Most whiskey drinkers know Tennessee Whiskey as a particular style of whiskey made by Jack Daniel's and George Dickel which is essentially bourbon in which the spirit undergoes filtering through sugar-maple charcoal, known as the Lincoln County Process. For years, that process distinguished Tennessee Whiskey from other whiskeys.
Despite that widespread understanding, Tennessee Whiskey is not a legally defined term in the federal regulations that define other whiskey classifications such as bourbon and rye whiskey. Therefore, when new distilleries started popping up, there was nothing stopping them from making a "Tennessee Whiskey" that did not use the Lincoln County filtering process.
Now, Tennessee has stepped in to fill the gap. The state legislature has passed a bill which would set out a formal definition of Tennessee Whiskey. Sponsored by the state house member who represents Lynchburg, the home of Jack Daniel's, the new bill requires that:
An intoxicating liquor may not be advertised, described, labeled, named, sold or referred to for marketing or sales purposes as"Tennessee Whiskey", "Tennessee Whisky", "Tennessee Sour Mash Whiskey" or "Tennessee Sour Mash Whisky" unless the intoxicating liquor is:This definition mirrors the federal definition of bourbon except for the requirement that it must be manufactured in Tennessee and filtered through maple charcoal.
(1) Manufactured in Tennessee;
(2) Made of a grain mixture that is at least fifty-one percent (51%) corn;
(3) Distilled to no more than 160 proof or eighty percent (80%) alchol by volume;
(4) Aged in new, charred oak barrels in Tennessee;
(5) Filtered through maple charcoal prior to aging;
(6) Placed in the barrel at no more than 125 proof or sixty-two and one-half percent (62.5%) alcohol by volume; and
(7) Bottled at not less than 80 proof or forty percent (40%) alcohol by volume.
Prichard's Distillery, in Kelso, Tennessee, received a specially tailored exemption from the law, which grandfathers in distilleries licensed in the year 2000, which apparently covers only Prichard's. The exemption for Prichard's is permanent, so under the law, it will be the only distillery allowed to sell a non-charcoal filtered Tennessee Whiskey. Other distilleries have three years to comply.
William T. Cheek is an alcoholic beverage law specialist at the law firm of Bone McAllester Norton in Nashville. In an article he posted on the firm's website, Cheek wrote that the new law "favors a local giant at the expense of Tennessee entrepreneurs." I followed up with Cheek, who represents several small distilleries which will be directly impacted by the bill. He said the bill originally regulated distilleries' transferring of whiskey between counties and that this amendment was added at the behest of Jack Daniel's. He also noted that, since it is a state law, the law will not affect companies that sell "Tennessee Whiskey" outside of the state.
Others have speculated that the major focus of the law is Popcorn Sutton's Tennessee White Whiskey, an unaged, unfiltered whiskey utilizing the name of legendary Tennessee moonshiner Popcorn Sutton. It's not clear, however, if Sutton's use of the term "Tennessee White Whiskey" on the label would conflict with this law. Given that the penalty for violating the law, however, is a suspension of the manufacturer's license for a period of at least one year, most producers will likely comply rather than risk being shut down.
At the very least, this law provides a somewhat clearer answer for the question of what "Tennessee Whiskey" is, at least within the confines of the state of Tennessee.
The bill is headed for the Governor's desk, where he is expected to sign it.
UPDATE: The Governor signed the bill on May 13.