The Fight For Whiskey In Tennessee

Legislation defining what qualifies as “Tennessee whiskey” is under fire from whiskey producers, claiming the laws are too strict. Currently, in order for a whiskey to label itself as Tennessee whiskey it must be made using a mash of at least 51 percent corn. The whiskey itself must then be filtered through maple charcoal and then aged in new barrels made of oak. The law was pushed by whiskey producer Jack Daniels who wished to protect the appellation “Tennessee whiskey.” The process defined by law is the Jack Daniels recipe. As such, smaller distilleries as well as large competitors have argued that requiring distillers to mimic the Jack Daniels process in order to call themselves a Tennessee whiskey is an unfair business practice. These other companies are fighting to have the label be applied to all whiskeys produced within the state.

Gaining traction
Nashville legislators have begun to take notice of these concerns. The worry that such strict rules put a limit on innovation is a driving factor as more and more Tennessee-based distilleries voice their complaints. One of the major sticking points is that new oak barrels are expensive and difficult for smaller companies to attain. In addition, international whiskey producer Diageo has argued that barrels can be reused once they go through a specific process without a loss of flavor. As a result, lawmakers such as Rep. Ryan Haynes, chairman of the state government committee, are pushing to allow any whiskey made in Tennessee to be labeled as Tennessee whiskey.

Defending the tradition
Supporters of the labeling legislation see it as protecting the reputation of the state’s drink. Any whiskey made in Tennessee can label itself as “made in Tennessee” or “whiskey from Tennessee,” the only name subject to the rules is specifically “Tennessee whiskey.” The law is similar to many European regulations that seek to protect the quality of certain food and wine products. Guidelines that delineate what is allowed to be called a Champagne ensure certain minimums of quality and consistency of product.

Whether or not the laws get overturned remains to be seen. The growing popularity of independent distilleries may push the discussion in one direction. The increasing number of small, independent distillers is being compared to that of craft breweries in the late 90s and early 2000s. Whether legislators will side with these independent spirits or the producers of one of the state’s highest-selling products will determine what gets to be called “Tennessee whiskey” in the future.

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