There's a big battle brewing in the General Assembly over whiskey. So what makes a whiskey Tennessee whiskey?
Generally speaking, its whiskey distilled in Tennessee and filtered through charcoal before going into oak barrels for aging. But it gets more complicated. Hence the current fight in the legislature.
State law is pretty specific about what gets the Tennessee whiskey label. For one, the oak barrels must be new. The whiskey also must be made from a grain mixture that is at least 51 percent corn.
Other measures include a requirement that the whiskey gets distilled to no more than 80 proof, or 40 percent alcohol by volume.
The legislation was passed last year and promoted by Jack Daniel Distillery. Other types of whiskey can be produced here but can't be marketed as Tennessee whiskey. Now there are efforts to change the law.
Does that charcoal make a difference?
Tennessee whiskey makers say that filtering the liquid through sugar maple charcoal removes impurities. It's known as the Lincoln County process, named for the county where Jack Daniel Distillery was located before county lines changed.
Jack Daniel Distillery is in Lynchburg, which is now in Moore County.
But not everyone agrees, of course. "If I wanted my whiskey to taste like Jack Daniel's, I'd make it like Jack Daniel's," Phil Prichard, owner and master distiller of Prichard's Distillery, said last week.
Who are the big players making Tennessee whiskey?
Jack Daniel Distillery, of course. But there's also George Dickel in Tullahoma, Collier and McKeel here in Nashville and Benjamin Prichard's in Kelso. But there also is a growing number of small craft distilleries popping up across the state.
But wait, isn't George Dickel the company pushing the changes in state law to allow the use of new oak barrels?
Yup. London-based Diageo owns George Dickel and is pushing the changes. The company is the world's largest producer of spirits and has two of the top five whiskey brands, according to a 2013 report by the Demeter Group Investment Bank. Jack Daniel's is No. 1.
Spirits Journal blogger David Driscoll last year spoke with Dickel brand ambassador Doug Kragel. Kragel said that through various mergers, the company has been involved with Dickel is some form since the distillery relaunched in 1959.
The distillery stopped operations in 1911 when Tennessee introduced statewide prohibition. When federal prohibition ended in 1933, the distillery did not initially restart operations.
What are the stakes here?
High. That's the Simple Answer. Nationally, distilled spirits are a $19.9 billion industry. And it's growing at the expense of beer, according to the Demeter Group Investment Bank.