Your attention please. To say that Tennessee is home to one or two unique whiskies is to say nothing new, but to experience one on home ground must be worth, surely, a flicker of interest. To do so in just a day, from Nashville International Airport to the George Dickel Distillery, via liquor running, a two-star hotel, a big black car and many schoolboy errors, warrants, I'd wager, a degree of sustained concentration. Read on. I have included pictures.
To be clear. My mission was to visit the George Dickel Distillery in Normandy, near Tullahoma, Tennessee.
Presently a key Diageo interest, the onpoint story is that Dickel was founded in 1870 at Cascade by George Dickel, after whose death it remained in family hands until Prohibition, whereupon, 'for nearly four decades the world would go without George Dickel Tennessee Whisky.' Fortunately, the distillery was rebuilt in 1958, by master distiller Ralph Dupps, who expertly revived the original Dickel recipe, and so reintroduced us to 'America's finest sippin' whisky'; namely, a very closely related pair of taste profile products, the George Dickel Sour Mash Tennessee Whisky No. 8 and its slightly older brother, the No. 12.
Add to this the Cascade Hollow, released in 2007, the newish Barrel Select, plus a first foray into the rich vein of rye, the George Dickel Rye, and there it is: in one paragraph, the George A. Dickel Distilling Company.
Of course, nothing's so simple, not my journey there, and certainly not the story of a 'mellow as moonlight' whisky called George Dickel. Thank goodness, because if the Dickel tale rings a tad too Little House on the Prairie, then my own would have seen me fly in, take Tripadvisor's overnight advice, ride out, tour, then catch a late night flight back to Dallas. It's an advert for American Airlines set to a soundtrack scored by Jon and Vangelis. Luckily, my plane was delayed, my bank declined all cards and I hadn't had the foresight to discover that the bus to Normandy ran as often as a badger will mate with a fox, the sum of which had me holed up, late at night, on the second floor of a $60 room airport hotel, a group of baggy jeaned gentlemen holding an important and very long meeting on the walkway outside, my neighbour making rap music through the wall, the night filled with the awake, and nearly no idea of how I was to make my appointment with John Lunn, master distiller, 70 miles away, at the George Dickel Distillery General Store, 1 pm tomorrow. This is not an advert. It's a mess, which is good.
Equally complicated, it turns out that George Dickel (the man) neither founded nor owned the Cascade Distillery. He didn't make the whisky - and very possibly never even made it down to Cascade Hollow. Sacrilege, I know, but here's the gen - it's well documented, and been in circulation since at least Kay Baker Gaston's exhaustive George Dickel Tennessee Sour Mash Whisky: The Story Behind the Label, circa 1998. I'll try and keep it short.
Dickel was first and foremost a Tennessee businessman. So were his partners Victor Shwab and Meier Salzkotter. All were linked to each other by marriage; Shwab and Meier in some way previously engaged in the rather usual anti-Union practice of smuggling.
The business, started by Dickel, as early as 1853, was called George A Dickel & Co. George Dickel's wife, Augusta, handled the money. Salzkotter was made a partner in 1871, the younger Shwab in 1881. Now, from at least 1865, George A Dickel's main business interest was the buying and selling of liquor, often branded, as was perfectly common at the time, in the company's name. By far the most successful of these was a whisky produced by the Cascade Distillery, founded in 1877, by John F.
Brown and F. E. Cunningham, two gents whose names you may now forget. At some point the distillery in part passes into the hands of a certain McLin Davis, also the distillery's master distiller, and to whom, it seems, we owe the recipe for George A Dickel Cascade Tennessee Whisky. Yes, quite. In 1888 Shwab - independently of Dickel, who has already entered semi-retirement, having fallen badly off his horse - buys a controlling interest in the distillery.
A decade later and everyone's dead - Salzkotter, Dickel, Davis. Everyone, that is, except Shwab, who force-buys (from the Davis family) the remainder of the distillery; and Augusta Dickel, who forthwith moves in with the Shwabs, and will spend her remaining summers holidaying in Europe. I will pause as you reread this.
So, lots of dates, and facts, and things.
The main news: it's (very probably) Davis's recipe; and Shwab's the man - who also, it may please you to know, conducts much business from Nashville's marvellously named the Climax Saloon. None of which, I don't think, takes anything away from George and Augusta Dickel, or from the whisky itself, but rather returns an overmanaged story to its more than colourful roots. At any rate, from here on in there follows many years of milk and honey, whereby the Cascade Distillery becomes the largest in the state, and George Dickel & Co. rich off the proceeds. Then, disaster: Prohibition, Tennessee style. The whisky making is relocated north, to Louisville's APS Distillery (later George T Stagg, now Buffalo Trace), after which National Prohibition puts pay to all production.
Augusta dies in 1916, Shwab in 1924.
Twelve years later George Dickel & Co.'s in the hands of the Schenley Distilling Company, who taking both eyes off the ball, all but bury the brand in a parking lot Bourbon called Geo. A. Dickel's Cascade Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whisky; and, say some, in a corn whisky From here on in there follows many years of milk and honey, whereby the Cascade Distillery becomes the largest in the state, and George Dickel & Co. rich off the proceeds. Then, disaster: Prohibition, Tennessee style. The whisky making is relocated north, to Louisville's APS Distillery (later George T Stagg, now Buffalo Trace), after which National Prohibition puts pay to all production.
Augusta dies in 1916, Shwab in 1924.
Twelve years later George Dickel & Co.'s in the hands of the Schenley Distilling Company, who taking both eyes off the ball, all but bury the brand in a parking lot Bourbon called Geo. A. Dickel's Cascade Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whisky; and, say some, in a corn whisky Pride of Tennessee, then just Tennessee - about which I confess to know next to nothing. It's roughly 1950, and the label's barely twitching.
Which is how, for the foreseeable future, things might have stood - had Schenley not failed, in 1955, to acquire Jack Daniels. Fortunately, fail it did, miserably, spectacularly, a proper public drubbing. Plan B: Dust off the Cascade asset, call in Dupps, rebuild, restock and the rest you know, except perhaps that in the 1990s under new ownership the distillery looks to have overestimated the size of its market, hyper-produced, closed in 1999, waited for the flood to subside, and then reopened in 2003, only to suffer a No. 8 drought (hence the Cascade Hollow, essentially a bridging product). Still, that's over. Guided first by Dave Backus, Dupps's successor, and now by Lunn himself, production's well managed, the market's ahungry and Dickel is flying.
All of which, I know, puts my own little story into less than interesting perspective. I slept. The bank cleared my cards. I've never run liquor across the state border; or larged it up at the Climax Saloon. If George Dickel didn't make it to Cascade Distillery, then that's because the distillery never sent him out a bona fide chauffeur driven Lincoln Sedan. The ride to Normandy took place through some of the most beautiful countryside I've ever had the pleasure of travelling, conducted in the slightly surreal company of a near constant stream of call-ins with SuperTalk 99 WTN's Phil Valentine, a Nashville based radio talk-show host whose views - on gun ownership, the rights of the individual, what to do with the urban poor - you may read on his website, The Phil Valentine Show - It's Just Common Sense. (Do link out to Phil Valentine and The Heartthrobs' version of the Tea Party's national anthem The Tip of the Spear). Or was that on the way back? Phil Valentine, you are playing with my brain.
Anyway, I digress. The drive was a dream. Upon arriving, we were met by Lunn, who showed us about, the warehouses too, and very kindly conducted an impromptu tasting in the so-called Government Building, once lonely office to the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Tax and Trade Bureau official, assigned to check daily on whether the distillery wasn't slipping the Federal government a fish.
Those of you who have had the good fortune to meet Lunn, and indeed the pleasure of the innards of Government Building, will know that everything at Dickel is done without undue urgency, and that it operates, as a matter of policy, on the basis that the unbroken does not get fixed. This is not a piece of marketing guff. It relates directly to the whisky made. The distillery remains noncomputerised, the machinery decades old, and the recipe and mode of production is, as they say, what it's always claimed to be: that is, the Dickel version of what it is to make a Tennessee whisky. Here's how: The mashbill - 84 per cent corn, eight per cent rye, eight per cent malted barley - "has one of the highest corn contents," says Lunn, "of any Bourbon or whisky", which (presumably along with the relatively low rye content) gives the whisky a "slightly sweeter, more mellow taste." Fermentation's as natural as it gets, the starting temperature dependent on the weather, the length (three day or four day cycles) on the time of the week. For purposes of obtaining 'a very clean distillate', the new spirit's treated to a doubler, after which it's chilled to 40F (4.5C), the official reason being that George Dickel had noticed that whisky distilled in winter months tasted so much better than that made in the summer, though given the above, if anyone did make a conscious decision about the process, then my life savings are on Davis.
Whatever the truth, there's reason to the rhyme: chilling the new spirit, says Lunn, nullifies the detrimental influence of the distillery's huge ambient temperature ranges, thereby ensuring 'a consistent density of distillate', and so in effect preps the spirit for the next step: charcoal mellowing.
Once chilled, the spirit's steeped for a week in sugar-maple charcoal vats, a method of mellowing that slightly sets Dickel apart from every other Tennessee Lincoln County Process practising distillery, all of whom, as far as I know, filter as opposed to steep. Steep not filter, explains Lunn, so as to allow for a much more even reaction between the charcoal and the distillate. Next, the spirit leeched, the aging process properly kick started, the vats are drained, the mellowed distillate dumped in charred new American oak barrels.
(NB: the anomaly here, the rye - stock bought off MGPI, once Seagram distillery - is charcoal mellowed after it's aged). Laid down in single storey warehouses, and seeking to build on its already cogener light profile, the length of aging time for most of the whisky relies solely on Lunn's judgement, the Dickel tradition demanding that the master distiller 'blends to taste not age.' Which is why - because, by law, it must - only the three years old Cascade Hollow carries an age statement; and why even if the No. 8 is aged between four to six years, the No. 12 possibly eight to 10 years, the small batch Barrel Select for 10 to 12 years, these ages, from a Dickel perspective, do not necessarily a great whisky make. 'Good whisky,' finishes Lunn, 'is all about taste not numbers.' The whisky is bottled off site.
On which note, and before my journey home (think exactly what it was getting here, only in reverse, and less the money worries), let's return to the Government Building, where I tasted four Dickel expressions. It's hardly important (you already know how good it is), but for what it's worth, here's my take. Tasting the Dickel is like staring at those 3D pictures; or better, reading something by William Blake. You're not going to get it at first pass. It's too easy - beguilingly simple even. Try it again, though, and something sticks. Nothing is quite as you thought. Texturally, it's thicker, deeper. It suggests something beyond, depths as yet unseen. Try it again, and then again, particularly the Barrel Select, or the No.
12, and something quite sublime happens. You understand. You get it.
For me, this means, in one quick succession of images, a house made of wood, clouds of tobacco smoke, the sun on a desk in India, a forest in summer, dust in the air, my dad, pancakes, that feeling you get when everything is in the present. I'm not hallucinating. It's a good place to be. Dickel may have missed a trick with its storytelling, but the best of its whisky's on the button - the Barrel Select and the No. 12 especially, and in that order. Mission accomplished.