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.