published Tuesday, March 18th, 2014

Lawmakers to hear debate over Tennessee whiskey

  • photo
    In this May 24, 2005, photo, Bottles of Jack Daniel's Tennessee Whiskey are on display at a Kansas City, Mo. liquor. If it isn't fermented in Tennessee from mash of at least 51 percent corn, aged in new charred oak barrels, filtered through maple charcoal and bottled at a minimum of 80 proof, it isn't Tennessee whiskey. So says a year-old law here that resembles almost to the letter the process used to make Jack Daniel's. Now lawmakers are looking at amending that law so that some of the craft distillers that have sprung up in recent years can label their products Tennessee whiskey, a distinctive and popular draw in the booming American liquor business. The people behind Jack Daniel's see the hand of a bigger rival at work, however, the foreign-owned conglomerate that makes George Dickel, another famed Tennessee brand.
    Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The owner of the Full Throttle moonshine distillery wants to add Tennessee whiskey to his product list. But Michael Ballard doesn't want to have to make his spirits in the style of Jack Daniel's, the world's most famous Tennessee whiskey.

Ballard, star of the cable reality show "Full Throttle Saloon," says a state law enacted last year prevents him from exploring his own style of Tennessee whiskey, and he is urging lawmakers to dial back some of the new regulations.

"We don't want to make our whiskey like Jack Daniel's makes their whiskey," said Ballard, who built his distillery in his home town of Trimble in rural northwestern Tennessee. "Why put us all in one box together?"

Ballard and Jesse James Dupree, who is building a distillery next to the Full Throttle facility, plan to attend legislative hearings Tuesday on scaling back the Tennessee whiskey rules. They include proposals to do away with provisions requiring charcoal filtering and storing whiskey only in new oak barrels.

Jack Daniel's, owned by Louisville, Ky.-based Brown-Foreman Corp., was behind a 2013 law that laid out requirements for spirits to be labeled Tennessee whiskey. The company is resisting efforts to do away with the rules on filtering and oak barrels, arguing that the changes would result in inferior products and artificial coloring and flavoring.

"It's really more to weaken a title on a label that we've worked very hard for," said Jeff Arnett, the master distiller at the Jack Daniel's distillery in Lynchburg, Tenn. "As a state, I don't think Tennessee should be bashful about being protective of Tennessee whiskey over say bourbon or scotch or any of the other products that we compete with."

Jack Daniel's sold 11.5 million cases of its Black Label last year, a 5 percent increase from 2012. Dickel, the second-largest Tennessee whiskey producer, sold 130,000 cases in 2013.

Dickel is owned by the British conglomerate Diageo PLC, which is supporting the bill to unwind last year's law.

Ballard said he has 18 full-time employees and is finishing a barrel house with a capacity to store 4,000 whiskey barrels.

"We've got millions of dollars invested in this town based on the fact that we'd be able to use the words Tennessee whiskey on our product," Ballard said.

His business partner Dupree is also lead singer of the hard rock band Jackyl.

Dupree said he's disappointed that Jack Daniel's would try to create high barriers to entry.

"We grew up loving Jack Daniel's, we've been big fans and they've been an inspiration," Dupree said. "But this is not really about the barrels, this is about them trying to maintain a monopoly."

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