Friday, May 26, 2017

A Tennessee Whiskey History Lesson



In the beginning, there were hundreds of small, farm-based distillers in the land that became Tennessee in 1796 (four years after Kentucky statehood). If they made whiskey, it was 'Tennessee whiskey,' because it was whiskey and it was made in Tennessee.

As whiskey-making matured into a real industry after the Civil War, major producers emerged there as they did in Kentucky and elsewhere. The distillery established by Jack Daniel was one of them. Another was Cascade Hollow, which was sold by a Nashville merchant named George Dickel. Another large Nashville merchant, Charles Nelson, owned a distillery in Greenbrier, Tennessee.

They all called their products Tennessee whiskey because they were proud of their home state and because bourbon seemed like a Kentucky thing, although it was also made in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and other places. Nobody was particularly concerned about definitions and the Federal 'Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits' didn't exist. By the end of the century, producers and politicians were still arguing about the definition of 'whiskey.' They weren't yet concerned about whiskey types.

Statewide prohibition of alcohol came early to Tennessee (1907) and stayed late (1938). Of the major pre-Prohibition distillers in Tennessee, only Jack Daniel's came back in a big way. Cascade Hollow Tennessee Whiskey became Cascade Hollow Bourbon, made at the distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky, now known as Buffalo Trace. Nelson's Green Brier Distillery would not be revived until the 21st century.

So as the industry developed after Repeal, only one brand represented Tennessee: Jack Daniel's. The legend of the 'Lincoln County Process,' the filtering of new make spirit through sugar maple charcoal, was promoted as the brand's primary point-of-difference. And Jack Daniel's became pretty successful, so successful that by the mid-1950s, the Motlow family could no longer afford the capital required to keep the brand growing. They decided to sell, but they wanted to sell it to someone who would allow the family to keep running it and keep things in Lynchburg more or less unchanged.

One of the bidders was Schenley, by then one of the 'Big Four' companies that dominated the distilled spirits business. Schenley's owner, Lewis Rosenstiel, went after Jack Daniel's hard. Another bidder was Brown-Forman, a much smaller company. Although Schenley offered more money, the Motlows chose Brown-Forman because it was family-controlled and because they had not enjoyed their previous dealings with Rosenstiel.

In retaliation, Rosenstiel decided to repatriate Cascade to Tennessee, building a new distillery there, and calling it George Dickel Tennessee Whiskey. The first batch went on sale in 1964. It used a similar, though not identical, charcoal filtering process, because imitating and eventually beating Jack Daniel's was the whole point of the exercise.

The intention was to compete head-to-head, but although the Dickel brand was successful, it never got close to beating Daniel's. Today, Jack outsells George about 100 to 1. For all intents and purposes, Jack Daniel's is Tennessee whiskey. Jack Daniel's always has maintained that while it adheres to the legal standards for bourbon, it is different (better?) because of the 'Lincoln County Process.'

In recent years, micro-distilleries have begun to appear in Tennessee, as they have in the rest of the country. Because there was nothing to prevent them from doing so, some of these new, small producers decided to make and sell 'Tennessee whiskey' that didn't use the 'Lincoln County Process,' reasoning that it being whiskey made in Tennessee was sufficient.

The folks at Jack Daniel's, naturally, decided this was bad for the 'Tennessee whiskey' brand and, of course, they had the most to lose if that 'brand' became diluted or meaningless. So they proposed a law to the Tennessee legislature, which passed in 2013. The law defined 'Tennessee whiskey' using the legal requirements for bourbon with two additions: (1) the whiskey had to be made and aged in Tennessee and (2) it had to be filtered through maple charcoal.

Leading up to the new law's passage, Jack Daniel's folks conferred with all of the new Tennessee distillers, most of whom saw the benefit of preserving the traditional meaning of Tennessee whiskey. Most of them supported the law. After the fact, Diageo (successor company to Schenley) tried to get the law repealed or changed for fairly nefarious reasons of their own. They failed.

Many people incorrectly assume that Jack Daniel's is not called 'bourbon' because it cannot be for some reason. They will solemnly explain to you why it cannot be called bourbon. They are wrong. The sole reason Jack Daniel's is not called bourbon is because its owners, from Jack himself, through the Motlows, and since 1956 Brown-Forman, prefer to call it Tennessee whiskey.

So now you know the truth, but if some blowhard in a bar wants to fight you about it, don't bother. It's not worth the trouble.

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