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Friday 28 March 2014

The Great Tennessee Whiskey Debate: Jack Daniel's Old No.7 Review

I have a new favourite spot of an evening to sit and write. It is outside one of my new local pubs. Having recently moved house, I have had an opportunity to explore the array of local ale houses, on a mission to work out which shall eventually become my (second) home.

At present, my chosen haunt is a classic English freehouse: yards from Windsor Castle, it is steeped in history, has real ale on tap and, more importantly, has Lagavulin 16 on an optic (on an optic!!).

Handily, along with two open fires inside, it also sports a small group of outdoor tables, allowing for a large glass of whisky and a cigar as the spring evenings start to turn into long summer ones.

Sitting, as I am tonight, enjoying a glass of Laga and a Monte Open Junior, I am alone in the half-light of the evening, due to a slight cold snap which has taken hold in the south of England.

However, the pub inside is rammed and as I sit here, the sounds of the gathered masses indoors, muffled by the thick Edwardian walls of the establishment, bleeds into the open air. It is a sound of convivial jolliness, people enjoying themselves, relishing their conversations as they nestle their chosen drinks for the evening.

As the conversation flows, I can still make out parts of chitter-chatter, threads of debate as the words mix into the night air along with my cigar smoke.

For someone who is passionate about whisky, of all types, I'm always looking at the global impact of the spirit and the hot topics of conversation around it. Having recently visited the U.S. to discover more about bourbon production and American white oak casks, I was able to dip into the current hot topic of conversation which is bubbling away Stateside. Like someone popping into the bar to place their next order and accidentally getting caught up in the chat, being back in the UK is like being back outside the pub, listening to the debate from afar; slightly muffled by the walls of distance.

The conversation in question comprises two main parts and it all starts around a legislation passed in 2013 to define what Tennessee whiskey really is.

It was the Tennessee General Assembly which created a designation for whiskey produced in the State, drawing up a rule which says that Tennessee whiskey can be made only 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 (80 percent proof), or higher, by volume".

Now, those of you who know whiskey, will realise that this sounds a lot like the way the Tennessee stalwart Jack Daniel’s is made.

Jack Daniel’s – No.7 – Tennessee Whiskey – 40% abv

Nose: Sliced green apples dusted with cinnamon. Vanilla and light toasted oak notes. Fire-charred marshmallows and a hint of hazelnut. Not strong, which makes this more of the mixer that we know it as, rather than a sipping bourbon. 

Palate: At first a plesant palate of hazelnut and fig, with a touch of toasted almond; but it becomes slightly 'plastic' over time in the mouth. Once this subsides red apples and more fig appear backed with spices and air dried, salt cured ham.

Finish: Spices; vanilla and cinnamon. Medium in lenght.

Overall: Nothing wrong with this whiskey, it is just a little weak and a little over spiced. Want vanilla coke? Drink JD & Coke. It is a classic, afterall.

Essentially, what this ruling has done is to ring-fence a specific production method, one that happens to be the same one used by Jack Daniel’s, for any product which wants to call itself ‘Tennessee whiskey’; something I find rather strange because if you have a product which has a uniqueness in the process, why would you want other producers to have to conform to that standard? Celebrate what it is that makes your product different from others; give yourself a USP. Vodka producers are looking for one all the time. If your USP becomes legislation, it is no longer a USP. Look at Kim Jong Un’s hair cut. Distinctive. A brand. His brand. That is, until he gets all the other men in North Korea to have the samestyle... then it becomes just a hair cut; the same as everyone else’s.

This legislation has caused somewhat of an upset between some of the other producers in the State, particularly the Diageo-owned George Dickel, which calls itself ‘Tennessee whisky’ and who oppose the move to set in stone the process of production.

It has all started to get rather complicated and has seen much debate in the corridors of power in Tennessee, to the extent that just this week, following a debate, it has been decided to refer the matter to a Summer Study review.

If you really want to, you can watch all 15 mins or so of amendment 14041 being proposed in the General Assembly, here (about 2 hours in). You should, as I’m going to come back to it in a moment.

So, why should there be any concern to us, the humble whisky drinker, agnostic as to where our matured spirit comes from (be it Scotland, Ireland, any number of States in the USA, Japan, or indeed elsewhere), but just loving the spirit we call ‘whisky’?

Well, because there is one key rule in the production of American whiskey, be it bourbon from Kentucky, bourbon from elsewhere in America, or Tennessee whisk(e)y which is the use of new American oak barrels.

In the above link, the chaps in Tennessee are discussing what gives a product the right to be labelled ‘Tennessee whiskey’ and they hit on an interesting point, when Rep. Bill Sanderson, proposing the amendment says, referring to some Crown whiskey he has in his car:

“We can make quality Tennessee whiskey by using used barrels.”

Later in the debate, Rep. Curry Todd underlines the issue of wood, by saying:

“This is all about barrels.”

Now, let’s focus on Scotland for a moment: Scottish distillers, from small indie operations through to the major distillers who base their business on blended malts (where the millions of litres of new make grain spirit produced each year is often filled into First Fill, or 'used' American oak barrels) will be looking nervously over their shoulder to see if there is not only a change to the production methods of the spirit that can be called Tennessee whisky, but also the maturation process in America, too.

And a small change from the use of ‘new oak’ to simply ‘oak’, will have a huge effect in Scotland, Ireland, Japan and other whisky-making counties, as much as it will in Kentucky or Tennessee. With American oak casks becoming harder to source anyway, a change in legislation towards the use of barrels more than once could cause somewhat of a bottle-neck to those distilleries outside of American looking for used American white oak in which to mature their spirit.

As a result of this possible restriction in the supply of casks from the US to the rest of the whisky-producing world, the price of casks is sure to go only one way: up. And if the cost of goods to the producers increase, you’ll more than likely see this reflected in the price of the bottle on the shelf.

If I were a distiller, I’d be keeping a close eye on the proceedings in the American States’ Committee houses on this subject. And as a whisky drinker with a limited budget, I’d relish today’s prices because tomorrow’s may not be quite so pleasing.