Tennessee whiskey battle over, but threat to bourbon is alive, says historian

The great Tennessee Whiskey brawl has ended, and for now Jack Daniel's and its Louisville-based parent, Brown-Forman, are the winners.

But the issues it raised have consequences far beyond the borders of the Volunteer State, far beyond, too, the international jujitsu between Brown-Forman and Diageo, the whiskey titans that own Jack Daniels and George Dickel, the two leading Tennessee Whiskeys.

The booming demand for American whiskey is offering short-term incentives for distillers of all kinds to stretch the rules hone it comes how they make their liquor -- and still be able to call it by names that command loyalty from drinkers when they see it on the shelf. Bourbon Story traveled to Kentucky to talk to one of the wise men of bourbon, to get a sense of what was at stake in the Tennessee tussle and to ask how some of the same questions are being raised in the bourbon industry.  

But first a quick recap on what's happening in Tennessee. We brought the details to you last week. In short; Tennessee lawmakers were debating undoing rules they codified last year with a statute requiring that all Tennessee Whiskey be made like Jack Daniel's and George Dickel are now -- including the costly requirement that the whiskey be aged in brand-new charred oak barrels. Dickel's parents were pushing to change the rules, and Daniel's owner, Brown-Forman of Louisville, was trying to keep the rules in place. 

Now that the bill has been withdrawn in Nashville, the matter will rest for another year. (More coverage: here and here.) But the issues it raised -- namely, will strict rules stymie innovation among small distilleries? Do they protect the quality of the product? Does the boom in whiskey sales mean more and more makers will try to skirt the rules, even if they are in place? -- are all questions that resonate far beyond Tennessee.

To get a sense of what's at stake for the American whiskey movement, Bourbon Story Magazine visited historian Mike Veach, author of Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey: An American Heritage. Veach is bourbon historian at the FIlson Club in Louisville, one of the nation's oldest and most-respected private historical associations.  He told us plainly that he understands both sides had good arguments, and was especially sensitive to the position of the craft distillers who might want to experiment with the ways they want to make whiskey in Tennessee. 

But he had a stark warning, both for those makers and for some of the bourbon titans that are beginning to find ways around bourbon's rules, too.

"Brown-Forman did that to ensure that the quality of whiskey remains good, because they spent 60, 70 years building that reputation for Tennessee Whiskey," Veach said. "And it doesn't take but a few really bad products being put out there to tear down that reputation."

The growing demand for American whiskey, and especially whiskey that consumers will recognize and trust, means that distillers will find themselves under increasing pressure to monkey with the product to find news way to satisfy the demand, stretching the limits of the definition as they go. 

Stretch it too far, and the consumer will lose confidence in what a bottle that has "Kentucky Straight Bourbon" or "Tennessee Whiskey" has in it. Once that happens, the whiskey-makers will have squandered a relationship with consumers that has taken decades to forge. 

It's already happening, he said, noting Jim Beam's new-fangled Red Stag flavor-infused liquor and, slightly less worrisome to him, Angel's Envy bourbon finished in port barrels -- something he said should make it a potentially fine whiskey, but not a bourbon.  

"Same thing is happening to bourbon now. In my opinion, they never should have allowed the word bourbon go on a product like Red Stag (from Jim Beam) or Angel's Envy because once you add other flavors to it it's no longer bourbon," Veach said, noting that he is especially worried about Red Stag. "They are adding cherry juice to it, how is that different from making a blended whiskey? What they are doing is capitalizing on the same market that flavored vodkas have got. Yes, they are selling a lot of product on the short-run, but look at the reputation of vodka over past 10 years. It has gone down hill horribly. Basically they are saying now you have to have a flavored vodka to sell a good vodka. I don't want to see bourbon go down that route." 


Michael Lindenberger

Michael Lindenberger is a 2012-13 Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University, where he will spend a year developing a business model for blogs that looks beyond advertising and subscriptions for revenue. He is on leave from The Dallas Morning News, where he is a senior reporter writing about the nexus between the politics and policy of transportation on the local, state and national level. He is founder and co-author with Rodger Jones of the Dallas Transportation Blog. His print journalism was recognized in 2012 as the previous year's best example at The News of work that brings perspective, interpretation and analysis to bear on difficult topics. Also in 2012, the newspaper nominated his work for the Pulitzer Prize in local reporting. A 2006 graduate of the night program at Louis D. Brandeis School of Law at the University of Louisville, Michael also is a contributing national legal affairs writer for TIME.com and a former adjunct professor of media law at the University of North Texas Mayborn School of Journalism. His work has appeared in newspapers, wire reports and magazines around the world, including The New York Times, Reuters, The ABA Journal, Robb Report Magazine and others.