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Tennessee whiskey has to meet strict requirements

June 23, 2014

There are a number of concerning issues facing our country today. Lawmakers are dealing with complaints surrounding the economic and jobs crisis, gun control and violence in schools, environmental decline and regulation and, of course, what makes a Tennessee whiskey “Tennessean.”

Wait, what? You read that right, the whiskey wars are back on in Tennessee, and no one seems to be completely happy with the outcome yet. In case you haven’t been following the saga of recent years, here’s a quick recap:

In 2013, the state legislature decided to classify what actually qualifies as a “Tennessee Whiskey,” presumably aimed at the many packaging designs which seek to denote their products as such. Among other things, the law determined that the alcohol must be aged in new charred oak barrels and filtered through charcoal. As for the charcoal straining requirement, there’s been some restriction-based wiggle room allowed to some companies. The barrels, however, do not get much wiggle room.

Brown-Forman, the company behind Jack Daniel’s Whiskey, argued that the new laws would help keep cheap knock-off beverages from making it to market. On the other hand, Diageo, the company behind George Dickel Whisky and the more widely known Johnnie Walker Scotch, weren’t so sure; they argued that the requirement for new barrels could be financially obstructive for companies and would also prevent experimentation with new recipes.

This past March, both an overturn of the law and an appeal to tweak certain requirements were shot down. Even so, the whiskey wars rage on in June with an entirely new battle: concern over where the whiskey is aged.

An obscure law from 1937 specifies that any whiskey made in Tennessee must be aged there, no further than one county away from where it was made. Recently, state attorneys took aim at Diageo, asserting that George Dickel was being aged in the nearby state of Kentucky. Diageo would clarify that their whiskey went to Kentucky for blending, not aging, and the state dropped its suit on June 10th.

Of course, that wasn’t until Diageo had sued the state, claiming that its law was not only unconstitutional but also selectively enforced; there were no other cases of the law being enforced until now, suspiciously close in its timing to when Diageo butted heads with the state legislature in 2013 over the whiskey classification law.

It is also suspected that there may be some international motives at play here, seeing as Diageo is based in the UK, while Brown-Forman is US owned and based.

In any regard, the whole case may seem a bit trivial to the average bystander, though brewmasters are quick to attest to the fact that whiskey aged in a different place can turn out very differently than expected. Apparently, the taste and quality of a distilled beverage can vary based on the humidity, light, temperature and more of the place it which it was aged. Sometimes, according to Joe Barnes, founder of the Tennessee Whiskey Trail, even moving a barrel to a different house’s basement down the street can have a noticeable effect on the taste of the final product.