By Richard Thomas
The most speculated upon aspect of Diageo’s attempt to gut Brown-Forman’s 2013 Tennessee whiskey law is the provision that would allow Tennessee whiskey to be made with used barrels. Rather than seek to repeal the provision of the law that enshrines the Lincoln County Process, or drip-filtration through maplewood charcoal, Diageo has taken the tack of trying to eliminate the bedrock American practice of aging in new oak from the definition of Tennessee whiskey.
The 1964 Federal statute defining much of what American whiskey is does not exclude the use of used barrels in whiskey-making, but it defines all major and most minor types of American whiskey with the new oak barrel stipulation. Depending on different factors and the expert you consult, barrel aging determines between 40 and 70% of how a whiskey will ultimately taste. The choice of wood used is therefore a major factor, and the use of new oak a core characteristic of the American style.
Since the classic standard bearers of Tennessee whiskey, Brown-Forman’s Jack Daniel’s and Diageo’s George Dickel, use both new oak and the Lincoln County Process, Diageo’s proposed change begs the question of just what a used barrel Tennessee whiskey might look like. The answer is something like Early Times, the Brown-Forman whiskey brand.
Early Times is labeled as a “Kentucky whisky” instead of a “bourbon whiskey” precisely because of the used barrel content. Exactly what Early Times is made of these days is not clear, because while some reputable sources say Early Times is part bourbon and part used barrel whiskey, the company itself says “Early Times Kentucky Whisky is distilled, aged a minimum of three years and barreled in used oak barrels.” Early Times is generally known as a subpar, cheap product in whiskey circles, with a price point of $12 or $13 per fifth.
Assuming Diageo sees its own whiskey law pass the Tennessee statehouse, and that it survives the inevitable legal and legislative counter-attack by Brown-Forman, would they actually use their new law to produce a super-cheap, used barrel whiskey? Perhaps a bastardized George Dickel No. 4? Maybe, but only over the fierce protests of a lot of fine people down in Cascade Hollow, Tennessee.