Friday, July 10, 2015
We Find the "Jack Daniel's Is Bourbon" Smoking Gun, Or Do We?
A Certificate of Label Approval (COLA) is a form producers submit to the TTB, the federal regulator. Producers can't bring a product to market until its label is approved. Where the producer signs it, it says, "Under the penalties of perjury, I declare; that all statements appearing on this application are true and correct to the best of my knowledge and belief."
Pretty serious stuff.
It is with that background that we provide TTB ID 11018001000381, submitted by Brown-Forman Corporation on behalf of its Jack Daniel Distillery, approved and issued on February 15, 2011. It is for a 50 ml bottle of Jack Daniel's Old No. 7 Tennessee Whiskey. Look what it says under 'class/type description,' 'Bourbon Whisky.'
You can see the whole document here, on the TTB web site.
Doesn't this prove that the TTB considers Jack to be 'Bourbon Whisky'?
Jack Daniel's submits many COLAs every year. They usually just say 'whisky' in that spot. Sometimes they say 'bourbon whiskey.' That part of the form is completed by the TTB, not the producer. Approved COLAs can contain mistakes. In most cases, the COLA form doesn't have to be corrected if the ultimate label is correct. Anyone who has looked at a lot of COLAs has seen plenty of mistakes.
The real surprise would be if the words 'Tennessee Whiskey' appeared in that spot, because 'Tennessee Whiskey' isn't recognized as a class/type.
So is Jack Daniel's a bourbon or not?
The answer is yes.
Jack Daniel's is not bourbon because it is Tennessee whiskey. Seventy years ago, the federal regulator wrote a letter to Jack Daniel's, at the company's request, granting it permission to call itself Tennessee Whiskey and not bourbon, acknowledging that the 'Lincoln County Process' (i.e., extensive charcoal filtering of the distillate prior to aging) makes Tennessee whiskey a distinctive product. That letter is all there is, that and a long history of the regulator accepting the term without objection. No steps were ever taken to add 'Tennessee whiskey' as an official 'type' in the regulator's rule book.
So, yes, Jack Daniel's is Tennessee Whiskey and not bourbon.
However, Jack Daniel's is bourbon for the following reasons. It is made exactly like a bourbon in every respect, and nothing about the Lincoln County Process prevents Jack Daniel's from being called bourbon. Everything you have heard in that regard -- and there is a lot of stuff out there -- is false. Jack Daniel's tastes more-or-less like a bourbon and is found in the bourbon section of your liquor store. Even in Tennessee, stores don't have a Tennessee whiskey section. When industry monitors report bourbon sales, they include Jack Daniel's and Jack Daniel's is by a wide margin the best-selling bourbon-style whiskey in the world.
So by all of those measures, Jack Daniel's is bourbon.
Jack Daniel's, of course, is not the only Tennessee whiskey. Diageo's George Dickel uses its own version of the Lincoln County Process and also the term.
For 70 years, 'Tennessee whiskey' was not defined except by tradition and practice. A decade or so ago, the office of the United States Trade Representative, seeking to protect 'Tennessee whiskey' as a distinctive product of the United States, defined it as "straight bourbon whiskey made in Tennessee." In 2013, the state of Tennessee codified it further, spelling out the definition of bourbon and adding charcoal filtering through maple charcoal, and further requiring that all of those steps take place on Tennessee soil.
Although that law was challenged in each of the two subsequent legislatures, it survived and appears to be permanently ensconced. Although it is a state law, it effectively defines 'Tennessee whiskey' for the whole world.
So that's the story, and the moral is: don't get drawn into arguments about whether or not Jack Daniel's is bourbon. It's just not worth it.