Sunday, January 27, 2013

Friday in the park with George

On a recent business trip, I happened through Lynchburg, Tennessee. Naturally, I took advantage of the opportunity to visit the George Dickel Distillery, about half an hour to the north.

The George Dickel Distillery is, as they say on their website, "a ways off the beaten path," though even the last two miles down Cascade Hollow Road aren't too backwoods-country windy. (But then, I've taken more than one "short cut" down a logging road in my day.) When you come to the end of the road, the visitor center is on your left and the distillery on your right. The visitor center is done up in authentic Olde Tyme General Store, which both suits their image and suggests that some of what you'll hear on the tour will be... just as authentic.

Tennesseans of the 1880s were a hardy lot, needing only provisions of shot glasses and T-shirts.
The olde tyme angle plays up the history of whiskey distilling in Cascade Hollow, although George Dickel's own distillery (est. 1870) was a mile or so up and yonder from the current site, closer to Cascade Springs that provided the water. What for a while was the state's largest distillery had to close in 1911 (Tennessee was ahead of the national Prohibition curve), and when Schenley Distillers Corp., which owned the Dickel name (and, reportedly, the Dickel recipe and even yeast strains), decided to reopen it in 1958, they picked the current site (though they still use water from Cascade Springs).

When I arrived, on a sunny Friday morning just after 9:30, I was the only visitor. The tour guide on duty pointed me to an olde tyme rocking chair, where I watched a short video about the history of the distillery and what makes Dickel different from other sippin' whiskies. (You can watch it, too! "George Dickel - The Man & His Vision" is on this web page, along with a lot more information about the distillery than you'll read in my post.)

By 10 a.m., I was still the only visitor, so I got a private tour. (In fact, the tourist was outnumbered by the guides, since we were joined by a tour guide trainee.)

Getting a private tour was nice, since I got to ask any question that occurred to me, when it occurred to me. The downside was a certain awkwardness when some bit of tour guide schtick called for an appreciative murmur from the tourists and all I could muster was a nod and a smile.

The George Dickel Distillery. Rickhouse is back up the hill a ways. Bottling facility is past that, about 300 miles.
Now, I did not take notes, and most of the numbers were lost on me as soon as they were spoken, but the general process for making George Dickel Tennessee Sour Mash Whisky is this: Using a mashbill of 84% corn, 8% rye, and 8% malted barley, the grains are ground, cooked, and fermented in the usual sort of way. Then the wash is distilled in a column still, with the resulting low wines distilled a second time in a pot still.

Next comes the step that Dickel says makes a whiskey Dickel: chill filtering. Yes, I know chill filtering is supposed to be naughty, but as the story goes,"George A. Dickel discovered that whisky made during the winter was smoother than whisky made in the summer. So, George Dickel is the only Tennessee whisky to chill the whisky [to 40 deg F] before it goes into the charcoal mellow-ing vats. This filters out the oils and fatty acids inherent in most whisky products."

The charcoal is made by bonfire in a field across the road, up from the visitor center, then ground into pellets and packed in a vat between perforated steel plates and wool blankets. The chilled whiskey takes a week or ten days to filter through, after which it's barreled and taken up a side road to the warehouses.

The warehouses (single story, and no, they don't rotate the barrels around) are not part of the tour, though they've redone part of their old bottling building as a mockup of a warehouse. This, apparently, is ideal for pictures, which I learned when I was told that they'd take my picture standing in front of the empty barrels if I wanted. I didn't want to hurt anyone's feelings, so I said yes please. That's why I have a picture of me standing in front of empty barrels. I suppose this is a variant of, "Do you want a picture of yourself standing in front of the still?" which I've been asked at a couple of microdistilleries. (And I don't, particularly; they aren't my stills.)

I mentioned their old bottle building. They don't have a new one, for reasons of economics. Though their Tennessee Whisky is all distilled, aged, and blended in Cascade Hollow, not a drop of it is bottled there. It's all loaded into tankers and shipped to an out-of-state bottling plant; currently they're using one in Indiana. (If you're driving between Tullahoma and Indianapolis and you see a milk truck with a "FLAMMABLE" sign, make friends with the driver.)

The worst part of the tour was the walk (in beautiful sunshine) back to the visitor center. Worst because of what we passed on the way. Of all sad words of tongue or pen, surely, "And our brand new tasting house should be open in a few weeks," is in the top ten.

Even the camera phone had something in its eye.
To take my mind off that, my guide pointed out a couple of blackened trees right next to the distillery's exhaust vents (they've visible on the far right of the picture of the distillery). He gave me the helpful advice that, should I ever be tramping through the forests of Tennessee and come across trees covered in Baudonia fungus, I should hightail it out of there before the moonshiners return.

So, what about the whiskies? Well, there's Old No. 8, "the classic whisky that made George Dickel famous," blended from barrels aged six to eight years, give or take. No. 12 is bottled at 90 proof from, say, ten to twelve year old barrels. Barrel Select is a small-batch whiskey of ten or so barrels aged ten to twelve years.

And let's not forget Cascade Hollow, which I assume is their entry-level whiskey. I assume that, rather than assert it, because the tour guide forgot to mention that it existed. I'm not 100% sure it was for sale in their shop, and I didn't even realize they still made it until I saw it on their website.

We did get to chat about the new George Dickel rye, which I think was just released in December. Turns out it's a 95% rye distilled in Lawrenceburg, Indiana -- stop me if you've heard this one. Still, their position is that it's a bona fide Dickel whiskey because it's chill filtered. I suppose the truth is in the taste.

Speaking of taste, as intimated above, I didn't get a chance -- though I do have a tweet from last year, when I bought a No. 8 miniature and tried it in a plastic cup in a hotel room one night: "green apple gives way to caramel on the nose, woody corn w/ light mouthfeel.Touch of charcoal in finish. Is its own TN whisky." That last bit meaning, of course, that they aren't trying to copy Jack Daniel's.

UPDATE: Can a visitors center, a movie, a tour guide, and a website all lie about George Dickel's actual involvement in distilling whiskey? Yes.

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