Friday, March 27, 2015

Tennessee Whiskey, Again


The Great Tennessee Whiskey Debate, about to resume in the Tennessee legislature, has involved a lot of misdirection and misinformation, some deliberate, some just ignorant. Without going through every jot and tittle, here is the gist of it.

'Louisiana whiskey' merely means whiskey made in Louisiana because there is no expectation that it means more than that. Likewise 'Ohio whiskey,' or whiskey made in any other state, except Kentucky and Tennessee. Certainly there is pride of place in every case, but no one has ever identified 'Louisiana whiskey' as a whiskey style. It is simply a statement of geographic origin.

There are those who say, "right, and that's all 'Tennessee whiskey' should be, a statement of geographic origin."

But if you are given a ten, why would you want to trade down to a two? That's the essence of the argument. Imagine, if you will, the Wisconsin legislature passing a law that says, "truthfully, cheese made in Wisconsin is no different or better than cheese made in any other state and we apologize for suggesting otherwise."

Most people understand Tennessee whiskey to mean a bourbon-style whiskey filtered through maple charcoal. Even if they don't know those details, everyone who drinks whiskey knows that Tennessee whiskey means Jack Daniel's, George Dickel, or something similar and not just any whiskey made in Tennessee. That represents an extraordinary benefit for distillers in Tennessee, an advantage no other state gives them. It makes Tennessee more attractive than any other state as a location for distillers.

Even the distillers who oppose the current law understand what it means, they just want the benefit without doing the work. They are misguided, however, because consumers aren't that stupid. If you render the designation 'Tennessee whiskey' meaningless, consumers will figure that out pretty quickly.

And if you sell them a 'Tennessee whiskey' that tastes like used dishwater, they won't buy a second bottle.

The current law defining Tennessee whiskey is very good for Tennessee as a whole and for whiskey-makers in Tennessee. There are some who argue that it's such an unfair advantage, the U.S. Supreme Court should find it unconstitutional. Only an idiot would want to throw that away.

27 comments:

Anonymous said...

Richnimrod said;

.....And, we ALL know there are no idiots in the distilling business....or do we know that..... for sure?

Sadly, idiots abound in any and all walks of life I fear.

Anonymous said...

Chuck.
Disagree strongly.
The law clearly benefits jd and nobody else.
Why should pritchard's get an exception and nobody else?
If I'm a distiller in tn i'm obliged by law to mimic the process of my biggest competitor simply because. ..well. ..they're big and pay tons and tons of tax?
It is my opinion that the Lincoln county process adds less to the spirit than it removes. Comparing jd with most any kentucky bourbon proves the point. There is nothing "Tennessee" about jack's "mellowing" process other than that it's in tn. Any distiller located in the state using tn water tn grains and aging in tn should be allowed to use the tn whiskey designation. The law provides unfair benefits to a single producer and demands that all producers who want to use the designation to duplicate jack. No way should an entire state's producers be obliged to duplicate the characteristics and processes of the biggest player in the industry and certainly in the state. The law should be struck down.
Respectfully... dan

Tom said...

This is bad news for whiskey made in Cleveland.

Chuck Cowdery said...

You're welcome to your opinion, Dan, as long as you understand the choice. You can either have a term -- Tennessee whiskey -- that means something but requires following certain guidelines, or you can gut the law and have a term that means absolutely nothing, as little as 'Louisiana whiskey' does now. Gut the law and the term means nothing and that's what TN's distillers will get for their trouble, a big fat nothing. The current law doesn't represent a burden, it represents an opportunity. Nothing about this law restricts what distillers can make, it only restricts what they can call what they make.

Anonymous said...

The problem with JD's Tennessee Whiskey, isn't the name, its that they also wants people to believe it is straight-bourbon, which is a stretch.

TTB: in the case of straight whisky the removal of more than 15 percent of the fixed acids, or volatile acids, or esters, or soluble solids, or higher alcohols, or more than 25 percent of the soluble color, shall be deemed to alter the class or type thereof.

The process of filtering whiskey distillate is an old technique which was primarily used with back-country stills that weren't very efficient. Their low proof carried over a lot of congeners, which could be removed by filtration.

This lends itself to a class change, due to the process itself (removing a significant amount of the very essence of what defines a straight-bourbon through filtration) making it faux-straight. Especially if the distiller has blipped 160p of the distillation.

It's still a great flavored product, but lets be straight about it.

Steve Scheer said...

So what would you call whiskey made in TN but not using the charcoal filtering, "Whiskey made in TN"? I have been watching these laws wander thru our state legislature, and while your argument makes some sense, they don't "lift all boats" equally. It's dumb to bend over backwards to please Jack Daniel, but it's also dumb to them give Prichard an exemption, and the impact of that is already being felt as they open their Nashville distillery. What next, a legal definition of "southern style fried chicken" or "cajun style cooking"? And that's my answer to the problem: Let "Tennessee Style Whiskey" mean charcoal filtered, and let "Tennessee Whiskey" be any type of whiskey made in TN.

Chuck Cowdery said...

Anonymous sound very knowledgeable but is, in fact, wrong. Jack Daniel's meets every requirement for straight bourbon.

The reality, Steve, is that Jack Daniel's will do just fine regardless, because most people buy brands, not types, and Jack Daniel's is one of the most powerful brand names in the world. The fact remains that the only reason anyone wants to use the term 'Tennessee whiskey' is because Jack Daniel's has made that term worth something.

Chuck Cowdery said...

Who will be hurt if the current law is gutted? The micro-distillers who want to make and sell Tennessee whiskey in the traditional manner, because they will have no way to easily distinguish their product from the merely geographic.

Anonymous said...

What about the very reasonable standard that is, in fact, part of Federal law? No added constitutional entanglements or accusations of preferential treatment there.

Chuck Cowdery said...

Be a little less obtuse and I'll try to answer you.

Anonymous said...

Chuck- I love your writing, but you're wrong on this one. Even if the product is "straight" it is clearly an affront to the whole legality of trademark law, and TTB labeling.

If they want to call it, "Lincoln county processed whiskey" then of course they should be able to. But Tennesee whiskey just because they happen to be in Tennesee and make it a specific way. Hogwash. What's next, United States Bourbon ? Distiled under 160p, aged in new oak, but it must be bottled in the nude under a full "moon". . Sold all over the planet as the only United States Bourbon. That's literally and figuratively the extent of the "Tennesee whiskey" moniker, and JD, et.al. should be taken out back of the woodshed, and corrected.

Even your own analogy about cheese. Imagine if some goat herder in Wisconsin scammed (or paid) some politician to pass a law that said only goat cheese could be called "Whisconsin cheese".

Regardless of you relationship with he people at JD, you should at least consider that this is a complete and total marketing scam.

Chuck Cowdery said...

I completely disagree and since you've now challenged my integrity, we're done talking.

risenc said...

Here, here, Chuck. Well said. I've never understood the "it helps Jack Daniel's" argument. So what? Any law favorable to distilling in TN is going to help JD the most, by dint of it being the largest distillery in the state. But the law helps Collier & McKeel, too -- and any other small distiller that wants to use the Lincoln County process. In contrast, which distilleries, exactly, are being hurt by a law that creates a mark of distinction for a type of whiskey? Not Prichard's, obviously. And last I checked, Corsair was doing just fine. No one is prevented from making whiskey in Tennessee under this law, though that is the shorthand that the law's opponents often revert to.

Anonymous said...

From one side Word Tennessee is a word that defines a geographical location. So any whiskey coming from there should be allowed to be called that way, because it defines a location and is not a trademark.
But from the other side, there is an example: Scotch that has regulations on how it has to be made to be called scotch. Scotch is an adjective meaning "of Scotland". So why Tennessee whisky cannot have that?
Tough call.
Tadas A.

Anonymous said...

Why can't Prichard's or any other producer in Tennessee just call it Tennessee Bourbon? Assuming it fits the standards of identity. As I understand JD could call their product bourbon, but choose not to.

Whiskeyman said...

While I can appreciate both sides of the argument, I tend to favor state identification as a solely geographic distinction, as defined by TTB.

One reason is the can of legal worms it opens up. Imagine that JD prevails and their method is proclaimed the One True Tennessee Whiskey.

What is to prevent other distillers, in other states, from buying a legislator or two, and having their own preferred process enacted into law for their particular advantage?

I have seen examples of this behavior; and in smaller or more corrupt states, such laws can be enacted rather easily.

As to the idea that "state X whiskey" for any other state is "meaningless" I find that suggestion problematic. Beyond a statement of geographic origin, state styles of whiskey can be characterized by the actual spirits produced. Of course, this makes it a fluid definition, one that can change over time as the style is defined by distillers. But that's all to the good.

Anonymous said...

Love the post and the comments. I had a pretty naive understanding of the whole debate. BTW, I have heard different things about Dickel--that they do charcoal filter and alternatively, that they source from MGP. The two don't have to be in opposition, but any clarity would help me to understand where they would position themselves in this debate. Overall, this has shed some much needed light. Thanks, Chuck!

Chuck Cowdery said...

George Dickel Tennessee Whisky is entirely made in Tennessee at the George Dickel Distillery. George Dickel Rye Whisky is sourced from MGP and bottled in Illinois. Everything for the Tennessee whisky is done in Tennessee, nothing for the rye is done in Tennessee.

Chuck Cowdery said...

Many of the above comments seem to disregard the fact that 'Tennessee whiskey' currently has a generally accepted meaning that is more than just a geographic designation. Tennessee whiskey has been defined by custom and practice for more than 100 years, just not by law, and every distillery in Tennessee made their whiskey that way until Phil Prichard came along.

Anonymous said...

Chuck, as one of the posters above mentioned, there is nothing stopping new distillers from calling their product "Tennessee Bourbon" Correct? If they want a geographic designation, why not use that (assuming they meet the other requirements)?

Any reference to "Tennessee Whiskey" is clearly an attempt to capitalize on the success/popularity of JD without actually following the process

akendeall said...

I tend to agree with you, Chuck. I wish more states had their own 'appellation'-like controls, not less. As a native Western Pennsylvanian, for example, I'd love to see "Pennsylvania" or "Monongahela" or "Pittsburgh" whisky made from higher proportions of Rye to reflect the pre-Prohibition of the area. Currently, many brands use the "Whiskey Rebellion" in the historical portion of their marketing copy, yet few are made anywhere close to the frontier-land where the historical episode actually took place.

That's just my two cents, though. I tend to see valid points in both camps.

Chuck Cowdery said...

A whiskey that meets the federal requirements for bourbon that is made in Tennessee could absolutely be called 'Tennessee Bourbon.'

Chuck Cowdery said...

The Dickel Tennessee Whiskey is charcoal-filtered before aging, in Tennessee. The Rye is charcoal-filtered after aging, in Illinois, where both types are bottled. But the charcoal they use for the rye is made in Tennessee from Tennessee sugar maple.

Anonymous said...

Tying geographic labels to requirements beyond just origin has a long tradition in the beverage business. Scotch has already been mentioned, Cognac would be another example for a spirit that not only has to come from there, but meet specific rules of the appellation. So it's not like Tennessee is doing something sinister or unusual. I always get suspicious when people get all passionate in favor of LOWERING quality standards, especially as they have completely failed to demonstrate how this standard imposes any burden on the non-complying distillers. Printing "Whiskey from Tennessee" instead of "Tennessee Whiskey" on their label can't be sold as a huge imposition by any stretch of the imagination.

Anonymous said...

Why is it assumed that failing to pre filter whiskey is somehow "lowering" the standards? One the contrary, prefiltering removes many of the oils, and low alcohols that take on significant flavor during maturation, should they be let in. The solids are then removed after, or not, depending on the flavor profile desired by the distiller.

The one thing prefiltering does well is make the product the same virtually ever time. It is the great "flavor equalizer" which is desirable for a large brand. It's no different than Coke or Pepsi trying to make their products always taste the same.

By prefiltering, comapnies like JD can pump out the same old product year after year, with very little skill needed by a master blender. It is the congeners that are normally left in whiskey that add the complexity of flavors a master blender works with to make exciting whiskeys.

Yes JD has a nice product, but it's made in a manner more akin to complacency and commonality, than anything "special".

Tennesee distillers who do not want to homogenize their whiskey should not be constrained in their marketing, just because a conglomerate wanted to make Coke or Pepsi.

Carlton said...

At least as inportant to protecting the identity of Tennessee Whiskey is the part of the law that requires the use of new cooperage. If the Tennessee Whiskey designation is to mean more than just a whiskey made in Tennessee, new barrels are essential. Imagine for a moment that federal law were changed so that bourbon could be matured in used barrels. The perceived quality of the entire bourbon category would be immediately lowered. Regardless of whether a particular bourbon distiller claimed to use only new barrels, their product would never be viewed the same by some folks because that distiller could legally slip in some used barrels and still call the product bourbon. This is exactly the situation in which Jack Daniel's would find itself if the law were repealed. Producers could then bottle as Tennessee Whiskey any crap matured in tired old barrels that still met the legal definition of whiskey. What is wrong with trying to give Tennessee Whiskey some protection to recognize it distinctiveness? No one with any business sense would oppose this law. Small producers can have their cake and eat it too: they can make a Tennessee Whiskey that conforms with the law (and as a result is recognized as meeting a certain level of quality), and they can make anything else they desire as long as they don't call it Tennessee Whiskey.






Chuck Cowdery said...

Jack Daniel's has long had to deal with myriad false rumors based on the fact that it is not called bourbon. People assume it can't be called bourbon, even though that is not the case. Clearly, those rumors haven't hurt the brand. It has long since transcended any category. Jack Daniel's is probably bullet-proof (or, if you prefer, Bulleit-proof).