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Jeff Arnett, the master distiller at the Jack Daniel Distillery in Lynchburg, Tenn., drills a hole in a barrel of whiskey in one of the aging houses at the distillery, May 20, 2009.
Jeff Arnett, the master distiller at the Jack Daniel Distillery in Lynchburg, Tenn., drills a hole in a barrel of whiskey in one of the aging houses at the distillery, May 20, 2009. Mark Humphrey—AP

Tennessee Won't Redefine Whiskey This Year

Mar 25, 2014

An effort to rewrite a Tennessee law that defines the state's whiskey based largely off Jack Daniel's decades-old processes failed in the state senate Tuesday, despite being championed by a rival spirits producer.

Diageo, a British multinational beverage company that owns George Dickel Tennessee whiskey, pushed legislators to revisit the law, which passed last year at the urging of Jack Daniel's, by far the biggest whiskey producer in the state. The 2013 law mandates that any spirit called Tennessee Whiskey must be stored in new charred oak barrels and filtered through charcoal, as Jack Daniel's is. Diageo argued that the guidelines are too restrictive and hinder experimentation, giving Jack Daniel's—owned by Louisville, Ky.-based Brown-Forman—an unfair advantage.

Loosening the restrictions appeared to have momentum, but on Tuesday, Republican State Sen. Mark Green moved the bill to a summer study committee, killing its chances of passing this year.

"I think it's time we stop debating about making good whiskey and get back to making good whiskey," says Brown-Forman Senior Vice President Jim O'Malley, adding that he believes the reason the bill died in committee is because it didn't have the support of a majority of craft distillers. Tennessee Whiskey was one of the last segments of the spirits market that didn't have a codified definition similar to bourbon or cognac, and O'Malley says the law benefits all Tennessee distillers because it ensures a high-quality product.

Diageo, however, viewed the move to the study committee as a small win.

"The Tennessee legislature has done the right thing and now, rather than having one company dictate for everyone, we can do this the right way and come together in an open forum to discuss how to create the best standards for Tennessee Whiskey," Guy Smith, executive vice president of Diageo, said in a statement.

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