Tuesday, June 21, 2016
Today, Jack Daniel's Celebrates Its Fake 150th Anniversary
This morning, Brown-Forman celebrated the 150th anniversary of the Jack Daniel Distillery by ringing the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange. They hung a huge banner on the outside and lined up all of their executives on the inside.
There is just one small problem with this celebration. It's a big fake.
The company has long claimed that “Mr. Jack Daniel was the first to register his distillery with the government in 1866, making it the oldest registered distillery in the United States of America.”
You would think that such a claim, involving registration with the federal government a mere 140 years ago, would be, well, on record somewhere and easy to check.
Brand owner Brown-Forman says it has relied on information “passed down from generation to generation.” The available records, it says, are “inconclusive” due to the upheaval of the Civil War, Reconstruction, courthouse fires and Prohibition.
The ‘oldest registered distillery’ claim has been repeated so often, no one thinks to question it. Yet we are asked to believe that the federal government in 1866 decided to start registering distilleries for tax collection purposes and a 16-year-old boy in rural Tennessee was the first to comply.
Peter Krass, author of 2004’s Blood & Whiskey: The Life and Times of Jack Daniel, says Daniel's was not the first registered distillery in the country and never won a gold medal for world's best whiskey either. Krass says land and deed records show Daniel didn't even go into business until 1875, when he would have been a more realistic 25. Krass also says it's impossible that Daniel's was the first registered distillery because many Northern distilleries were registered long before 1866 to comply with revenue laws.
Depending on what you mean by ‘registered’ (which Jack Daniel's has never defined), the first ‘registered’ distilleries in the U.S. had to have been the ones that complied with the first federal liquor excise tax, levied on July 1, 1791.
The tax was on and off for about 30 years until it was abolished in 1818. Reimposed in 1862, it has been with us ever since. The rate was raised twice in 1864 and again in 1865. While the Civil War was underway, distilleries in areas not under control of the Union did not pay the tax, but plenty of distilleries in Union states got 'registered' and began to pay in 1862.
As consumer packaged goods go, whiskey was one of the earliest. Many claims were first made before anyone even conceived of ‘truth in advertising’ as a value. To some extent they were grandfathered in when the government began to police product claims in the early 20th century. No one means any harm. It has simply become part of the brand’s fabric, its background music.
No doubt this is not the first time a fiction has been trumpeted as fact at the NYSE and it surely won't be the last.