Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Way I Tennes-See It

Okay, okay. I'm sure you all think I'm late to the game. Yes, I know of the Tennessee whiskey debate. To be truthful, I've been reticent to write about it. Let's be honest...if you're a whiskey nerd, or a whiskey connoisseur, or...well, hell...even know about whiskey, you've probably heard a lot about it by now. Last Friday, Brown-Forman fired a warning shot in the form of a press release loftily entitled "Jack Daniel Distillery: Tennessee Whiskey “Under Attack” in General Assembly". Frankly, I kinda considered this a bit of media grandstanding to begin with, mainly because of what they reference as far as bills. According to the Tennessee government HB2330 and SB2441 go exactly as follows:

to amend Tennessee Code Annotated, Title 57, relative to alcoholic beverages.


SECTION 1. Tennessee Code Annotated, Section 57-1-201(b)(1)(A), is amended by
adding the following language at the end of the first sentence of the subdivision:
However, the commission shall not impose a fine on a license or permit holder
for the same type of violation more than three (3) times in a two-year period. The
commission shall be required to suspend or revoke the license or permit instead of imposing a fine after the third violation within the two-year period.

SECTION 2. This act shall take effect upon becoming a law, the public welfare requiring it.

Personally, I don't see anything wrong with this. This is a good law. This is a MUCH stronger incentive to keep shady people from doing shady things to liquids people put in their bodies. I'm happy with that. But when the Diageo statements started flying...I got curious. An executive vice president saying, and I quote, "We support efforts to protect the best interest of all large and small Tennessee whiskey distillers."

Sorry, but something strikes me wrong here.

And then, much to the chagrin of every whisk(e)y nerd's Facebook timelines, the ideas and theories went a-flailin'. Prichards in Tennessee seems pretty happy with Diageo's supposed decision to fight the good fight, saying "If I wanted my whiskey to taste like Jack Daniels, I'd make Jack Daniels." Fair point. And to be honest, I can kind of see where he's coming from. If you come from a state that is known for proudly proclaiming that it is a state-made product on the label, I'd want to do it too. Enforcing a costly and, in my opinion, inane process on small manufacturers (Lincoln County Process) just to label it AS a Tennessee whiskey? That's not exactly fair. But Diageo is ALREADY doing it with their George Dickel whiskey...so why would they care? According to Fred Minnick's digging, it's a two-pronged attack. According to interviews he conducted with Brown-Forman, it seems they think that they are undermining Jack Daniels, as well as the law, in order to change the wording of the law from "aged in NEW charred oak barrels in Tennessee" to just "aged in charred oak barrels". Why? Because the barrel crop (well...the oak crop) this year suffered from heavy rains and terrible logging conditions. Also, they could use their rickhouses at the Stitzel-Weller distillery in Kentucky.

And this got me thinking.

Diageo is smart. If they can streamline, they will streamline. They did it with scotch. When demand for their single malts started to overcome what their individual distilleries could do...they built another one. A giant one. That can produce ALL the spirit types it needs. They opened Roseisle Distillery in 2010 and, in theory, they should have started using spirit from it in their blends two years ago. And then there's the matter, as of late, of the Bulleit bourbon and rye providence. As of late, Diageo have been VERY tight-lipped about where Bulleit has been made. Chuck Cowdery's two investigations yielded that it used to be Four Roses. Or maybe MGP. And now they're not talking at all. In fact, there's a "Bulleit Distilling Company" now, which is a PO Box address and a hotline to a Bulleit Customer Care Line. And have you noticed how much money they're dumping into Stitzel-Weller? $2 million alone on a Stiztel-Weller Visitor's Center ? Why, it's almost like they're going to move in...

What if...and I am postulating grandly here...what if they are? What if Diageo is positioning to reclassify the "Tennessee Whiskey" law into a "Tennessee-style Whiskey" law? What if Stitzel-Weller is to become Diageo's American whiskey Roseisle? By slowly creeping back on revealing who makes Bulleit, they could outsource the manufacture of it to a spirit plant and age it at Stitzel-Weller, all the while preparing Stitzel-Weller to fire up again. By reclassifying Tennessee Whiskey to a Tennesee-style Whiskey, they could shutter George Dickel and just make it at Stitzel-Weller. That's all of their American whiskies bundled up in one neat little distillery.

THAT is what I think the big picture is. Diageo wants one distillery that it can depend on for everything it needs in terms of American whiskey. A standard and reliable place for Bulleit whiskey. A place to manufacture and age a Tennessee style whiskey. The ability to sell off a distillery. Personally, I think that's what they're doing right now. Call it a hunch but this gumshoe's got a gut feeling. And, hopefully, I'll be wrong. Dickel will continue to stay open either under Diageo or other stewardship, Tennessee whiskey law won't be tampered with, and everyone can walk away happy.

I hope.

1 comment:

  1. But what about the asbestos abatement at S-W? What about the fact that a whole lot of people would know if they were building a Roseisle at S-W, such as the county planning commission, and Vendome (or whoever else would be building the stills). Not to mention you could see the construction, right?