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March 31, 2014

Whiskey debate divides distillers

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 such as 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.

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 that new barrels be used. The bill up for debate, proposed by state Rep. Bill Sanderson, would allow whiskey makers to ferment 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.

"Any place that produces a product, in this case we're talking about distilled spirits, that has a particular premium to it or particular ways you will make it, has standards to entry," said Phil Lynch, a spokesman for Brown-Forman, the maker of Jack Daniel's, Tennessee's largest whiskey producer. "The standards of identity for Tennessee whiskey are the same that they've been, [the legislature had] just never codified them."

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