Diageo takes on Jack Daniel’s in row over how whiskey can be made; Diageo wants distilleries to be allowed to make Tennessee whiskey in reusable barrels, much to the horror of Jack Daniel’s maker Brown-Forman

Diageo takes on Jack Daniel’s in row over how whiskey can be made

Diageo wants distilleries to be allowed to make Tennessee whiskey in reusable barrels, much to the horror of Jack Daniel’s maker Brown-Forman

Jack Daniel’s stores its whiskey in new barrels made at a Brown-Forman plant Photo: Alamy

By Agencies

7:53PM GMT 17 Mar 2014

If it isn’t fermented in Tennessee from of at least 51pc 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 that resembles almost to the letter the process used to make Jack Daniel’s, the world’s best-known Tennessee whiskey.

Now state lawmakers are considering dialing back some of those requirements that they say make it too difficult for craft distilleries to market their spirits as Tennessee whiskey, a distinctive and popular draw in the booming American liquor business.

But the people behind Jack Daniel’s see the hand of a bigger competitor at work – Diageo, the British conglomerate that owns George Dickel, another Tennessee whiskey made about 15 miles up the road.

“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, Tennessee. “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.”

Republican state representative Bill Sanderson emphasised that his bill wouldn’t do away with last year’s law enacted largely on the behest of Jack Daniel’s corporate parent, Louisville, Kentucky-based Brown-Forman. The principal change would be to allow Tennessee whiskey makers to reuse barrels, which he said would present considerable savings over new ones that can cost $600 each.

“There are a lot of ways to make high-quality whiskey, even if it’s not necessarily the way Jack Daniel’s does it,” Mr Sanderson said. “What gives them the right to call theirs Tennessee whiskey, and not others?”

Mr Sanderson acknowledged that he introduced the measure at Diageo’s urging, but said it would also help micro distilleries opening across the state. Diageo picked up on the same theme.

“This isn’t about Diageo, as all of our Tennessee whiskey is made with new oak,” said Diageo executive vice-president Guy L Smith IV. “This is about Brown-Forman trying to stifle competition and the entrepreneurial spirit of micro distillers.

“We are not sure what they are afraid of, as we feel new innovative products from a new breed of distillers is healthy for the entire industry,” he said.

The standards and special branding of Tennessee whiskey are an outgrowth of the special designation granted long ago to bourbon. Half a century ago, Congress declared bourbon a distinctive product of the US. By law, bourbon must be made of a grain mix of at least 51pc corn, distilled at less than 160 proof, have no additives except water to reduce the proof and be aged in new, charred white oak barrels.

Spirits that don’t follow those guidelines can’t be sold as bourbon. One example is Brown-Forman’s own Early Times, which is marketed as a “Kentucky whisky” because it is made in reused barrels.

Billy Kaufman, the president Short Mountain Distillery in Woodbury, Tennessee, said it is more difficult to distinguish spirits not meeting the Tennessee standard.

“If I made whiskey in Tennessee in a used barrel, what would it be called then?” he said. “Whiskey, made in Tennessee?”

David McMahan, a lobbyist representing Dickel and Popcorn Sutton Distilling, said the law passed last year would require all Tennessee whiskies to taste like Jack Daniel’s.

“It’s not unlike if the beer guys 25 years ago had said all American beer has to be made like Budweiser,” McMahan said. “You never would have a Sam Adams or a Yazoo or any of those guys.”

But Tennessee craft distillers are divided about the state law. Charles Nelson, the chief executive of Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery in Nashville, said he supports tighter regulation.

“Holding ourselves to a higher standard will ultimately be better for all the people in the category,” he said. “If we lower the standards, it could lead to more products and brands that could lower the reputation of Tennessee whiskey.”

Whiskey is clear when it goes into the barrel. It’s during the aging process that the whiskey acquires colour and flavours. Jack Daniel’s Arnett said other distillers reusing barrels might resort to using artificial colourings and flavourings that wouldn’t match the quality of the whiskey stored in new barrels.

“We’ve been making whiskey a long time, and we know that would not uphold the quality that people expect from Tennessee whiskey,” he said. “So we wouldn’t dare consider doing it, even though it would save us millions of dollars every year.”

Jack Daniel’s stores its whiskey in new barrels made at a Brown-Forman plant.

Mr Sanderson argues that the flavour and colour of the whiskey is determined more by the charring of the inside of the barrels, which he said is a process that can be repeated. Consumers would ultimately decide whether the end product matches up.

“If they’re making an inferior product, the market will decide,” he said.

 

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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