Whiskey makers bicker over whose booze is Tennessee style


NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — To many, Tennessee means whiskey. But inside the state, the question is: What
does Tennessee whiskey mean?
A battle between two worldwide liquor companies — owners of rival brands Jack Daniel’s and smaller rival
George Dickel — is being waged over who has the right to label their drink as following authentic
Tennessee style. It’s among the epicurean battles being waged around the world over what food and drink
should carry special status as local and unique.
British-based liquor conglomerate Diageo PLC opened a heated legislative fight earlier this year seeking
to overturn the state’s newly established legal definition for Tennessee whiskey that has been
championed by Jack Daniel’s, which is owned by Louisville, Kentucky-based Brown-Forman Corp. Among the
new rules are requirements that whiskey must be aged in new, charred oak barrels in Tennessee and
filtered through maple charcoal prior to aging.
On Tuesday in a separate but related case, the Diageo subsidiary George Dickel came out on top when state
attorneys in Nashville abruptly dropped a complaint that Dickel had violated a state statute prohibiting
the aging of Tennessee-made whiskey outside its borders. Dickel had challenged the statute in federal
court, claiming it violated laws on free interstate commerce.
The calm is likely to be short-lived, however. State lawmakers this summer are expected to return to the
struggle of crafting the legal definition of Tennessee whiskey, whose history and lore is entwined in
the state’s identity as much as lobsters in Maine and crab cakes in Maryland.
The two distilleries located just 15 miles apart in southern Tennessee are hardly equals in the
marketplace, with Jack Daniel’s outselling Dickel by a ratio of 88 cases to one.
Jack Daniel’s argues that the state laws governing which products can be labeled Tennessee whiskey will
protect the category against low quality knockoffs. They say Diageo’s motivation is to undercut Jack
Daniel’s global growth while its own flagship brand, Johnnie Walker scotch, stagnates.
Dickel’s owners say they conform with the traditional methods laid out in the state law, but argue that
that new distillers in the state shouldn’t be bound by state law to follow the old ways. Some observers
believe a successful challenge of the storage statute could give way to a legal challenge of the overall
Tennessee whiskey law.
Adam Levy, a blogger on liquor trends and organizer of spirits competitions, said the production and
storage requirements aren’t arbitrary.
“If you want to be considered a Tennessee whiskey, then you have to make it in Tennessee and store it in
Tennessee,” he said. “It is fundamental to what the result is.”
The fight over labels on whiskey bottles comes amid a global drive to seek labeling protections by a
smorgasbord of regional foods such as cheeses, hams and wines.
While the U.S. has resisted claims to items like parmesan and feta cheeses by their Italian and Greek
countries of origin, wine makers have succeeded in introducing standards for products labeled for
regions such as California’s Napa Valley.
“In America, everything is up in the air and new traditions are invented all the time,” said Ken Albala,
a history professor and director of food studies at the University of the Pacific in Stockton,
California. “And so I think we’re edging toward some sort of appellation system here, and whiskey would
make perfect sense.”
Albala said the boom in American whiskeys has led to quality concerns.
“Distillers in every state are jumping on the whiskey bandwagon now, and the companies are worrying that
they need to be able to distinguish their product and keep competitors out,” he said.
Unlike for bourbon, federal law is silent on what constitutes Tennessee whiskey. But the North American
Free Trade Agreement of 1994 includes provisions under which Canada and Mexico agreed to recognize
Tennessee whiskey as “a straight Bourbon Whiskey authorized to be produced only in the State of
In return, the U.S. recognized tequila and mescal as unique to Mexico, and Canadian whiskey as a
distinctive product that can only sold elsewhere in North America if it is made in Canada.

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