Who Wins Tennessee’s Whiskey Wars?

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For a long time, there were only two legal distilleries in Tennessee: Jack Daniels and George Dickel. The rest of our whiskey needs were met by ubiquitous glass jars filled with clear liquid and shoved in the backs of everyone‘s freezers. Then, to make a long story short, famous moonshiner Popcorn Sutton killed himself instead of going to federal prison for said moonshining, and the state legislature seemed shocked to learn that making moonshine was something the Feds would bother sending people to prison for. It was a state-wide embarrassment that we’d let a natural resource like Sutton, who had done so much to contribute to the culture of the state, be put in a position where his options were go to prison or to the cemetery.

So, we legalized micro-distilleries, which hasn’t necessarily put an end to moonshining, but has provided moonshiners with a legal avenue to make whiskey, should they want it. The results have been fun. We now have a lot of legal moonshine on the market and some really nice aged whiskeys. It’s also been cool to see these new distillers trying out the whiskey recipes that have been passed down through the generations. Even Popcorn Sutton, rest his soul, has his own brand of legal moonshine.

But the thing to understand is that Jack Daniels and Tennessee are twined together. Part of the Jack Daniels allure, worldwide, is that it is genuinely made in a little town in a dry county out in the middle of nowhere by country folks using an old Tennessee whiskey recipe. It has a lot of cultural cache because of Tennessee’s “brand” (for lack of a better word) around the globe. Tennessee benefits in return. In January, the Italian gun manufacturer Beretta announced that it was opening a plant in Middle Tennessee. The Governor’s press release said, in part, “Tennessee’s global reputation for manufacturing in an artisan tradition means we are able to attract companies like Beretta, with a proven commitment to excellence.”

The only thing we make in this state that has a global reach and could even remotely be considered “artisan” is Jack Daniels whiskey. Jack Daniels Tennessee Whiskey.

You can see the problem. If other whiskeys start calling themselves Tennessee whiskeys, they’re both benefiting from Jack Daniels’ long-time promotion of the specialness of Tennessee whiskey and potentially stealing customers away from Jack Daniels.

So, last year, Jack Daniels went to the state legislature and had them pass a law defining a “Tennessee whiskey” as only whiskey made almost precisely how Jack Daniels makes its whiskey. Knoxville State Representative Ryan Haynes — who, it should be noted, voted for the bill — explains in The Tennessean last week what the problem with this is:

“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. “I don’t think it’s right that we put something in our law that is basically protectionism.”

I think this is true. And don’t get me wrong, I’m not on Jack Daniels side here. But I do think this is an interesting cultural problem. Tennessee has a global reputation that means something. It’s a kind of fantasy of ruggedness and backwoods people who are part craftsmen, part scientists, part magicians when it comes to corn liquor (and, I suppose, when it comes to music as well). When you drink Jack Daniels, you’re tapping into that myth.

Jack Daniels is in the wrong, but I can’t blame them for being defensive about the prospect of losing exclusive access to that myth.

What’s interesting, though, is that it’s not just Jack Daniels vs. the young upstarts. It’s also Brown Forman, Jack Daniels’ parent company, vs. Diageo, George Dickel’s parent company. Both companies have about the same share of the overall North American whiskey market, each with about a fourth of it (George Dickel is less well-known than Jack Daniels, but Diageo owns Bulleit, Crown Royal, and Bushmills, as well.) and each is looking for a competitive advantage over the other. Dickel would like to reuse its oak barrels and still call itself a Tennessee whiskey. Under current state law, it can’t.

I would feel confident that Jack Daniels could have its way against the wishes of our smaller, newer distilleries, but I don’t have any guess how a battle between Jack and George plays out. Let’s be clear about what’s at stake, though: It’s about who has the right to tap into our state’s cultural cache and how. Not about who is making “true” Tennessee whiskey.