Friday, April 26, 2013

What's in a Name? If It's "Tennessee Whiskey," a Lot

Chapter fifteen in my book, Bourbon, Straight, is about Jack Daniel's Tennessee Whiskey. The chapter title is, "The Elephant in the Room."

Why? Because the best-selling bourbon in the world isn't a bourbon, which tends to set off a cascade of confusion and misinformation. Jim Beam is correct when it claims to be the world's best selling bourbon, even though Jack Daniel's sells more, because Daniel's does not claim to be bourbon, preferring instead the classification 'Tennessee whiskey.'

And yet Jack Daniel's adheres to all the rules for bourbon-making, the rules binding Jim Beam and the rest of the bourbons, every single one of them. Why then isn't it labeled as bourbon?

Because it doesn't want to be.

About 70 years ago, the federal regulators said that was okay, but they did it in the form of a letter. Since they did not write it into the rules, there is no universal legally-binding definition of Tennessee whiskey. Today, the principal federal regulator is the Tax and Trade Bureau of the Treasury Department (TTB). All it requires is that claims of geographic origin must be true, so Tennessee whiskey must be made in Tennessee and, of course, it must be whiskey. That's all TTB cares about.

The Office of the U. S. Trade Representative recently tried to fill the gap. In treaties where the U.S. seeks protection for the terms 'bourbon' and 'Tennessee whiskey,' it has defined Tennessee whiskey as "straight bourbon whiskey made in Tennessee."

Does that  prevent someone from making corn whiskey in Tennessee, and calling it 'Tennessee whiskey'? Corn whiskey doesn't have to be aged. It's what many people call 'legal moonshine.' If it's whiskey made in Tennessee, TTB is satisfied. It's inconsistent with the treaty definition, but what can the Trade Representative do? Their job is to make sure other countries don't abuse the term. They have no power in Tennessee.

The Tennessee legislature, most likely at the prodding of a certain big contributor to the Tennessee economy, has decided to step in and protect the integrity of its state spirit. A new law expected to take effect in June will define Tennessee whiskey as, essentially, bourbon that has been filtered through maple charcoal before aging.

This is a good idea. It's good because it gives the term 'Tennessee whiskey' a meaning it would not otherwise have, a meaning consistent with the public's understanding of the term, and there isn't any Tennessee whiskey product that would not benefit from some charcoal filtering.

Phil Prichard, a Tennessee micro-distiller who has been making an unfiltered Tennessee whiskey, was given an exemption.

The law simply requires that the spirit be "filtered through maple charcoal prior to aging." It doesn't require the whole process JD uses. It doesn't say how much charcoal or for how long, so it shouldn't be prohibitive for small producers. They don't have to do it if they don't want to, they just can't call their product 'Tennessee whiskey' unless they do.

A more onerous requirement is the one about aging. Consistent with the TTB definition of bourbon, the Tennessee law requires that Tennessee whiskey must be "aged in new, charred oak barrels in Tennessee." Here again, it doesn't say for how long, and such aging can only help, but new barrels cost money.

The new law has teeth because the penalty for violation is a one-year suspension of the distiller's state distilling permit.

So the feds will prevent 'Tennessee whiskey' from being made outside of Tennessee, and Tennessee law will take care of producers within its jurisdiction.

Without this law, Tennessee whiskey simply means whiskey made in Tennessee. It does not, as it should, define a unique regional whiskey style. Micros in the state have been exploiting this loophole. The new law also prevents a Tennessee producer from buying bulk whiskey made outside of Tennessee, bottling it in Tennessee, and claiming that as 'Tennessee whiskey' merely because it was bottled in the state.

The new law covers the terms 'Tennessee Whiskey' and 'Tennessee Sour Mash Whiskey,' whether 'whiskey' is spelled with or without the 'e.' Will the law apply if the producer makes a corn whiskey and wants to call it 'Tennessee Corn Whiskey'? That remains to be seen.

Just like the TTB's rule, this law doesn't tell any distiller what they can make or sell, it just regulates what they can call it. This is good for big producers who already comply with the law, of course, but it will be good too for any micro who chooses to make Tennessee whiskey according to the new rule.


Joe said...

How often are these definitions made at the State level? This seems like empty legislation to me.

Chuck Cowdery said...

California and other states have similar laws regarding wine.

Unknown said...

So nothing will stop someone from labeling their non-compliant product as Tennessee Whiskey on bottles sold outside of the state of Tennessee right? Seems like a loop hole that someone is going to take advantage of, especially if they are not fans on the law in the first place.

Chuck Cowdery said...

Tennessee law applies to a Tennessee operator regardless of where the offending product is actually sold.

EllenJ said...

"...A new law expected to take effect in June will define Tennessee whiskey as, essentially, bourbon that has been filtered through maple charcoal before aging... Phil Prichard, a Tennessee micro-distiller who has been making an unfiltered Tennessee whiskey, was given an exemption."

It's good (although somewhat ironic) that he was so exempted. And therein lies another piece of labeling silliness you can add to your already-extensive (and entertaining) list.

You see, Pritchard's little distillery is located in Kelso, a community practically on the border between Tennessee and Alabama, in the county of Lincoln. Lincoln County was once much larger than it is today; it encompassed an area that included Jack Daniel's Lynchburg up until that part of the county was made part of Moore County. The pre-barreling charcoal filtering that has so long been associated with Tennessee is known as the Lincoln County process (despite the fact that the only other major producer of Tennessee whiskey, George Dickel is, and always was, located in Coffee County).

There IS a distillery in Lincoln County, though. And that distillery is the one where Phil Pritchard and his distiller produce Tennessee Lightning, a corn whiskey which is distilled and bottled without the charcoal filtration step.

And thus, the ONLY Tennessee whiskey distilled in Lincoln County does not use the charcoal process.

Ergo, ALL Tennessee whiskies distilled in Lincoln County do not use the charcoal process.

From which one must logically conclude that the DEFINITION of such a "Lincoln County Process" must therefore preclude the use of charcoal filtration.

Fact is, the only reason Schenley's Ralph Dubbs designed the Dickel distillery (in the 1950s) to use charcoal filtering was because Jack Daniel's (well, Reagor Motlow) had already milked the Lincoln Process thing to the point where it had become the defacto explanation for Tennessee whiskey. No matter that Lynchburg hadn't been part of Lincoln County since 1871.

Anonymous said...

Glad I don't drink Jack Daniels. Gladder still not to live or work in Tennessee!

Fred Mozenter said...

Chuck, I thought the maple charcoal added a flavor to the whiskey, changing the flavor,hence not being able to call it bourbon.

Anonymous said...


Thank You for this article.

I have a friend who is a Bourbon Snob and refuses to drink Dickel or Jack Daniels.

He insists it's NOT bourbon and he only drinks bourbon.

Copy of your article now in cyber space headed his way via eMail.

Chuck Cowdery said...

That's a story Kentucky distillers tell their children, Fred, but it's never been true, in that there has never been a ruling to that effect.

Trevor said...


Thank you for pointing out the irony. However, I suggest that one should not conclude that the Lincoln County process precludes the use of charcoal since the process isn't named after what is being done in Lincoln County now, but what was done there when the process was named, even if that's no longer the case.

Your point is a good one, but I suggest that doesn't change the name of the process.

EllenJ said...

Of course the humor I find is in the naming convention, not the process itself. But, that said, I've never seen anything to suggest that the name was in general use before post-Prohibition Jack Daniel's began promoting it to differentiate their product from all the bourbon brands with which they competed.

The process itself is attributed to Alfred Eaton, who operated a distillery near where Daniel Call would eventually build the distillery that would become Jack Daniel's. Eaton, however, didn't "invent" the process, nor AFAIK did he name it after Lincoln county. He purchased the process, along with the recipes for making whiskey, from William Pearson in 1825. Pearson, who was indeed living near Lynchburg at the time, had migrated there from South Carolina where he had been distilling (and maple-leaching) whiskey since around 1780. I don't know what county he lived in in South Carolina, but I do know that he distilled his whiskey from a corn-mash, filtered it through charcoal made from hard sugar-maple wood, and then aged it in oak barrels. He apparently learned how to make whiskey from his mother, who made similar whiskey (probably from rye) in Bucks County, Pennsylvania in the mid-1700s.

Therefore, whatever one chooses to call the process (which is the part I find silly), NO WAY should the process itself be restricted to pertain only to the state of Tennessee. And, while I readily agree that the "Tennessee" appellation should mean that the whiskey is made and aged only in that state, the same as "Kentucky" does, I see no reason to include as a defining feature, a process that historically was widely in use throughout several states (whatever name may have been used, if any), and which probably was NOT employed by most other distillers throughout Tennessee.

Anonymous said...


Heaven Hill produces full-line of charcoal filtered bourbons readily available in Kentucky.

Kentucky Straight Bourbon.....

"Every Drop Charcoal Filtered"

Heaven Hill White Label (6 Year) 100 Proof BIB
Heaven Hill Gold Label (4 Year) 100 Proof
Heaven Hill Green Label (6 Year) 90 Proof

Chuck Cowdery said...

Virtually all bourbon is charcoal filtered after aging to remove amino acids that can make the whiskey appear cloudy when the bottle gets cold. This is the 'chill filtering' you may have heard about. Because of the success of Jack Daniel's, some bourbons have put the words 'charcoal filtered' on their labels. This type of charcoal filtering uses a very small amount of activated charcoal and is done after aging. Heaven Hill has several expressions with those words on the label. Jim Beam says it on their green label but actually does it to every bourbon they make except Booker's. What Jack and George do is done before aging and involves a large quantity of charcoal made from sugar maple wood exclusively. They are two very different processes for two different purposes, but both are 'charcoal filtering.'

Kyle Henderson said...

Chuck, chillr filtering and charcoal (carbon) filtering are not the same. they have similar effects on the whiskey, but one just uses really cold whiskey and cellulose pads and maybe some DE to remove the fatty acids, while charcoal filtering substitutes the cold for carbon.

EllenJ said...

It's not the fact that charcoal is used, it's what KIND of charcoal and WHEN the filtering takes place. As Chuck points out, virtually every bourbon is charcoal filtered before bottling (I'll bet even the ones that are not chill-filtered are charcoal filtered). The process in questions involves feeding NEW MAKE whiskey through a gravity-fed column of SUGAR MAPLE charcoal BEFORE barreling. Completely different animal.

EllenJ said...

But you're right that neither version of "charcoal filtering" has anything to do with chill-filtering"

Chuck Cowdery said...

I have seen the charcoal in the chill filtering set up at Heaven Hill. It's a tiny amount, but it's charcoal. That's the point, any contact between the whiskey and charcoal, at any point in the process, makes the statement "every drop charcoal filtered" true, even if it's a different process for a different purpose, involving a minute amount of charcoal. That's the point I'm trying to make. No bourbon, regardless of what the label says, goes through a process comparable to the processes used at Dickel and Daniel's, which are themselves quite different from each other, but both are pre-aging, involve a lot of charcoal, and the charcoal is all from sugar maple wood.

Chuck Cowdery said...

Please note that the new Tennessee law requires the following: "Filtered through maple charcoal prior to aging." Only 'maple charcoal' and 'prior to aging' are specified. The rest of the details are up to the producer.