Tennessee Whisky: Don't Mess With Tradition

22 January, 2015

“The debate now is mostly in regard to new barrel ageing. This is a vital part of the process that if changed would damage the reputation of Tennessee whiskey worldwide. Ageing whiskey in a previously used barrel simply does not yield a product that is on a par with what the world has come to know as Tennessee whiskey and we want to make sure that consumers across the globe can equate Tennessee whiskey with the highest quality product and be proud of what they’re drinking.”

Nelson points out that Charles Nelson, the great great grandfather of he and brother Charlie, worked with George Dickel to get Tennessee defined as separate to bourbon. And as a result the brothers, along with several other craft distillers, fully supported the state legislature when it tempted to define Tennessee whiskey in law.

Steve Skelton of Beechtree distillery agrees. “Our Tennessee whiskey is styled a bit differently than most Tennessee whiskey,” he says. “I use a lower percentage of corn in my mash – about 60%–65%, as well as some great grains such as malted rye and barley. But the whiskey is charcoal filtered using sugar maple that we make ourselves.

“I totally agree with keeping Tennessee whiskey standards just like they are, using new barrels is part of that tradition. Jack and George made all this possible. I can go to anywhere in the world and people know about Tennessee whiskey.”

It’s somewhat ironic, then, given the history of the man who did so much to define Tennessee whiskey, that the distillery named after him not only opposed the new definition when it was first introduced, but is now set to challenge a key pillar of it.

Initially it opposed a clause stating that Tennessee whiskey had to be matured in Tennessee, arguing that such a rule would adversely affect free trade between states. Parent company Diageo moves George Dickel whiskey up to Kentucky though it denies it does so for maturation purposes, claiming the whiskey is blended and bottled in the neighbouring state.

It won that particular battle in June – but now Diageo is heading back to the courts to challenge the rule that requires distillers to use new charred barrels. Somewhat implausibly Diageo says that its move to allow barrels to be used more than once would make massive cost savings for the new wave of smaller distillers, increasing competition and allowing the craft distillers to experiment with new whiskey recipes.

Jack Daniel’s, owned by Brown-Forman, dismisses the claim. It has been at the forefront of the drive for a legal definition, arguing that clarity was needed to protect the quality of the spirit around the world. Jeff Arnett, master distiller at Jack Daniel’s, has gone further. He sees it as a callous attempt by Diageo to undermine the spirit.

“What we have here is nothing more than an effort to allow manufacturers to deviate from that standard, produce a product that is inferior to bourbon, and label it Tennessee whiskey, while undermining the process we’ve worked for nearly 150 years to protect,” he says. 

“It has been understood for 150 years that this is what Tennessee whiskey is. It’s only the fact that we’ve had a lot of new distillers that we feel like there need to be some rules for the playground, if you will, just to keep everyone honest.”

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