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What’s in a name?

By Bill Taylor

April 8, 2014

It seems to me that we sometimes set great store by the name we attach to something — kinda like the way the French are so insistent that the bubbly wine known as “champagne” can come from only one region in France.


All others may be known a “sparkling” wine or some other name, but not “champagne.” A similar battle is now brewing over the names of some varieties of cheese — which the French claim exclusive right to. Well, according to recent reporting (WSJ March 18, 2014) we have our own “what’s in a name” hullabaloo brewing right here in our own country - and it’s shaping up to be a ripsnorter humdinger.


Last year Tennessee (properly pronounced TEN-uh-see, not ten-eh-SEE) passed legislation entitled “Restrictions on labeling of intoxicating liquors as Tennessee whiskeys” — an innocent enough sounding designation, wouldn’t you say? The text of the law specifies, “An intoxicating liquor may not be advertised, described, labeled, 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 51 percent corn; (3) Distilled to no more than 160 proof or 80 percent alcohol 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 62.5 percent by volume; and, (7) Bottled at not less than 80 proof or 40 percent by volume.” (WSJ March 18, 2014)


So what’s the problem? Well, it turns out that this is the specific recipe for Jack Daniels — the gorilla in the Tennessee whiskey business with over 90 percent of the state’s sales. Other distillers are crying foul saying if they make a whiskey in Tennessee they should be able to call it “Tennessee Whiskey” even they don’t follow the Jack Daniels age-old recipe.


They claim these restrictions effectively deny both innovation and flexibility in the way whiskey is made - pointing out that distillers other than Jack Daniels also have recipes that have been handed down for generations. The company which makes Jack Daniels, however, is standing firm with its position that relaxing the regulations would “dramatically diminish the quality and integrity” of Tennessee Whiskey and, horror of horrors, “make it inferior to bourbon.”


Of particular contention are the requirements of filtering the whiskey through maple charcoal and using new, charred oak barrels - both of which the Jack Daniels folks contend make “Tennessee Whiskey” unique. Opponents claim the charcoal filtering is an arbitrary, unnecessary restriction and old oak barrels can be rejuvenated by exposing new wood which is then charred.


So what do the Feds have to say about all this? - after all there are regulations governing just about everything else in our lives. Well, first of all, there is no specific federal regulation specifying or describing “Tennessee Whiskey” as such.


There are, however, long-standing regulations governing whiskey labeled “bourbon” — the world famous American whiskey. To be labeled “bourbon.” a whiskey must be distilled in the US and must use at least 51 percent corn and be aged in new, charred oak barrels. There is no maple charcoal filtering requirement and bourbon may be distilled in any state.


I suppose all this may be considered as simply a proverbial “tempest in a teapot,” that is, a small or unimportant event that is over-reacted to, so why is this important to the players? Quite simply it’s a matter of money.


Bourbon and Tennessee Whiskey sales are booming with US sales reportedly rising nearly 7 percent in 2013 and American whiskey export sales rose to over $1billion. As with other products, brand name recognition is critical - and supporters of this regulation want to make sure “Tennessee Whiskey” remains essentially synonymous with what is familiarly known as “Jack.” They point out that distillers who don’t follow the regulation may still identify their products as being made in Tennessee, but not as “Tennessee Whiskey” - which opponents claim is unfair and discriminatory.


Well, this drama will likely play out in the Tennessee legislature while distillers in next-door Kentucky, where some 90 percent of all bourbon is produced, enjoy the spectacle. As for the Tennessee Whiskey/bourbon drinkers, this fuss likely won’t make a bit of difference - they’ll stick with their preference regardless of the outcome. At least that’s how it seems to me.


Bill Taylor, a Greene County Daily columnist and area resident, may be contacted at solie1@juno.com.