Do you know what makes Tennessee whiskey truly authentic? Contrary to popular belief, it’s not just the fact that it’s made in Tennessee. There are actually guidelines created by the state legislature to dictate whether or not a product can be marketed and sold using the “Tennessee whiskey” description. What are the rules? Under the state law passed in 2013, Tennessee whiskey must:
- Be made from fermented mash of at least 51 percent corn
- Be aged in new oak barrels that have been charcoal mellowed and stored in Tennessee
It’s no surprise that this legislation was heavily promoted by the Jack Daniel’s Distillery. The whiskey distillers at Jack Daniel’s feel passionately about their heritage and using fresh oak barrels, charred on the inside, to make their high-quality whiskey. They say that they’ve been working for almost 150 years to create a superior Tennessee whiskey product and it should be regulated in the way that Scotch whiskey in Scotland and Champagne in France is.
Well, another big company is pushing back. Diageo, which owns Tennessee’s George Dickel, thinks the law needs to be changed a bit. They think it’s important to protect the interest of all Tennessee whiskey distillers and that the current Tennessee whiskey law favors the Jack Daniel’s recipe a little too heavily. How are up-and-coming microdistillers supposed to compete with one of the biggest liquor giants who have essentially perfected their recipe?
Phil Prichard, owner and master distiller of Prichard’s Distillery in Kelso, Tenn. made a good point when talking to USA Today: “If I wanted my whiskey to taste like Jack Daniel’s, I’d make it like Jack Daniel’s.” He does not like the charcoal mellowing process and feels the original laws just stifle creativity in a burgeoning market. Prichard testified against the bill in 2013 and got his distillery exempted when the law passed.
The desire to regulate “real” Tennessee whiskey is understandable because every region deserves to have a sense of pride in a product that they create. However, when those regulations are too specific and favor a certain brand, we do think the law needs to be reviewed and redrafted to be fair to all distilleries.