When is a whiskey not really “whiskey?” And who gets to decide?
Those might sound like esoteric questions from somebody a few drams in, but no: as The Wall Street Journal reports, Tennessee legislators are set to debate that very issue in the coming days. Jack Daniel’s, one of this country’s most venerable spirits brands, is fighting a new bill that would loosen the current state requirements for “Tennessee whiskey,” the classic brown liquor typically created from fermented rye- and corn-based mash that has been aged in wooden barrels and filtered through charcoal.
Meanwhile, George Dickel, the state’s second-most popular whiskey brand, supports the proposed rollbacks, arguing that the current law hinders market competition in the lucrative spirits industry by essentially codifying Jack Daniel’s proprietary formula. State lawmakers will now have to decide what constitutes “genuine” Tennessee whiskey and how flexible that definition should be.
The Champagne region of France has waged a century-long battle to preserve exclusive naming rights for its eponymous celebratory drink, citing the need to prevent cut-rate imitators from glomming on. For this reason, that cheap Asti you buy on New Year’s Eve has to be called “sparkling wine” instead.
Alcoholic nomenclature has always been two parts regional, one part market segmentation. All scotch comes from Scotland, naturally, and Irish whiskeys must come from Ireland. Per law, all Canadian whisky (note the dropped ‘e’) must be aged three years in wooden barrels, but besides that, there are no restrictions to claiming the maple leaf mantle so long as the liquor is mashed, distilled, and bottled entirely within Canada. These geographic naming conventions are pretty cut and dried despite wide-ranging taste and process variations within each group (try a Talisker next to a Laphroaig, e.g.). If it’s made in a particular place, a drink may be labeled as such.
When it comes to U.S. whiskeys, though, things get a little more complicated. The federal government only sets minimum guidelines for bourbon and doesn’t recognize “Tennessee whiskey” as a separate product. Since the word “whiskey” carries more cultural cache and can be sold at a higher price point, both Jack Daniel’s and George Dickel take great pains to distance their liquors from the “bourbon” label. To read some of their marketing material, you’d practically think it were a four-letter word. But the standards for it have always been more or less arbitrary.
That changed a year ago when a new Tennessee state law placed strict restrictions on what can and cannot be called “whiskey” (it must be charcoal-filtered and distilled in brand new oak casks each year). Jack Daniel’s would certainly prefer it if things stayed that way, for not only does the law tacitly endorse the company’s tried-and-true method, it imposes costs that the smaller competitors like George Dickel can ill afford.
Economics aside, the case for placing such rigid restrictions on distilling processes and barrel composition seems arbitrary at best. If a Tennessee distillery aged a legal blend of 80-proof mash in a charred balsa wood barrel for three years, it might very well taste terrible, but you could still fairly call it “Tennessee whiskey” the same way that Corona is still allowed to be called “beer.” Moreover, such puritanical limitations would only stand to stifle creativity within the state. As Scientific American reported last year, distillers are increasingly experimenting with new wood blends and even casting aside the traditional oak casks for maple ones in search of new distinctive flavors and tasting notes. In the end, Jack Daniel’s could very well win the exclusive right to be called “Tennessee whiskey,” but may soon come to realize that it’s no longer even the finest whiskey made in Tennessee.
Your move, General Assembly.
For more fascinating insight into liquor distillation, check out this Wired piece from a few years back on DIY whiskey. You won’t be disappointed.
Trent Knoss is the digital editor at Backpacker Magazine and lives in Boulder, Colorado.