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A Bill To Distill Simmers In Tennessee

What legally makes whiskey taste like Tennessee?
Piotr Wawryniuk
What legally makes whiskey taste like Tennessee?

Would Tennessee whiskey by any other name taste as sweet?

A debate in Tennessee simmers over a legal definition of what makes Tennessee whiskey "Tennessee."

The state legislature passed a bill last year saying whiskey can be labeled "Tennessee" only if it's made in the state from a mash that's 51-percent corn, trickles through maple charcoal, and is aged in new, charred oak barrels.

There's some precedent in the spirits world. A sparkling wine is champagne only if it's from the Champagne region of France, Scotch whisky is from Scotland, and tequila from blue agave grown in Mexico.

The Brown-Forman Corporation, which makes Jack Daniel's Tennessee Whiskey in Lynchburg, likes the law. They credit their founder, Mr. Daniel, with steeping his mash in maple charcoal to "mellow" the drink. Jack Daniel's sells about 90 percent of the Tennessee whiskey in the world, and Jeff Arnett, their master distiller, has said, "We shouldn't do anything that would make Tennessee whiskey an inferior product."

But Diageo PLC — a British company, wouldn't you know, that owns Smirnoff Vodka and Johnnie Walker scotch — bought the George Dickel distillery, which has been making what they consider equally Tennessee whiskey since 1870.

A Diageo spokesperson says, "We're in favor of flexibility that lets all distillers, large and small, make Tennessee whiskey the way their family recipes tell them."

There is a history of Tennessee families making whiskey, licensed or not, that goes back to moonshining days. And there are small-craft distillers today — artisanal moonshiners, if you please — who make whiskey "according to our own methods with our own ingredients of choice and our own techniques," as Phil Prichard of Prichard's Distillery says. They believe they're as Tennessee as Mr. Daniel.

So some representatives now have what sounds like lawmaker's remorse for the bill. Rep. Ryan Haynes, who chairs the state government committee, now says, "It's wrong for the government to codify recipes."

This week, they moved the matter to summer study. Sounds like a nice summer. Study Tennessee whiskey on a porch, at twilight, over Lookout Mountain, a small glass in hand — and watch the sheriff chase those artisanal moonshiners.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.