Whiskey rivals spar over Tennessee style regulations
NASHVILLE — 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 the smaller 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 distinct.
London-based liquor conglomerate Diageo PLC opened a heated legislative fight 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-based Brown-Forman Corp.
Among the rules are requirements that whiskey must be aged in new, charred oak barrels in Tennessee and filtered through maple charcoal prior to aging.
Dickel's owners say they conform to the traditional methods laid out in the state law, but they have cited several reasons for challenging the statute. They include that a potential shortage of American oak barrels could threaten production and that products made by Dickel and the growing number of craft distillers in the state shouldn't be bound by law to follow the old ways.
Some advocates feared a successful challenge by Dickel of the storage statute could give way to a legal challenge of the overall Tennessee whiskey law.
On Tuesday in a separate but related case, the Diageo subsidiary George Dickel emerged 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 boundaries. 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 are 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.
Adam Levy, a blogger on liquor trends and organizer of spirits competitions, said the production and storage requirements are not 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 occurs amid a global drive to seek labeling protections by a smorgasbord of regional foods such as cheese, ham and wines.
While the United States has resisted claims to items like parmesan and feta cheese 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, Calif. “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.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Covestro leader MacCleary finds stability amid change
- Union leaders warn Post-Gazette newsroom of possible layoffs
- Stocks shake off Middle East tensions, drop in consumer confidence
- Pitt gets $2.5 million from Hillman Foundation for electrical grid work
- 3 startups want millennials to save money
- Holiday festivities help merchants in Western Pennsylvania
- Powder metals fabricator Atlas Pressed Metals diversifies appeal to customers
- Hedge fund Elliott Management grabs 6.4 percent stake in Alcoa