For whiskey to call itself “Tennessee whiskey,” it’s not like booze can just sit around in the state and slap a label on touting its heritage. For the last year, there’s been a law on the books in the state defining exactly which requirements a whiskey must meet to be labeled as such — a law that Jack Daniels is now fighting to keep in place in the face of competition from craft distillers and big businesses alike.
According to the law, Tennessee whiskey must be fermented in Tennessee from mash of at least 51% corn, aged in new charred oak barrels, filtered through maple charcoal and bottled at a minimum of 80 proof, reports the Associated Press.
That’s essentially the exact process used to make Jack Daniel’s, so of course, that company wants to keep the year-old standard. But state lawmakers are now considering loosening up those requirements, saying it’s too hard for others to break into the business and market whiskeys as Tennessee.
Jack Daniel’s is pointing the finger at Diageo PLC, a British company that owns competitor George Dickel nearby.
“It’s really more to weaken a title on a label that we’ve worked very hard for,” says the master distiller at the Jack Daniel’s distillery in Lynchburg, Tenn. “As a state, I don’t think Tennessee should be bashful about being protective of Tennessee whiskey over say bourbon or scotch or any of the other products that we compete with.”
Although the state representative behind this new bill — who acknowledged that Diageo asked him to introduce the measure — says it won’t ditch last year’s completely, he says money could be saved in the business. For example, if distilleries are allowed to age whiskey in used barrels instead of new ones, that could cut costs.
“There are a lot of ways to make high-quality whiskey, even if it’s not necessarily the way Jack Daniel’s does it,” Rep. Bill Sanderson (R) said. “What gives them the right to call theirs Tennessee whiskey, and not others?”
Diageo is also pushing the anti-monopoly angle, saying Jack Daniel’s shouldn’t have such a tight grip on the industry.
“This isn’t about Diageo, as all of our Tennessee whiskey is made with new oak,” said Diageo executive vice president Guy L. Smith IV. “This is about Brown-Forman [Jack Daniel's parent company] trying to stifle competition and the entrepreneurial spirit of micro distillers.
“We are not sure what they are afraid of, as we feel new innovative products from a new breed of distillers is healthy for the entire industry,” he said.
One the line for Jack Daniel’s is a very profitable business: It sold 11.5 million cases of its Black Label last year, compared to Dickel, the second-largest Tennessee whiskey producer, which sold 130,000 cases in 2013.
To put the fight into another light, a lobbyist representing Dickel and another distillery said the law basically makes all Tennessee whiskies identical to Jack Daniel’s, which would be weird in any other context.
“It’s not unlike if the beer guys 25 years ago had said all American beer has to be made like Budweiser,” he says. “You never would have a Sam Adams or a Yazoo or any of those guys.”
Well, thank goodness that didn’t happen and now we can all enjoy an ice cold can of Milwaukee’s Best Light, right? Whew.
You can follow MBQ on Twitter where she will no doubt chronicle the next time she pretends it’s college, drinks a Beast and immediately regrets it: @marybethquirk