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'?

Not necessarily.

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.

24 comments:

Anonymous said...

I think the important fact here is that just because it IS bourbon doesn't mean it must be labeled as such.

Boozist said...

Thank you, Chuck. Thank you for finally putting an end to the argument that didn't really matter in the first place.

Bullpuncher said...

While Pritchards got the exemption from having to use the Lincoln County process to be able to still use the term " Tennessee Whiskey; Greenbrier in Nashville and Tenn South in Lynnville are using the process to make theirs.

kaiserhog said...

A difference without a distinction or vice versa.

Kevin Creasy said...

I feel like I was part of an endless thread on FaceBook that spawned this post.

Crown Point Marc said...

JD is the Harley Davidson of the American whiskey world; overpriced, underwhelming and propped up by nostalgia.

Erik Fish said...

Did any whiskey detective ever figure out where the short-lived Jailers Tennessee Whiskey that bloomed and then imploded so quickly in 2012/2013 was distilled? They claimed publicly and emphatically to have Lincoln-County-processed liquid distilled and aged in Tennessee. There are three scratched-up bottles still sitting on a nearby liquor store shelf even though it was over by August 2013.

Anonymous said...

Again, and if it matters, filtration before or after maturation can affect a commodity to a degree that changes its class. JD may very well Not Be bourbon, because their process of maple filtration may very well remove in excess of 15% of its flavor. The only people who know that are the people working at JD, because the TTb does not require pre filtration (pre or post barrel maturation ) samples. As such, this entire blog string is pure speculation. this especially so considering that there is no defined quantifiable sensory test.

Chuck Cowdery said...

More speculative is the contention that JD is unquestionably not qualified to be bourbon. In fact, that question has never been reached.

Anonymous said...

It seems to me the point is this: Jack Daniel's is LEGALLY bourbon; i.e. it could be labeled as such, if B-F so chose. It's also, LEGALLY Tennessee whiskey, given that the Lincoln County process qualifies the use of that title. So, legally, it could be labeled as either bourbon, or Tennessee whiskey, because it's actually both. Now, whether the labeling standards that define this are correct, adequate, appropriate, etc. is an entirely different question.

Anonymous said...

Dickel

Anonymous said...

It is not necessarily so that JD is bourbon. Curiously they have never stated what segment or percentage of flavor is removed by the Lincoln county process, a process that absolutely without question can be done it a manner that would clearly exclude JD or any other 51/corn under 160p distillate from being a bourbon.

The Lincoln county process is done to remove flavor that is left in from the low distillation proof required by the designation. It's not magic, it's just a process that is used to alter the flavor of a product. The question is, does it alter JD in a manner that prevents it from being a bourbon.

alex said...

There is no way to prove that Jack Daniels would qualify as a bourbon. They have called themselves a tenneesse whiskey for quite some time, a term which is not any formal recognised body.
What is preventing JD fron adultering their whiskey in a fashion which would preclude it from being legally labelled 'bourbon'? What incentive is there for the bean counters to follow a stringent quality control process that doesnt add any perceived value to the product?
Are they not the producer of the world biggest selling whiskey? I imagine it would be difficult to produce that amount of whiskey and maintain consistency in taste, it sure would be tempting to add a little artificial color or flavor, whats stopping them?
They very well may be producing the worlds biggest selling blended bourbon whiskey.

Whiskeyman said...

Chuck, I think you missed a very important point regarding this discovery. When you file a COLA application, you put whatever you want on your label. But nowhere on the (online) COLA form is there anywhere where you say what class/type you are applying for.

The TTB is the one that put "bourbon" on that approval. When they issue your COLA, they decide what the approved class/type is going to be. The producer does not get to say, other than what they put on the label.

So the bottom line is that the TTB employee put down "bourbon" on the approval, not JD.

Erik Fish said...

Quote:
"It is not necessarily so that JD is bourbon. Curiously they have never stated what segment or percentage of flavor is removed by the Lincoln county process, a process that absolutely without question can be done it a manner that would clearly exclude JD or any other 51/corn under 160p distillate from being a bourbon."

No, it can't exclude JD from anything. It is a mystery to me where these obscure preoccupations with "percentage of flavor" originate, and what they are supposed to signify, as nothing of the kind can be found in the bourbon definition in the CFR, which is all that matters for the legal question.

Anonymous said...

Actually you put the class in the formula, and the TTB just copies what you put in the formula, onto the COLA.

I had someone bring a bottle of JD honey into our distillery yesterday. My impression: 20-25% JD, 65+/- GNS, .5% honey, 8% corn syrup or sucrose, and enough artifical honey flavor to make it taste like real honey. If that's the kind of crap that makes JD the best selling whiskey on the planet, they can keep the title and we will continue to make and sell real whiskey.

Sam Komlenic said...

As I've said elsewhere, it's very simple. If it says bourbon on the label, it is. If it doesn't, it isn't.

Smithford said...

@ Whiskeyman: Chuck did explain that, about a third of the way into the article he says "That part of the form is completed by the TTB, not the producer."

@Anonymous: "The question is, does it alter JD in a manner that prevents it from being a bourbon?" The answer is "no." "Bourbon" is a term defined by law, with a strict (and small) set of requirements. JD meets all of the requirements, so by law, and by definition, it is bourbon. What Brown-Forman chooses to call it is their business, as long as they don't run afoul of the law. And whatever marketing fluff they choose to attach to it doesn't alter the basic fact of the matter. They could label it Jack Daniel's Tennessee Car Wax if they want to. It would still be bourbon inside the bottle.

Some people love to twist logic into pretzel shapes in order to prove/disprove very simple things. I, for one, am glad that Chuck is here to straighten out the facts.

Chuck Cowdery said...

Can someone please explain how to quantify flavor by volume?

(Making gibberish sound intelligent is a rare talent.)

Erik Fish said...

Quote:
"I had someone bring a bottle of JD honey into our distillery yesterday. My impression: 20-25% JD, 65+/- GNS, .5% honey, 8% corn syrup or sucrose, and enough artifical honey flavor to make it taste like real honey. If that's the kind of crap that makes JD the best selling whiskey on the planet, they can keep the title and we will continue to make and sell real whiskey."

And my impression: About 100% sour grapes here... ;)

Whiskeyman said...

RE:

"Actually you put the class in the formula, and the TTB just copies what you put in the formula, onto the COLA."

Wrong.

You put down what you think it is on the formula, but the TTB decides what it actually is. In the case of whiskey, no formula is needed, so hairsplitting over formulas isn't relevant.

Gary Gillman said...

IMO, Jack Daniels is not bourbon because the long exposure to burned maple wood is not part of normal aging, it is a way as Anonymous has argued to reduce the congener level ahead of the normal aging cycle and method.M maple isn`t even oak, obviously...

Also, one of the SOI requires that the applicable class and type be stated. There is no choice to toggle between categories. If it`s bourbon, the label should say so. Jack`s palate is lighter than bourbon, in fact, many people agree with this. I understand at one time (pre-Pro) I think, Jack Daniels was called bourbon - Chuck can confirm this - but I doubt the SOI read the same then as now.

Gary

Gary

Erik Fish said...

Faction No. 1: Jack Daniel's isn't bourbon, it's something better.

Faction No. 2: Jack Daniel's isn't bourbon, the Lincoln County process turns the whiskey into something inferior.

Faction No. 3: Jack Daniel's is legally bourbon, but doesn't want to call itself that.

Smart people: Let's just finish that bottle of Jack Daniel's, then we won't care either way.

Holly Bartel said...

Erik Fish, nice summary of the participants in this debate. Except for the typos contained in the last line. Not to worry, I'm here to help.

What you said was:
Smart people: Let's just finish that bottle of Jack Daniel's, then we won't care either way.

What you meant to say was:
Drunk people: Since we don't care either way, let's just finish that bottle of Jack Daniel's, then we can pretend it's because we're smart.

An honest mistake, my friend. And your quite welcome. Glad I could be of service.