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.

It isn’t.

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.


Michael Shoshani said...

As a matter of fact, during the 1950s National Distillers was playing up the idea that Old Overholt was still being made at the historic distillery that Abe Overholt set up in 1810. Which would presumably have been registered a good half a century plus before Jasper Newton Daniel is said to have set up shop.

Richnimrod said...

Never letting the facts get in the way of a good story is a time honored tradition in America; particularly in American Whisky Making!
Hell; who cares?
If Jack (among many others) wishes to the 'the first registered distillery' who are we poor consumers (of BS) to disagree.
I, personally, feel like it's all in fun any way.
Let's discuss who first charred a barrel, as well ,eh..... HA!

Donna said...

Willard Rouse Jillson's "Early Kentucky Distilleries" is an excellent resource on this topic (though not Jack Daniels). Jillson extracted from the original court records the names of 177 Kentucky pioneers who landed in federal court for failure to pay tax to the government.

Anonymous said...

Would have thought George Washington's distillery at Mount Vernon would have been near the top of that list.


Unknown said...

Much as enjoy drinking bourbon and a good story, I actually find the amount of folklore (or in some cases blatant lies) surrounding this industry a little bit annoying at times. "Pre-prohibition recipe"? "Al Capone's favorite"? Granted, yes, I'm talking about a particular product here and I believe they don't advertise their product as such anymore but I think we see this sort of "stories" way too often. Some are more harmful than others (in this case I don't think Jack's claim is all that harmful) but at this point I've approached a point where I take all of the information coming out from distilleries (whether it's a marketing pitch or something else) with a grain of salt, which is a bit sad.

Anonymous said...

"Let's discuss who first charred a barrel, as well ,eh..... HA!" -I think it was Elijah Craig, right? :-O

Unknown said...

Always impressed and enlightened with your analysis. So much more interesting than reading simple tasting notes.

Sam Komlenic said...

Michael Shoshani, the distillery founded in 1810 by Abraham Overholt, the West Overton Distilling Company, never produced Old Overholt. Their product was known as Old Farm rye. The Broad Ford distillery that made Old Overholt was opened in 1855 on the Youghiogheny River, a tributary of the Monongahela, but that's still more than a decade prior to JD.

The Old Overholt brand was named in honor of the founder only after his death in 1870.

Erik Fish said...

Well, while we're at it, we can add "Michter's pre-Revolutionary War quality standards dating back to 1753". Don't get me wrong, Michter's is great stuff, but whenever I read that on the bottle, I have to chortle.

Brian (AKA The Dean) said...

Ah, Old Overcoat! Used to be a one of my regular pours (at bars), back when it was distilled in Pennsylvania. On occasion, I will order one to toast the old times. But it isn't what it used to be, IMO. Still, it isn't horrible, either.

Harry said...

"That's my story, and I'm sticking to it."

Dan Jenkins freed us all from the truth.