By FRANCES LAMBERTS
A 2017 story in the Weather Channel “United States of Climate-Change” series deals with the history and anticipated future prospects of “authentic Tennessee Whiskey.”
Praised as being “among the finest spirits in the world,” this has become a global phenomenon in just the last few decades.
Matt Hongoltz-Hetling, the story’s author, states that much of the $3.1 billion in Tennessee Whiskey sold in 2016 went overseas, as Latvian, French, Chinese and other countries’ whiskey lovers seek its unique flavor.
Andy Nelson and Thomas McKenzie are two craft distillers featured in the story, which is headlined thus:
“It took Tennessee Whiskey distillers 150 years to find authenticity. Now climate change is threatening to take it all away.”
Nelson, of the Nashville based Greenbriar Distillery, has assiduously collected the historic recipes used by his great-great-great grandfather, Charles Nelson.
Following these to the precise mix of grain, barrels and whiskey-aging process, he recounts that the “perfect climate,” soil and forests his ancestors found ended up making Tennessee the only rival to Scotland as “the world’s whiskey capital.”
They discovered Tennessee’s limestone soil to filter iron and other impurities out of the spring water, its oaks to make the best barrels for proper aging of whiskey, and charcoal from its sugar maples to further enhance its flavor.
In the charred storage barrels, the hot, humid summers let the liquid expand to mingle with wood sugars in the oaks’ seasonal tree rings.
In reversal during the winter cold, the liquid contracts, imbuing the whiskey with the color and flavor of the wood.
Through four distinct seasons, says Nelson, “Tennessee’s climate is crucial to the success of Tennessee Whiskey.”
But temperatures in the southeast have risen by at least 2 degrees over the last century and the number of freezing days decreased by about a week. The National Climate Assessment projects further temperature increases – by as much as 8 degrees more and with 30 more days above 95 degrees, by 2100.
When, the author asks, will Tennessee’s whiskey paradise be lost as its “perfect climate” shifts north and the state inherits the warmer weather of Mississippi.
Though shorter whiskey aging in climate-controlled warehouses is possible, McKenzie also notes ill effects of climate change.
The rye he grows for his mash was so shot through with a foreign garlic plant in a particularly hot summer recently as to make it unusable, smelling like wild onions.
In a sorghum mash-component experiment, an aphid never seen before ruined the sorghum.
Loathe to douse his crops with chemical herbicides and insecticides, McKenzie fears a host of invasive organisms, thriving under climate change, potentially threatening Tennessee’s traditional grain crops.
Additionally, he sees the sugar maples fleeing northward and the quality of oak wood declining.
Crop-flattening hurricanes and other, extreme weather events can further hurt crops and cost the state’s agricultural sector millions of dollars, the author notes.
Whiskey lovers may wish to join efforts, such as the conservative Republican leaders’ Carbon Dividends plan, or the Citizens’ Climate Lobby organization’s similar proposal, to halt climate disruption.