Friday, April 26, 2013

Tennessee Whiskey: A New Definition

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:

(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.
This definition mirrors the federal definition of bourbon except for the requirement that it must be manufactured in Tennessee and filtered through maple charcoal.

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.


Anonymous said...

Hogging market share whilst scotching things up for everyone else via political piggery. Another day in the life of Brown Forman. The least they could do is go ahead actually bottle something worth drinking.

EllenJ said...

"...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."

It's good (although somewhat ironic) that he was so exempted. And therein lies another piece of labeling silliness we can add to an already-extensive list of labeling silliness.

You see, Pritchard's little distillery is located in Kelso, a community practically on the border between Tennessee and Alabama, in the county of Lincoln. Lincoln County was once much larger than it is today; it encompassed an area that included Jack Daniel's Lynchburg up until that part of the county was made part of Moore County. The pre-barreling charcoal filtering that has so long been associated with Tennessee is known as the Lincoln County process (despite the fact that the only other major producer of Tennessee whiskey, George Dickel is, and always was, located in Coffee County).

There IS a distillery in Lincoln County, though. And that distillery is the one where Phil Pritchard and his distiller produce Tennessee Lightning, a corn whiskey which is distilled and bottled like anyone else's: without going through the charcoal filtration step.

And thus, the ONLY Tennessee whiskey distilled in Lincoln County does not use the charcoal process.

Ergo, ALL Tennessee whiskies distilled in Lincoln County do not use the charcoal process.

From which one must logically conclude that the DEFINITION of such a "Lincoln County Process" must therefore preclude the use of charcoal filtration.

Fact is, the only reason Schenley's Ralph Dubbs designed the Dickel distillery (in the 1950s) to use charcoal filtering was because Jack Daniel's (well, Reagor Motlow) had already milked the Lincoln Process thing to the point where it had become the defacto explanation for Tennessee whiskey. No matter that Lynchburg hadn't been part of Lincoln County since 1871.

sku said...

Great point about Lincoln County Ellen J.

Alex said...

I had to chuckle reading Ellen's comment. Just because a process is no longer used in a location has absolutely nothing to do with the issue, absolutely nothing.

The point is many consumers have a certain expectation of Tennessee whiskey, precisely because the big boys have established that expectation; namely, a smooth taste imparted by the charcoal filtering.

The law simply makes it easier for consumers in Tennessee like me (Knoxville) to have some idea what I am buying. Just like when I buy a KY bourbon, I expect certain processes to have been followed.

The law doesnt restrict trade in any way. Prichard and others can continue to make whiskey with or without charcoal filtering. I actually think its silly that Prichard keeps an exemption.

I've toured Prichard's facility, and I know he is a small distillery. I fully support his efforts to produce a quality whiskey, but his Tennessee Whiskey product is simply misleading to the casual customer in the store.

In the tour Prichards makes it clear they dont charcoal filter. The fact Prichards has to even make that statement points out the confusion - totally unnecessary confusion at that.

It must be a slow news day for this little state law to get so much attention.

A much more important law passed recently in TN allows Chattanooga Whiskey to put its distillery in Chattanooga. That's something to really celebrate.

EllenJ said...

NA Whiskey List, I hope your chuckle was drawn from the same silliness that mine was.

It's just that customer expectation (along with others; many others) that I find so amusing about SOME people's fascination with bourbon. The holy "Lincoln Process" and "Why Tennessee Whiskey Isn't Really Bourbon" is one of the first things a newbie American whiskey enthusiast learns, and one way to detect someone's "newbie-ness" is how clever s/he thinks s/he is in proudly announcing this fact to others at the bar.

Never mind that the only two majors that use this method taste virtually nothing like each other, so there is no basis to consider the process as definitive of anything at all.

Never mind that most whiskey in the United States was made in exactly this same way (i.e., charcoal filtration BEFORE aging) up until Prohibition (no, I didn't make that up; see the William Taft Decision of 1909)

Never mind that there is a Lincoln County in Alabama, Kentucky, Illinois, Virginia, West Virgina, North Carolina and several other states where whiskey is or once was produced. The so-called Lincoln Process (the name of which is what I was making fun of, not the actual process itself) could just as easily have resulted in a specially-designated South Carolina Whiskey, or Illinois Whiskey, etc. There is nothing inherently "Tennessee" about it.

BTW, Collier and McKeel, located in the same Nashville building as Corsair makes Tennessee whiskey USING the charcoal filtration process. They do not mention the words "Lincoln County Process". Good for them. Chattanooga is currently filling their bottles with normal bourbon whiskey sourced from MGD/LDI whiskey (which is not a bad choice, IMHO), but now that the TN law will allow them to actually distill, are they planning to set up the pre-barreling charcoal filtration process for their own make (which we shouldn't expect to see for several years)? And if so, maybe THEY'd like to come up with another name and end the Lincoln County Process silliness?

Alex said...

Yeah, names are often arbitrary. However, once they take hold they do have meaning. In every craft or industry there are names for processes given for where they were either introduced or became most popular.

At least for me I will now be able to assume bourbon with some charcoal filtering (except for Prichards) if I see a TN whiskey for sale in Knoxville, and I think that is a good thing.

sam k said...

So why the exemption for Prichard and no one else who has been making whiskey in Tennessee before this weirdness was enacted?

What is so special about Prichard's and not Corsair, Collier $ McKeel, Short Mountain, etc? I really don't get it.

sku said...

Sam, my guess would be that Prichard's has better lobbyists.

EllenJ said...

And also that, like I said before, Kelso actually IS in Lincoln county.

BTW, Collier & McKeel DO filter their new make between the doubler and the filling cistern. So they are in compliance with the Tennessee definition. Their whiskey is good, too, although it makes three "authentic" Tennessee whiskey I've tasted, none of which tastes like the other two. :=)

Unfortunately, you can only buy their product in a few locations around Nashville. I would love to get a bottle for our collection, but they and the liquor stores we checked were sold out.

Alex said...

Yay! The bill is signed and done!

Tom said...

When I toured Prichard's a few months back, I committed the gaffe of telling Mrs. Prichard that their Tennessee Whiskey could as well be called bourbon. I was informed, with marked coolness, that as it was whiskey and as it was made in Tennessee, they were going to go ahead and keep calling it Tennessee Whiskey.

It seems like a silly law -- particularly taking Ellen's point that none of the existing Tennessee Whiskeys taste alike -- and even sillier with the Prichard exception, but I can't blame Prichard's for fighting for their brand.