Ricochet is the best place on the internet to discuss the issues of the day, either through commenting on posts or writing your own for our active and dynamic community in a fully moderated environment. In addition, the Ricochet Audio Network offers over 50 original podcasts with new episodes released every day.
I’d like to tell you that the rollout of Ricochet 2.0 was sponsored by Jack Daniel’s, but that would imply that they were putting money into my pocket instead of the other way around. Yes, like any good writer, when the yoke becomes heavy I often pour my therapy into a tumbler (to say nothing of my writerly support for the coffee and tobacco industries — I’m a one-man farm bill!). I may have doubled the GDP of Lynchburg this week.
Being partial to whiskey — and my intermittent home state of Tennessee — Jack Daniel’s is less a choice and more a matter of muscle memory. It’s woven into the very fabric of the Volunteer State.
Alas, the folks who make it seem to think that their history and their market dominance is insufficient to secure pride of place. What do they want? Well, shouldn’t it be obvious? Gubmint!
A year-long 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 like 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, or higher, by volume.
Sorry, I just have to break in here. “Some illegal” is an olympian euphemism. I’ve been in those hills. The moonshine is practically the medium of exchange. Anyway, back to your regularly scheduled programming:
On Tuesday, 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, and whether a producer has to use pricey new oak barrels every year. Current law requires those new barrels be used.
The bill up for debate, proposed by state Rep. Bill Sanderson (R), would allow whiskey makers to age their products in reused barrels, a process far less expensive than one that requires buying new barrels of expensive American oak year after year. 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.
Now, I’m a Jack Daniel’s apologist par excellence — being elevated to the rank of Tennessee Squire is on my bucket list, though this post will probably forever render that goal out of reach —but the opponents are right.
Personally, I don’t see any reason for “standards of identity” to be a government concern. That’s not basic disclosure of the kind usually handled through state regulation — it’s the sort of brand differentiation that is the rightful purview of trade associations, not lawmakers. I’d rather not have politicians telling people who make whiskey in Tennessee that they can’t call it “Tennessee whiskey.”
The barrels used in this process are expensive; doubly so given recent disruptions to the oak supply. Jack Daniel’s not only has market power that insulates it from these costs, it also has vertical integration — it owns its own cooperage in Louisville. The little guys — not so much.
That’s the whole idea: you want to play the Jack Daniel’s game, you’ll pay Jack Daniel’s prices. Way to harsh everybody’s buzz, JD.
Of course, the consequences here are small by the standards of regulatory capture. The other boozemakers can still release their product, just not with the “Tennessee Whiskey” appellation. In the end, this market will still be free enough that victors will be crowned at the intersection of price and quality. Some may look at that and say, “why bother getting worked up about in the first place?” I look at it and say, “Why bother getting government involved in it in the first place?”
It pains me to see my liquid religion brushing up against my political convictions. Love, however, is not a matter of ignoring faults — it’s a matter of maintaining your affection despite them.
I’ll have another.