Men's Journal: The War Over Tennessee Whiskey

Men's Journal: The War Over Tennessee Whiskey
Men's Journal: The War Over Tennessee Whiskey

There's a feud going on in Tennessee. That might not be unusual in and of itself, but this one revolves around the term "Tennessee Whiskey," which means the entire state's pride is on the line. For the last 150 years, local distillers have employed innumerable recipes to turn corn mash into charred oak barrel-aged whiskey, but when the state passed a law stating that officially designated Tennessee Whiskey must be made of at least 51% corn and aged in new barrels, they drove an oak wedge between distillers interested in experimentation and traditionalists.

The problem with the new law, according to some smaller craft distilleries and a few of the big boys, is that its narrow description will stifle creativity. Guy Smith IV, the executive president of Diageo, the corporation which owns George Dickel, went on Fox News and made the case that the law was designed to shield Jack Daniels, which uses new barrels, from competition. But Andy Nelson of Nelson's Green Brier Distillery in Nashville welcomes the development. "The world has come to know Tennessee Whiskey as a respected and differentiated category of spirit from all the others," Nelson explains. "Just as bourbon has been differentiated by having certain restrictions and regulations placed on it, so has Tennessee Whiskey."

Nelson isn't saying that whiskeys aged in used barrels – particular sherry barrels – are worse, merely that they lack the distinct flavor that fresh wood infuses into liquor.  "Imagine making a cup of tea: You boil water and put a fresh teabag in and let it steep," says Nelson, drawing a parallel. "Now imagine boiling a new cup of fresh water but using that same teabag a second time. While you will still get a slight hint of flavor and color, it will be perhaps the most disappointing cup of tea you've ever had." 

The problem, Nelson is quick to admit, is that the smaller distilleries more likely to employ used barrels won't be able to take advantage of the "brand equity that has been built by Tennessee Whiskies of the past century and a half." On the other hand, those distilleries won't be able to dilute the importance of the word "Tennessee" as a signifier of a very particular taste.

The new law legally entwines the booze being created in Tennessee with the history of booze creation in Tennessee. Nelson welcomes it, but Nelson's great-great-great grandfather Charles Nelson founded the Green Brier in the middle of the nineteenth century – in 1885, the distillery was selling 380,000 gallons of whiskey to markets all over the world. The question posed by the law is whether or not distillers like Charles Nelson invented a particular type of liquor or merely evolved a genre that had long been popular in the region. The legislation pits the men who already run storied distilleries against the men who aspire to do the same. We expect the battle to drag on, but hope it will be staged in tasting rooms rather than courts.

Christopher Osburn

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