SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Would Tennessee whiskey by any other name taste as sweet? A debate in Tennessee is on simmer over a bill to distill - sorry, that was irresistible - a legal definition of what makes Tennessee whiskey Tennessee. The state legislature passed a bill last year saying whiskey can be labeled Tennessee only if it's made in the state from a mash that's 51 percent corn, trickles through maple charcoal, and is aged in new, charred oak barrels.
Now, there's some precedent in the spirits world. Sparkling wine is champagne only if it's from the Champagne region of France; Scotch whisky is from Scotland, and tequila from blue agave grown in Mexico. The Brown-Forman Corporation, which makes Jack Daniel's Tennessee Whiskey in Lynchburg, likes the law. They credit their founder, Mr. Daniel, with steeping his mash in maple charcoal to mellow the drink. Jack Daniel's sells about 90 percent of the Tennessee whiskey in the world, and Jeff Arnett, their master distiller, has said we shouldn't do anything that would make Tennessee Whiskey an inferior product.
But Diageo PLC - British company, wouldn't you know, that owns Smirnoff Vodka and Johnnie Walker Scotch - bought the George Dickel distillery, which has been making what they consider equally Tennessee whiskey since 1870. A Diageo spokesperson says we're in favor of flexibility that lets all distillers, large and small, make Tennessee whiskey the way their family recipes tell them.
Now, there is a history of Tennessee families making whiskey, licensed or not, that goes back to moonshining days, and there are small craft-distillers today - artisanal moonshiners, if you please - who make whiskey, as Phil Prichard of Prichard's Distillery puts it, according to our own methods with our own ingredients of choice and our own techniques. They believe they're as Tennessee as Mr. Daniel.
So, some representatives now have what sounds like lawmaker's remorse for the bill. Representative Ryan Haynes, who chairs the state government committee, now says it's wrong for the government to codify recipes. This week, they moved the matter to summer study. Sounds like a nice summer. Study Tennessee whiskey on a porch at twilight over Lookout Mountain, a small glass in hand, and watch the sheriff chase those artisanal moonshiners.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE BALLAD OF THUNDER ROAD")
ROBERT MITCHUM: (Singing) Sometimes into Ashville, sometimes Memphis town, the revenuers chased him but they couldn't run him down. Each time they thought they had him, his engine would explode. He'd go by like they were standing still on Thunder Road. And there was thunder, thunder over Thunder Road. Thunder was his engine and white lightning was his load. And there was moonshine, moonshine to quench the devil's thirst. The law they swore they'd get him, but the devil got him first. On the first of April, 1954, a federal man sent word he better...
SIMON: Can you believe that's Robert Mitchum? You're listening to NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.