A bill was introduced into the Tennessee state legislature recently in which the devil is very much in the details.
The bill defines “Tennessee whisky,” and the devil has three letters. It’s the word “new.” The present bill is essentially a revision to a bill passed last year. Under last year's law, backed by Jack Daniel's, to be labeled as Tennessee whisky, white dog must be aged in “new, charred oak barrels.” The new bill, introduced at the prodding of George Dickel, requires only that white dog sit only in “charred oak barrels.” (Chuck Cowdery has posted both new and old bills here.)
The bill’s revision puts Jack at odds with George. That sounds pretty homespun and all Hatfield vs. McCoyish, but of course this is a heat-butting between two industry giants: Brown-Forman (Jack Daniels) vs. Diageo (George Dickel).
Diageo is in favor of allowing used oak barrels, and has recruited some craft distillers to its side. It claims, not very believably, that it’s interested in defending the rights of the little guy to choose what barrel it wants. (The legislator who sponsored the new bill said of Brown-Forman, “They are a big bully picking on all the little guys.” Very rich, given that Diageo posted $17 billion in sales last year, vs. $3 billion for Brown-Forman.)
But what’s really behind this?
My suggestion: Follow the barrels.
It’s quite hard to source new oak barrels today, for a variety of reasons that I won’t delve into here. But getting enough new barrels to age bourbon or Tennessee whiskey is becoming a problem.
And it’s especially becoming a problem for Diageo, which has to compete with other big-time distillers for a dwindling supply, along with a booming wine and craft spirits industry, all of whom are clamoring for increasingly scarce barrels. (One craft distiller I spoke with two weeks ago told me that Independent Stave Company, the nation’s largest cooperage, told him to call back in nine to twelve months, as they had no barrels at this time.)
Why doesn’t Brown-Forman have the same sourcing problem? Because they run their own cooperage in Louisville. And in two months, they’re slated to open a second cooperage in northern Alabama. This will do little to relieve the national shortage of barrels, as the new place is being built solely to supply Jack Daniels.
Diageo, foreseeing difficulties in getting enough new oak to meet the legal definition of “Tennessee Whisky,” is simply following a time-honored path: it’s working to change the law. If they don’t need to use new barrels, they can simply re-use the old ones.
One word, three letters, problem solved.
As I’ve written before, barrels matter. Industry people say that barrels provide anywhere between fifty and eighty percent of the taste of bourbon, which by law must be aged in new barrels. A once-used barrel doesn’t impart much in the way color (one hundred precent of the color of bourbon comes from the barrel), nor nearly as much flavor — the barrel has had much of its oaky goodness leached out during the first round of aging. It’s like using fresh herbs in a preparing a meal, or dried herbs that have been sitting in the back of your cupboard for three years. There’s a noted difference.
How does the proposed bill affect the consumer? By changing the law to eliminate word “new”, the state legislature essentially moots the definition of Tennessee whisky. Pick a bottle up in the store, and you might get full-bodied whisky aged in new barrels. Or you might get a thin whisky aged in thrice-used barrels and carmel-colored for consistency.
Those in favor of a more expansive definition of Tennessee whiskey grouse that, under last year's law, all Tennessee whiskey will end up tasting like Jack Daniels. That’s patent nonsense, of course. It’s the same as saying under federal law, all bourbon tastes the same. Yet, bourbon come in many varieties, with wide pricing differences that reflect that.
I’d like to see last year’s definition maintained, and the “new” kept in the “charred oak barrels.” As a consumer, that gives me a baseline of what to expect when I pick up a bottle labeled “Tennessee whisky.” Diageo is looking for an easy way out of the barrel squeeze.
Don’t let it.