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Jeff Arnett, a distiller at the Jack Daniel Distillery in Lynchburg, Tenn., tested the aroma of whiskey in 2009. Jack Daniel’s is fighting efforts to change the legal definition of Tennessee whiskey.

Mark Humphrey • Associated Press,

Tennessee fights over whiskey

  • Article by: Reid Wilson
  • Washington Post
  • March 20, 2014 - 7:26 PM

A yearlong fight among state legislators over the definition of true Tennessee whiskey is spilling over to the international distilled spirits business, dividing both Tennessee’s powerful whiskey interests and multinational corporations battling for billions of dollars in global market share.

For more than a century, distillers around Tennessee have produced whiskey — some legal, some illegal — using a variety of base products such as corn, barley or rye, and a number of different techniques. But under a new law passed by the legislature last year, only one process would lead to genuine Tennessee whiskey: a drink made of fermented mash comprised of at least 51 percent corn, aged in new barrels of charred oak, filtered through charcoal and bottled at 40 percent alcohol.

This week, two Tennessee legislative committees voted to delay consideration of a new proposal that would roll back some of those requirements. The disagreement centers on the process by which Tennessee whiskey is distilled.

Current law requires that new barrels be used. The bill up for debate would allow whiskey makers to ferment their products in reused barrels, which is far less expensive.

Supporters of the 2013 law said it was necessary to codify what the industry calls standards of identity, a concrete definition of what makes Tennessee whiskey special — and different from other, lower-quality spirits. But opponents say the law effectively codifies Jack Daniel’s formula.

“Any place that produces a product, in this case we’re talking about distilled spirits, that has a particular premium to it … has standards to entry,” said Phil Lynch of Brown-Forman, which makes Jack Daniel’s.

But others who want the standards imposed by the Tennessee legislature rolled back see another motive behind the 2013 law: The process codified in state law sounds just like the recipe used by Brown-Forman.

“When you take away any of my rights, I’m going to fight you tooth and nail on it,” said Phil Pritchard, owner of Pritchard’s Distillery in Kelso, Tenn. “Last year, a lot of those rights got taken away from me through a process that was … for the benefit of Jack Daniel’s.”

© 2014 Star Tribune