky (but made in Tennessee). The law says it must be aged in Tennessee. Diageo won that battle when state attorneys in Nashville dropped the complaint. Dickel had challenged the statute in federal court saying it violated free interstate commerce laws.
Until recently, opponents of the 2013 law thought they had it wrapped up but apparently not, so they have backed off and hope to regroup next year, with more support. Jack Daniel’s claims that repealing the law will damage the quality consumers expect from “Tennessee whiskey”. Of course there are plenty of good and great bourbons made without filtering and aged in a variety of barrels, often previously used.
In the meantime, if you are thirsting for a Tennessee whiskey, better buy Jack Daniel’s. Or George Dickel. Being stored in Kentucky is unlikely to change the taste.