There is some disturbing news coming out of Nashville. Tennessee lawmakers are currently discussing a bill to define “Tennesee Whisky” as a bourbon filtered through charcoal prior to ageing.
Charcoal filtration – also known as the Lincoln County Process – is a practice that is currently employed by most but not all distilleries in Tennessee. A noatable exception is Pritchard’s who take particular pride in the fact that they do not filter their whisky.
Pritchard’s actually managed to become exempted from the new legislation after their intervention, and we should note that the bill has not become a binding law yet, even though this is very likely to happen.
Some issues here are worth a closer look. Firstly this looks like a very successful piece of lobbyism from the Tennessean whisky big shots, as also alluded to by Pritchard’s on their website. Especially Jack Daniel’s have been very eager to set themselves apart from their Kentucky competitors by spreading the myth that their whisky is something different. But ironically, even under the new law-to-be, Tennessee whisky will still be a bourbon.
Mind you, this is not the first case of whisky lobbyism ever. The Scotch Whisky Asssociation for example is in a position to write the regulations for their product themselves. But there is a notable difference. While the Scotch whisky regulations are quite strict and rigorously enforced by the SWA, they do allow for a wide variety of whisky styles, from cheap mass market blends to high end single malts and whiskies with all kinds of weird cask finishes. And certainly this is one reason for the big success of Scotch whisky on global markets.
The Tennessee bill in contrary takes the already rather narrow definition of bourbon whisky and narrows it down even more by requiring charcoal filtration. And it is not about the filtration alone, because what the new bill means is that it will become illegal to label any other type of whisky as hailing from Tennessee. There would not be any Tennesse corn, rye or malt whisky, only charcoal-filtered bourbon.
This leaves you wondering if the legislators in Nashville actually grasp the scope of that they are going to do. Establishing a legal definition for Tennessee whisky itself is an understandable venture – even if Kentucky does not seem to care about not having their own category. But if putting their whisky industry into handcuffs and straitjackets would be good for the Tennesee economy overall is highy doubtful.
And then there is a legal aspect as well. I am not sure how US law works in this respect, but even if labelling requirements in one US state would be automatically valid in all other states too, for export it would need international agreements. Canada for example currently defines Tennessee Whisky as “a straight Bourbon whisky produced in the State of Tennessee”. On one hand the new Tennessee definition does not require it to be over two years old, but on the other hand filtration is not required in Canada. If Canadian lawmakers should decide to stick to their own definition, there would be a situation where unfiltered bourbon from Tennessee could be sold as “Tennessee Whisky” in Canada but not in the United States.