A year after passing a law defining what beverages could be sold as "Tennessee whiskey," lawmakers are considering loosening the rules -- and risk the wrath of whiskey giant Jack Daniel's.
The Tennessee legislature is considering tweaking the law it passed last year, which requires "Tennessee whiskey" to be made from fermented mash of at least 51 percent corn, aged in new oak barrels, charcoal mellowed, and stored in state.
It's the barrels that are at the heart of the renewed battle: Jack Daniel's master distiller says the fresh oak, charred barrels are key to the distinctive Tennessee whiskey flavor, but others -- primarily Jack Daniel's competition -- disagree.
"What we have here is nothing more than an effort to allow manufacturers to deviate from that standard, produce a product that’s inferior to bourbon and label it Tennessee whiskey -- while undermining the process we’ve worked for nearly 150 years to protect," said Jack Daniel's master distiller Jeff Arnett.
He says the law does for Tennessee whiskey what similar distinctions do for Scotch whiskey in Scotland, Champagne makers in France, and Kentucky bourbon in Kentucky.
But opponents of the law as it stands say the current rules hew too closely to Jack Daniel's exact recipe.
“If I wanted my whiskey to taste like Jack Daniel’s, I’d make it like Jack Daniel’s,” said Phil Prichard, owner and master distiller of Prichard’s Distillery in Kelso, Tenn., who opposes the charcoal mellowing process and successfully got his distillery exempt from the 2013 law.
“This would be similar to Anheuser-Busch saying, ‘You have to use this recipe to call yourselves an American beer,’ ” said state Rep. Ryan Haynes, R-Knoxville, chairman of the House State Government Committee, who voted for the 2013 law but has changed his mind. “I don’t think it’s right that we put something in our law that is basically protectionism.”