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The Trials and Tribulations of Tennessee Whiskey

The phrase “Tennessee whiskey” might sound as simple to understand as it is to drink: whiskey from Tennessee. But in reality, it is a loaded term, and one that has been fought over in court for years.

Although notoriously relied upon to lighten the load of daily life, alcohol is rarely without its fair share of drama. Often, the business of booze itself resembles a soap opera, with players big and small constantly embroiled in bickering and legal sparring.

Observe the case of a certain brown spirit in the Volunteer State as a prime example. To its fans, the phrase "Tennessee whiskey" is as simple to understand as it is to drink: whiskey from Tennessee. But in reality, it is a loaded term, one that has been fought over in court—lobbied for and against, legislated at great expense in the state capital, and historically debated among distillers for more than a century. Its legal distinction might seem irrelevant compared to what it actually tastes like in the glass, but for the very serious folks making the stuff, labels are worth fighting for.

The bulk of contention surrounding Tennessee whiskey involves a curious filtration method known as the "Lincoln County process." The technique mellows the whiskey— straight off the still—through layers of charcoal, prior to its several-year slumber in oak barrels. It's a practice unique to this part of the world, historically associated with one brand, in particular, which also happens to be the largest whiskey producer on the planet. Jack Daniel's has filtered its whiskey through stacks of charred sugar maple for well over a hundred years. Today, millions of gallons of liquid makes it way down those piles of charcoal, drip by drip, every year. In the last fiscal year alone, Jack Daniels sold 12.3 million cases of its whiskey. Thanks to that, Brown-Forman topped $1 billion in annual sales earlier this year, making it the most sizable liquor manufacturer in the state.

Near the beginning of 2013, the company lobbied the Tennessee government for passage of House Bill 1084, which was signed into law by the governor that May. It codified the labeling of Tennessee whiskey as a state-produced spirit, composed of a minimum of 51 percent corn, aged in unused barrels of American oak (the exact guidelines federally required of bourbon), and—most notably—utilizing charcoal filtration. The largest whiskey producer in the world successfully secured a mandate requiring all Tennessee distillers to comply with a process that they conveniently already used, and which many newer producers did not.

Phil Prichard, for one, wasn't having any part of it. A proud—and vocal—elder statesman of spirits, Prichard is at once jovial and bullshit-free. In 1997, he founded Benjamin Prichard's Tennessee Whiskey, the first new distillery in the state since Prohibition. Ironically, unlike Jack Daniel's, his facility is actually located in Lincoln County, yet he steadfastly resisted his region's eponymous process since day one. "It filters out flavor," contends Prichard. "It deprives the barrel [of the ability] to work its full 'magic' on that wonderful white whiskey, necessary to make a full-bodied [end product]."

Jeff Arnett, master distiller of Jack Daniel's, respectfully disagrees. "Charcoal kind of works like a sponge," he explains. "It slightly neutralizes pH, it removes fatty acids, it absorbs certain things into itself; it makes for a more premium spirit."

Considering his naturally affable and effortlessly academic manner, it's difficult to construe Arnett's allegiance to the Lincoln County process as a matter of corporatism over craftsmanship. "We are not trying to monopolize a category of spirit here, we are trying to share it," promises Arnett. "It's never anti-competition, or anti-business. It's to protect heritage."

To Prichard, the only heritage Jack was trying to protect was its own—unscrupulously, at that. "I first heard about the bill in 2013, quite by accident," he recalls. "There was no information in any of the local press nor other media." (This doesn't exactly jibe with a direct claim from Arnett: "I contacted everyone that I could get a phone number for. I didn't want people to hear from a newspaper or a politician, I wanted them to hear directly from us.") Regardless of how it was communicated, Prichard advanced swift countermeasures. "Upon finding out, I hired an attorney who described my protests to the bill as a 'David and Goliath' story," he remembers. "I reminded him who won that event!"

Eventually Prichard did prevail: The legislature granted him specific exemption from House Bill 1084. As such, he makes the only officially labeled, non-charcoal filtered Tennessee whiskey on the market. Yet his victory isn't necessarily the David and Goliath story he so proudly evokes. At the time of 1084, many of the state's up-and-coming craft producers actually sided with Jack.

One such producer carries a significant historical connection to Tennessee whiskey. "My great-great-great grandfather could be credited with creating the category of Tennessee whiskey," says Charlie Nelson. He and his brother Andy resurrected the old family business in 2009, launching Nelson's Green Brier Distillery just outside of downtown Nashville.

"The vast majority of the small guys were in favor of the legislation," notes Nelson. "It makes it easier for them to distinguish themselves and to compete against other products that aren't Tennessee whiskey, and to build consumer confidence."

When the bill came before the state legislature, Nelson testified in favor of its implementation. He had collected records from his family archives, including newspaper clippings from the late 19th century, proving that the Lincoln County process enjoyed a widespread association with Tennessee whiskey production, far broader than just Jack Daniel's. Rather than viewing them as a Goliath, Nelson sees Jack Daniel's as overwhelmingly supportive of industry upstarts. "They've been the big friendly giant."

If Prichard is to be believed, at least some of this support is by means of payola. He suggests that "certain distillers" were assured untold paybacks by Jack Daniel's in exchange for their endorsement of the law, an allegation he feels should be further investigated. "One thing I am certain of," he writes by email, "is Arnett's offer to provide us 'free charcoal' and the necessary equipment [for filtration], if we would support the Bill."

Reached by email, Arnett denies Prichard's suggestion that distillers were coaxed into backing the bill. "That's not true. In fact, the vast majority of craft distillers in Tennessee supported the legislation because they know that the term 'Tennessee whiskey' means quality whiskey to consumers around the world and they didn't—and don't—want to do anything to harm the reputation of the whiskey we're making in our state."

Charlie Nelson is quick to point out that the wording of the law makes little mention of how Lincoln County should even be implemented. It was, after all, written by lawmakers, not distillers. Technically, he surmises, you could throw a few charcoal chips into a vat of new-make (i.e., unaged and undiluted) whiskey, and clear the legal threshold. This deflects any attacks on the process being cost-prohibitive, but at the same time it also diminishes the claim for it having much to do with quality assurance.

Michael Ballard questions the very constitutionality of the law. Another outspoken player in this melodrama, the South Dakota biker-bar entrepreneur with a southern drawl as lengthy as his blonde dreads recently returned to his hometown of Trimble, Tennessee to start Full Throttle Distillery. "If it was challenged in a federal court, it would get throwed [sic] out," Ballard tells me by phone. His source? Judge Andrew Napolitano, legal analyst for Fox News.

In light of all of this, Arnett's philosophy is unwavering, "People that are smart realize that Tennessee has done our folks a favor," he says. "We have a great whiskey heritage that speaks to a certain process. It was worth writing into law."

In a perfect world, the only tale that should be told is the taste of the liquid when it touches your tongue. Prichard crafts a perfectly mellowed Tennessee whiskey, absent of any charcoal. Jack mellows its Old No. 7 through no less than ten feet of sugar maple charcoal. It is far and away the world's most widely consumed whiskey, so clearly the company is doing something right. For all its advocacy on behalf of the category, Green Brier has yet to bottle a whiskey distilled in Tennessee. Until it does, its critically acclaimed Belle Meade is sourced from Indiana. It's sensational.

But in an increasingly divisive, bitterly partisan world, not even the booze we drink is free of political spin. For all the recent rancor over Tennessee whiskey labeling—including several unsuccessful legal challenges— House Bill 1084 appears safe, for now. Most players in the industry consider the matter settled (Prichard notwithstanding). Yet it hardly feels like a fully healed wound. Many local producers were reluctant to go on record with their personal opinions, out of fear of unraveling an uneasy truce.

The persistence of this drama is a function of the larger themes it echoes, ones that never grow old: perception vs. reality, resistance vs. assimilation, style vs. substance, and yes, maybe even David vs. Goliath. So long as books are judged by their cover, whiskies will be judged by the stories on their label. Some will fight for truth, others for a great story. The battle wages on.