Sunday, October 2, 2016

Whiskey Road Trip, Four Roses Tour - part 2

My last post took an in-depth look at the history of Four Roses and explained how their product line has evolved to its current offerings. I felt that was a necessary prelude to the details of my distillery tour, which I’ll get into here.

The hotel I had chosen for my two nights in Kentucky was on the outskirts of Frankfort, but conveniently located right next to one of Interstate 64’s exits. From there it took me about 30 minutes to get down to the Four Roses distillery in Lawrenceburg. Five rather large warehouses are located directly across the street from the distillery but those currently belong to Wild Turkey, having been sold off in the days of Seagram’s ownership. All of the Four Roses warehouses are about 45 minutes to the west, in Cox’s Creek, which is just north of Bardstown. Tours are also available at the warehouse complex, and if you pay for a tour at either location, your ticket is good for a free tour at the other location for 60 days. Like George Dickel, single story warehouses are employed by Four Roses. They are the only two major American distilleries to follow this practice.

The main distillery building, which is very close to the road, is quite striking as you approach. The large, yellow structure was built between 1910 and 1912. Its Spanish Mission design, which is rare in Kentucky but was popular nationally at the turn of the century, was chosen by Leo Oberwarth, a Frankfort-based architect.

Additions were made to the building during a period of expanded production in the 1940’s. These include a five-story tower to accommodate a bigger column still and a two-story brick structure on the back left of the building which houses additional fermentation tanks. These elements fit in with the original architecture, but the newer, more industrial looking grain storage and milling building to the left is somewhat distracting visually.

Newer buildings on the property have a more modern look, but were designed to blend in with the design of the still house. These include administrative offices and the 5000 square-foot visitor’s center that opened in the fall of 2012.

The tour started in a room in the back of the visitor’s center where the guide gave a brief talk and a short video went over the production process and the 10 recipes used by Four Roses.

Like my visit to Dickel, I was the only one on the tour here, which is the benefit of going to distilleries in the off-season. From there we walked outside and saw a tanker truck outside of the stillhouse that was being filled with new-make spirit, to be transported over to Cox’s Creek for filling and warehousing. My tour guide mentioned that two tankers (each hauling 6500 gallons) make that trip each day.

From there we walked around to the other side of the main distillery building and went into the Grain Quality Laboratory. This tiny, stand-alone building consists of a single room and isn’t much bigger than a shed. It’s here that samples from the incoming grain shipments are inspected. This quality control process includes organoleptic testing (that’s a fancy word for the use of the sense organs) to determine if each load of grain will be accepted or rejected. I asked how often shipments are rejected and the guide told me it was pretty infrequently, maybe two or three per year. Even the rejected loads of grain are still good enough to be used as cattle feed, so they don’t go to waste.

From there we entered the main distillery building and went up to the fermentation room, which is on the left end of the structure. The day before had been unseasonably mild while I as was at Maker’s Mark, but the temperature had dropped back down to something more realistic for February, so it was nice to get back inside. The original fermentation room has nine traditional Cypress tanks surrounding a stainless steel beer well (this is just an intermediate tank where the liquid is held after fermentation, while it waits to go to the still.) In the background, you can see through a few openings to the newer part of the building where additional fermenters are housed. There are 14 more; the few that I could see were stainless steel. Fermentation times are 84 hours and the beer produced is at 8% ABV.

My tour guide showed me an example of how they use string to patch up small leaks in the fermenters. She also mentioned that Cypress, which was the most appropriate local wood for making fermenters, was now a threatened species and that any new wooden fermenters would be made from Douglas fir.

At some point we talked about the expansion project that was recently initiated at Four Roses. This huge, $55 million augmentation will include adding a second set of stills, another cooker and many more fermenters, as well as three more warehouses (there are currently 20) and a new bottling plant at Cox’s Creek. The estimated completion for all of this work, which was announced in June of 2015, is some time in 2019.

Current production, which will double when the expansion is complete, is a little under 300 barrels per day (I believe they’re operating 5 days a week). Remember, Maker’s Mark just expanded to get to 650 barrels per day while Dickel produces less than 100 barrels per day (600 barrels per week, running seven days a week).

Next we made our way down to the main distilling area and entered the control room. This singular, windowed room is built against the front wall of the distillery, positioned just in front of the mash cooker. Some of the equipment was going through a cleaning process, so the guy working in there had time to chat for a bit. I got the impression that this was an unusual treat to have on a tour.

The automation system was added in 1999, but didn’t really change the distilling process at all. The purpose is to improve consistency and decrease labor costs. What used to require several people walking around the distillery, reading gauges and adjusting valves can now be done remotely by one person in the control room via computer monitors and keyboards. The production employee I spoke to did mention that once in a while a piece of equipment would malfunction (something along the lines of a valve getting stuck), which would set off alarms in the control room and send him running out to rectify the problem manually.

He also talked about the summer shutdown, explaining to me that the higher temperature of the river water (which is used for many cooling processes) during that time of the year would make operations too slow and inefficient. He cited one example of a cooling process that would usually take three hours, which took five hours in the days leading up to the shutdown. At some point my tour guide noted that the distillery withdraws 1 million gallons of water from the Salt River each day, but that 750,000 gallons of that was returned directly to the river with no need to be treated in any way (most of that would be cooling water that just goes back at a higher temperature).

Opposite to the control room, on the other side of the mash cooker, was the yeast room. This brick walled room houses the tubs where small amounts of yeast culture are added to sterile portions of mash so the yeast can propagate into sufficient quantities to be pitched into the much larger fermentation tanks.

Aside from these first three rooms (control room, yeast room and fermentation room), most of the distilling equipment at Four Roses is housed in the large, open space of the main building. The ceiling is two to three stories high, with open stairways and a suspended walkway connecting small areas of elevated flooring. Everything is on display here, including all of the plumbing, electrical conduit and mechanical odds and ends that seem more hidden at other distilleries. The space feels much less compartmentalized compared to other tours that I’ve been on and it’s my understanding that Four Roses is one of the few American distillery tours where the doubler is in plain view. The only thing you can’t really see is the upper half of the column still, which goes up into the tower.

I was hoping to gain a better technical understanding of the typical bourbon distillation process and learn how it differs from malt whisky production in Scotland during these tours. I did manage to pick up some good information along the way, but probably should have tried to make arrangements to speak with a master distiller somewhere along the way.

I did learn that it’s important to cook the different grains at different temperatures. The corn needs a high temperature cook to break apart the kernels and fully dissolve its starches. At Four Roses the corn is cooked under pressure allowing a temperature higher than the normal boiling point of water, which speeds up the process. Other bourbon distillers cook their corn under pressure, but not all of them; Maker’s Mark being a notable exception.

Next the rye (or wheat if it’s a wheated recipe) is added to the mash. This grain is cooked at a lower temperature than the corn. As with the corn cook, breaking apart and dissolving starches is the purpose here. Finally, the malted barley is added to the mash at an even lower temperature. The malting process is expensive but very important. This is where enzymes are developed (which will be very important in the mashing process) and insoluble starch is converted into soluble starch.

I’m drawing information from some of my old home brewing books rather than the distillery tour at this point, but the goal of mashing is the same if you are making beer or whiskey. Once the malted barley is added to the mash, it needs to be held at a temperature somewhere between 145 and 158 degrees F. This temperature range will activate the enzymes in the barley that were developed during malting. These enzymes do two things; they convert the dissolved starches in the mash (from all three grains) into fermentable sugars and unfermentable dextrins (which add a fuller bodied character, at least in beer). Once the conversion is complete, it is important to raise the temperature to 170 degrees F to deactivate the enzymes.

This is why the grains have to be cooked in stages; the temperatures required for the corn would damage the rye (or wheat) and the temperature required for both would destroy the enzymes in the malted barley before it had a chance to convert the starches into fermentable sugars. Most bourbons have between 5% and 10% malted barley in their recipe because that is how much is necessary to provide the quantity of enzymes needed for the entire mash. If you see a bourbon with less malt, chances are it had enzymes added that were synthesized in a lab.

And all of this explains why the cookers can look like pretty complicated mechanisms; they are often pressure vessels (with a means to control that pressure) and they need to have internal coils of pipe for both steam (to add heat) and water (for cooling), as well as a mechanism to stir the mixture which will keep temperatures consistent throughout.

Beyond the cooker, we wandered around the distilling area, viewing the column still, the doubler (which looks a lot like a traditional Scottish copper pot still, at least the top part of it), both of their condensers and both of their tailboxes. The tailbox for the doubler was marked with a sign and looked very traditional. The column still’s tailbox wasn’t labeled and looked somewhat atypical. It’s eye-catching, but I have a feeling that a lot of people taking the tour don’t even realize what they are looking at when they see it.

Just beyond the doubler there was a section of a column still set up for display. This showed the internals which are normally hidden from sight. I already had a pretty good idea of how a column still worked, with perforated plates controlling the upward flow of steam and the downward flow of fermented liquid, but it was great to actually see the system of baffles that are used on the plates to make this all happen.

My tour guide mentioned that the column still brings the distillate up to 132 proof and the doubler takes it up to 140 proof. It is then diluted down to 120 proof before barrel entry. These numbers were 120/130/110 at Maker’s Mark and 115/130/112 at Dickel. Wandering around the open space of the distilling area, I also noticed a vessel marked as the “No 1 Heads and Tails Tank”. I was pretty excited to see confirmation that the doubler is used not only to increase the proof after the column still, but also to separate out the undesirable portions of the distillate. This is something that you can’t really do with a column still due to its continuous, rather than batch, type of operation.

Finally, we made our way back to the visitor’s center and tasted through four different expressions; Yellow Label, Small Batch, Single Barrel and a Barrel Strength Single Barrel bottling. This was a Private Selection bottling available for sale in the distillery gift shop which was picked by the Master Distiller, a position taken over by Brent Elliott when Jim Rutledge retired in September of 2015. As long as I’ve been a fan of Four Roses, I think this was the first time that I’d tasted their three regular expressions side by side.

Oh, and they let you keep the Four Roses glass after the tasting too!

As for the Private Selection bottlings, there are usually at least two available at the distillery gift shop and at least two other ones available at the warehouse / bottling location gift shop. These selections have all been made by the Master Distiller, and many of the bottles are signed by him. This gives a pretty good selection of special bottlings to choose from if you are visiting both locations.

Every Single Barrel bottle, be it the standard offering at 50% ABV or one of the barrel strength Private Selections or Limited Editions, has its warehouse number and barrel number (which indicates its location in that warehouse) printed on the label.

I didn’t make any tasting notes at the distillery because I was too focused on my tour guide’s explanation of those warehouse and barrel numbers. I’ll probably need to visit the warehousing facility at some point to fully understand the system, but I’ll explain it as well as I can.

There are 20 warehouses, each with a letter designation. The second letter will be either N or S (north, south) or E or W (east, west), depending on the positioning of the particular warehouse. Each one is a square building with a one acre footprint. Each warehouse has two entrances, which are on the same wall and each about ¼ of the way in from their respective ends. These entrances each open to an aisle that runs the length of the building and has racks on both sides. The racks on one side of an aisle run to the end wall and the racks on the other side run to the center of the building. The second letter designation basically tells you which side of the warehouse the barrel came from.

The barrel number starts with a number that ranges from 1 to 180. This is the rack number; these run down one side of the aisle and back up the other side. If you open one door of a warehouse, rack #1 will be on your left and rack # 90 will be on your right. At the far end of that aisle #45 and #46 will be across from each other. The other door / aisle of the warehouse will have racks #91 through #180.

A hyphen separates the first number from another number and letter. The second number is the row; with the barrels stacked six high, 1 is closest to the floor and 6 is on top. The last letter tells you how far back in the rack the barrel is. A is closest to the aisle and the further down the alphabet you go (it goes out either 20 or 22 barrels) the closer the barrels get to the end wall or the center of the building, depending on which side of the aisle the rack is on.

I’ve included a satellite image of the warehouses from Google maps, but there’s unfortunately no way to tell which warehouse letter belongs to which building. You can see that six of the warehouses are clearly set up with east and west entrances and one with north and south entrances. The other 13 warehouse are laid out on a 45 degree angle to the first seven, so it’s hard to know if those are designated as N-S or E-W. A visit to this site will definitely happen on my next visit to Kentucky.

Another interesting fact which I came across is that some Private Selection bottles end up being sold without their side label that shows the recipe and age, and in this situation you can email Four Roses and they will provide the missing information if you give them the barrel number from the front label. In my case, I just forgot to take a picture of the side label of the one I tasted at the distillery. My email inquiring about barrel 81-1H from warehouse GW at 50.3% ABV was quickly answered, letting me know that it was OBSF (35% rye, Herbal Essence yeast) aged to 11 years and 7 months.

The bottle that I purchased at the distillery for $72, which I’m tasting now, is OBSO (35% rye, Rich Fruitiness yeast) at 51.8% and aged to 8 years and 9 months. It’s from warehouse QN, barrel 73-1E.

The nose has good depth without being too aggressive. An earthy, clay / Play-Doh character is the most obvious note. Gentle oak, subtle vanilla and hints of spice and fruit round out the aromas.
This one is relatively assertive on the palate right out of the gate. It shows a hint of sweetness up front, when it’s fruit character is most obvious. After a few sips, the red berry fruit seems to hold on for longer before giving way to the bold spiciness.
Complex, warming spice notes evolve through the lengthy finish, whish becomes increasingly dry as any other elements fade.

The Four Roses Private Selection that I tasted for my last post (OBSQ at 60.5%, from JE 42-2V) is more bellicose by comparison (as it rightly should be with a significantly higher ABV). It also seems that the Q yeast (floral) has less ability to add balance to the B (high rye) mash bill than the O yeast (rich fruitiness) does. Nonetheless, these are both delicious bourbons.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Whiskey Road Trip, Four Roses Tour - part 1

After visiting George Dickel and Maker’s Mark on my first day of touring American distilleries, day two brought me to my main objectives. First up was Four Roses, to be followed in the afternoon by Buffalo Trace. With Woodford Reserve and Wild Turkey in close proximity, I probably could have worked in a third tour that day, but I figured it would be more enjoyable if I didn’t try to squeeze too much into one day. That meant I was able to sleep in a little bit and start with the 10:00 tour at Four Roses rather than their first-of-the-day 9:00 tour. I’ve written about the history of Four Roses before but the topic really deserves a more in-depth look before I get into the nuts and bolts of my visit, which will come in my next post.

Four Roses was the best-selling brand of American whiskey in the US from shortly after Prohibition until some time after World War II, possibly all the way into the late 1950’s. The whiskey used for the brand in the US was transitioned from premium straight bourbon to a low quality blend in the 1950’s, ruining its reputation domestically over the ensuing decades. In the meantime, Four Roses straight bourbon continued to be produced at the same high level of quality it had long maintained, but now only for export. It was marketed primarily in Europe and Japan, where it was the best-selling bourbon for many years. Finally, in 2002, a change of ownership allowed Four Roses straight bourbon to return to the American market. The brand has been growing and rebuilding its reputation in the US over the last 14 years with great success.

Today, the Four Roses distillery in Lawrenceburg, KY produces 10 distinct bourbon recipes which are used in various combinations to create their different bottlings. That wasn’t always the case though, and the history of the brand and how it got to where it is today is quite fascinating.

The official (from the distillery owners) origin story of the Four Roses name involves a marriage proposal, a dance and a corsage of four roses. That story came about well after the brand was established and has been debunked but unfortunately persists. I was a little disappointed to hear it repeated by my tour guide.

The early history of the brand is not entirely clear, though it likely began in Georgia shortly after the end of the Civil War. In 1867 Rufus M. Rose established a distillery 12 miles north of Atlanta. The most plausible story is that he named the brand after himself, his brother / business partner, and their two sons; four men with the last name Rose. Around the same time, Paul Jones Jr. and several of his relatives established a whiskey business in Atlanta, possibly including a distillery, but more likely focused on sales. There is evidence that Jones also had a business relationship with Rose, primarily selling the products made by the RM Rose distillery.

With the Temperance movement growing strong in Georgia, Paul Jones Jr. and his nephew moved their business to Tennessee in 1883. They grew their operation there, acting as brokers for more distillers and likely still selling whiskey from Rufus M. Rose’s distillery. They moved their business to Louisville, KY by 1886 to get closer to the large concentration of distilleries there. In 1889 the Paul Jones Company bought the existing J.G. Mattingly distillery in Louisville to ensure a supply of whiskey for the many brands they produced. Paul Jones Jr. passed away in 1905, but other family members continued to run the business.

When Georgia passed statewide Prohibition in 1907, the RM Rose Distillery was moved from Vining, Georgia to Chattanooga, Tennessee. Rufus stayed in Atlanta to tend to his real estate business and his son Randolph took over the distilling business. In 1910 Tennessee passed statewide Prohibition and by 1913 Randolph Rose had sold off all of the company assets.

The current owners of Four Roses do not acknowledge the Rose family’s involvement in the brand. Their version of the history focuses on Paul Jones trademarking the brand in 1888 (a date which appears on some of the current bottles), but they do note his claim of sales and production going back to the 1860’s.

An alternate version of the history has the Four Roses brand registered as a trademark in Atlanta in 1906, sold on to another company in 1913 and later being sold to the Paul Jones Company. Either way, the Four Roses brand was certainly part of the Paul Jones Company by the start of Prohibition.

In 1922 the Paul Jones Company purchased (and assumed the name of) the Frankfort Distilling Company, which was formed in 1902 when several rectifying companies merged. In 1920 Frankfort Distilling had received one of only six licenses to sell medicinal whisky during Prohibition. Their distillery near the forks of the Elkhorn Creek, just outside of Frankfort (which later become the home of Old Grand Dad and today operates as Jim Beam’s bottling plant) was used to bottle Four Roses as medicinal whiskey, with bourbon acquired from a number of closed distilleries. After Prohibition ended in 1933, the Frankfort Distilling Company built a new distillery in Shively, a Louisville suburb, which became the Four Roses distillery.

In 1943 the Frankfort Distilling Company was bought by Seagram, the Canadian liquor giant, primarily to acquire the Four Roses brand. Several other distilleries in the US were purchased by Seagram during World War II. One of those distilleries, Old Prentice in Lawrenceburg, KY, was acquired in 1946. Whiskey was produced on that site as far back as 1818, under the Old Joe brand. The current distillery there was built between 1910 and 1912 and named Old Prentice. It was closed from 1917 through 1933, but was refurbished and went back into production after Prohibition. The main building, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, is designed in the Spanish Mission style, something not often seen in Kentucky. At some point after acquiring it, Seagram moved the Four Roses name from the Shively distillery to the Lawrenceburg distillery, where it remains today.

By the late 1940’s Seagram had started to produce Four Roses as a blended whiskey. Four Roses as a straight bourbon continued to be produced and sold to export markets, but it was pulled from the US market. Some sources say that happened in the early 1950’s, other say it happened in the late 1950’s; all of the Four Roses advertising I could find from 1950 onward was promoting Four Roses blended whisky. Whether Seagram’s management really thought American consumers wanted a much milder whiskey or they were just trying to kill Four Roses so it couldn’t compete against their Crown Royal brand is a debatable point. The quality of the Four Roses blend was downgraded twice, about two decades after it was originally introduced. It started off in 1948 as 40% straight whiskey and 60% grain neutral spirits. That ratio changed to 35% / 65% in 1965 and then to 25% / 75% in 1970.

Back in the 1940’s the Seagram philosophy was to “mingle” whiskies from the many distilleries that they owned to create different flavor profiles for the various bourbon brands in their portfolio. This was done with two different grain recipes from each of their five Kentucky distilleries; Calvert in Louisville, Cummins – Collins in Athertonville, Henry McKenna in Fairfield, Old Hunter Lewis in Cynthiana and Old Prentice / Four Roses in Lawrenceburg. The distillery in Lawrenceburg never produced anything but high quality straight whiskey. The grain neutral spirits used in the Four Roses blends came from Seagram owned distilleries in Maryland and Indiana.

When the industry contracted dramatically in the 1970’s, Seagram was forced to consolidate and close distilleries. They didn’t want to give up the variety of bourbons they had for creating different flavor profiles though, so each time they had to close one of the distilleries mentioned above, they fell back on their tremendous Research and Development department and came up with a new yeast strain which would recreate the flavor profile of the closed distillery when it used to make whiskey at the Lawrenceburg, KY distillery. By 1983 their other four Kentucky distilleries had closed and five unique yeast strains were being used across two different mash bills to create 10 different bourbon recipes at the Four Roses distillery.

The roots of the Seagram Company date back to 1857, with the establishment of a distillery in Waterloo, Ontario. Joseph E. Seagram became a partner in the business in 1869 and was its owner by 1883. A separate Canadian whiskey company, Distillers Company Limited, was established by Samuel Bronfman in 1924 with a distillery in LaSalle, Quebec. Both companies capitalized on American Prohibition and grew substantially in the 1920’s. In 1928 Seagram was acquired by Distillers Company, but the merged businesses would operate under the Seagram name.

Seagram was well positioned to set up business in the US after Prohibition and expended that business during World War II. Control of the company passed to Bronfman’s son in 1971 and to his grandson in 1994. Edgar Bronfman Jr. sold off the company’s most profitable assets (a 24.3% stake in DuPont) and began purchasing film and electronic media businesses. Long story short, junior was an idiot and ran the company into the ground in five short years. Seagram was bought out by Vivendi, primarily for its media assets. Vivendi sold off the beverage assets the next year. Most of the spirit brands went to Diageo, but the Four Roses brand and distillery (as well as another distillery which was confusingly located in Lawrenceburg, Indiana) went to Pernod Ricard. Early in 2002 the Four Roses brand and distillery were sold to Kirin, who had been the Japanese importer of Four Roses Bourbon for many years.

Jim Rutledge, who had worked for Seagram since 1966 and had been the master distiller at Four Roses since 1995, now had the opportunity to convince the new owners to bring Four Roses straight bourbon back to the US. The Four Roses blend was quickly pulled from the market and Four Roses Yellow Label bourbon was reintroduced to Kentucky in 2002. The Single Barrel bottling followed in 2004 and the Small Batch in 2006. Distribution outside of Kentucky started in the spring of 2007 and Four Roses is now available in all 50 states.

Using a variety of yeasts and mash bills in one distillery is not completely unique, but no one does it to the extent that Four Roses does. Jim Beam has two bourbon mash bills (15% rye and 30% rye), with a different yeast used for each one, but that is still just two recipes. The high rye recipe is used for Old Grand Dad and Basil Hayden’s, the low rye recipe is used for all of their other bourbons. Buffalo Trace has three bourbon mash bills (one is wheat based and the other two are roughly 9% rye and 15% rye). The same yeast is used for all three recipes. These are used for dozens of different brands, and the main factors that differentiate them (aside from age) are the types of warehouses employed and the locations of the aging barrels within them. Sheet metal sided vs. brick walled warehouses and 1st floor vs. 9th floor placement will provide wildly differing aging conditions. Four Roses is unique among the major bourbon distillers in that they have eliminated this variable with single story warehouses that are all of the same construction. They instead rely on their 10 recipes to create their various expressions.

Each recipe has a 4 letter code, although only two of the letters are significant. The first letter is always “O” and is probably a reference to the distillery’s former name, Old Prentice. The third letter is always “S”, signifying straight whiskey, which is all that the company deals with these days. The second letter is the mash bill; “B” is 60% corn, 35% rye and 5% malted barley, “E” is 75% corn, 20% rye and 5% malted barley. The last letter indicates the yeast strain:

V – delicate fruitiness
       savory, complex, slightly fruity, exceptionally well-balanced classic bourbon

K – spicy
      full-bodied, slow-aging, with a particular spicy quality distinct from that of rye grain

O – rich fruitiness
      plump, juicy and rounded with red fruit tones, complex and long in flavor

Q – floral
      exceptionally floral with almost acacia-like tones, delicate and highly aromatic

F – herbal
      hints of mint, pink peppercorn, and floral notes, soft in the mouth, mellow yet potent

These combine to give the following 10 recipes:

OBSV – delicate fruity (pear, apricot), spicy, creamy
OBSK – rich in spiciness, full body
OBSQ – floral (rose petal), spicy, medium body
OBSO – slightly fruity spicy, medium body
OBSF – mint, fruity, spicy, full body
OESV – delicate fruity, fresh, creamy
OESK – spicy, full body
OESQ – floral (rose petal, acacia), banana, refreshing, medium body
OESO – fruity (red berries), medium body
OESF – mint, fruity, full body

Those recipes are used in the following combinations for the standard bottlings. None of them carry an age statements, but target ages were mentioned during the tour and have been noted.

Yellow Label – all 10 recipes, 6 to 6.5 years, 80 proof
Small Batch – OBSO + OBSK + OESO + OESK, 7 to 7.5 years, 90 proof
Single Barrel – OBSV, 9 to 9.6 years, 100 proof.

Then there are the limited annual release bottlings.

The Single Barrel Limited Edition was introduced in the fall of 2007, but eventually shifted to a spring release to coincide with the Kentucky Derby. Each year a different single recipe is used, it is bottled at barrel proof and the ages typically have been between 12 and 17 years.

The Small Batch Limited Edition was introduced in the fall of 2008 (it was called the Marriage Collection for the first two years). Each year it is a combination of three to four different recipes, usually with different ages that have fallen between 10 and 19 years, and it is bottled at barrel proof.

Lastly we have the Private Selection Single Barrel bottlings.

This is a program where someone can taste through a selection of barrels, pick the one they like best and buy all of the bottles yielded by that barrel. These could be any one of the 10 recipes and are usually in the 9 to 11 year range. They are bottled at barrel proof, which seems to typically fall between 52% and 62% alcohol by volume after aging in the relatively consistent single-story warehouses.

Private Selection bottlings are sometimes purchased by individuals, but more often they go to large restaurant groups or liquor store chains. They are also available at the distillery shop after being selected by the master distiller. The Private Selection bottling that I’m tasting today is one that I’ve had sitting on my shelf for a few years. It was chosen by M.S. Walker, a regional distributor of Four Roses, so it would have been available in a variety of liquor stores, bars and restaurants.

The recipe is OBSQ (35% rye recipe and floral yeast profile). It has an age statement of 10 years and 3 months, is at 60.5% abv, and if I’m reading the code printed on the bottom of the bottle correctly it was bottled in February of 2014.

The nose is surprisingly restrained considering the elevated proof. It seems to hit all of the classical bourbon notes though, with aromas of sweet corn, vanilla, caramel and balancing oak. There’s a hint of floral character, but I had to hunt around for a bit to pick up on it.
What was held back on the nose had no problem jumping right out on the palate; this is a big one! There’s some nice flavor development, but it’s definitely in a pitched battle with the alcohol. A few sips are needed to acclimatize the palate; after that an interesting progression of flavors is revealed. It starts off with grain-forward, dry notes of fresh baked goods. Then it quickly transitions to a sweeter, berry-like floral character on the mid palate.
Soon after, it gets progressively drier as it moves through the spice-laden finish. There’s an element of rye spice throughout the back end, but the early finish shows mint and teaberry while fiery notes of cinnamon red hots become more dominant later in the finish.
This one is bold enough to make you squint a little but has the complexity to make you stop and contemplate.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Whiskey Road Trip, Maker's Mark Tour

After my disappointing reception at the George Dickel distillery, I decided it would be best to clear the slate and approach my second tour of the day with an open mind. I hadn’t made any prior arrangements at Maker’s Mark, so I figured I’d just go in as a regular tourist and take the standard tour for what it was.

By the time I finished up at Dickel and got on the road it was already 11:00. I was going to lose an hour to the time zone change and Google Maps estimated the drive at three hours and 45 minutes. Those drive times are usually pretty conservative, but that would put me there 15 minutes late for the last tour of the day, at 3:30. All I could do was put the hammer down, forgo lunch and hope that I didn’t hit any traffic going through Nashville. I actually ended up making really good time and arrived at the distillery just before the 3:15 tour.

In addition to a relatively new tasting room and gift shop, which both date to 2007, the distillery completed another expansion of their tourist facilities in August of 2015. Reconfigured entry driveways separate the truck traffic from the visitor’s cars, which are now routed directly to the new, larger tourist parking area. From here the first building you come to is the relocated and expanded welcome center. The greenhouse-like space features a discarded pot still and large displays of many of the commemorative bottlings Maker’s has put out over the years. The new construction is an addition onto the Burks House, which dates to 1902. This was the residence of the original distillery owners, which has been restored to its Victorian glory and is kept in a museum-like state. This is essentially the staging area for the distillery tours, which, somewhat unusually, start and end in different locations.

The good thing about visiting on a weekday in early February is that it’s definitely not a peak tourist time. I was in a group of about half a dozen, which probably isn’t possible during the busy summer months when upwards of 1200 visitors come through each day. One of the first things our tour guide asked was if we had visited any other distilleries earlier in the day; some of us had, some had not. She looked a little surprised and a little impressed when I mentioned that my morning started at George Dickel.

About 10 minutes before arriving at the distillery, I drove past several new whiskey warehouses which were under various stages of construction. I assumed that they probably belonged to Maker’s Mark, but there are plenty of examples of warehouses which are located quite far from their corresponding distilleries. That question was put to rest when our guide mentioned that anyone driving up from the south would have gone past their under-construction warehouses. There were quite a few of them, which stands to reason; Maker’s Mark had just expanded with the addition a third still and all of the associated infrastructure to go along with it. This new still had just gone online toward the end of November, increasing production capacity by 50%.

One of the first questions came from another of the tour participants; “What is the meaning of the S IV symbol that is on every bottle of Maker’s?” This is the “maker’s mark” that Maker’s Mark is named for, and our guide noted that the “S” stands for Samuels and the “IV” indicates that William Samuels Sr., who founded Maker’s Mark, was the fourth generation of distillers in his family. There is also a star in the design, which I later learned represents Star Hill Farm, where the distillery is located.

I should note here that at the time of the inception of Maker’s Mark in 1953, William Samuels Sr. purchased the site and facilities of an existing distillery. Charles Burks and his family settled here in 1803. In 1805 he constructed a grist mill on the site as well as a dam on Hardin Creek to power the mill. There is no documentation of the exact date distilling started here, but it is believed to be shortly after the mill became operational.

Charles Burks and two of his sons passed away over the course of less than two years in the early 1830’s. Distilling ceased soon after but other family members continued the milling operations. Most of the older buildings currently in use at the distillery date to the late 1880’s, when the founder’s great grandson, George R. Burks restarted whiskey production on the site. At the onset of Prohibition he sold the distillery to J. E. Bickett, who had been a minority owner of the business since 1905. In 1935, his son, Frank Bickett, rebuilt the distillery and whiskey production resumed in 1937. The distillery was sold three separate times during the 1940’s, with the last owner, Dave Karp, shutting the plant down in the spring of 1951. Two and a half years later he sold the property and distillery to William Samuels Sr.

The original Samuels family distillery was established in 1844 by Taylor William Samuels when he and his son, W. I. Samuels, set up shop on the family farm. That was located outside of Deatsville, KY, about 25 miles north of the current Maker’s Mark distillery in Loretto. Leslie B. Samuels took over the distillery in 1898 when his father and grandfather both died. In 1909 a fire destroyed the distillery, six warehouses and 9000 barrels of whiskey. Controlling interest in the business was sold to a Cincinnati based company and the distillery was rebuilt, but the Samuels family remained involved in the operation.

Much of that distillery was demolished during Prohibition, but the company reorganized after Repeal and built a new distillery at a nearby location. At this point Leslie’s son, William Samuels Sr., became involved in the business. He took over as the plant manager after his father’s passing in 1936. The distillery became quite successful and in 1943 the Cincinnati based owners decided to cash in and sell the company. William Samuels Sr. was unable the secure the financing to buy the distillery himself and was forced to sell his minority share to a New York based buyer. Samuels left the company after the sale and 10 years later started Maker’s Mark with the purchase of the old Burks distillery.

The distillery has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1974 and was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1980. Many of the older building with historic significance have been well maintained and the Samuels family have been careful to keep up the turn-of-the-century appearance of the complex, even through times of expansion. Our tour guide didn’t go into too much detail regarding the pre-history of Maker’s Mark that I’ve outlined above, only mentioning that William Samuels Sr. purchased the distillery in 1953 for $35,000, as we were about to enter a warehouse that dated back to 1889. I’m guessing that the level of information given regarding that subject is something that varies from tour to tour.

From the Burks House we followed the brick pathway down the hill to the main area of the distillery complex. Even in the dead of winter, with no leaves on the trees and the grass a muted shade of green, the meticulously landscaped grounds were quite striking. I can only imagine how beautiful the place must be in the summer.

The first stop was the still house. This building stands out visually with its external grain silos and five-story tower which houses the stills. When you step inside to what is essentially a tourist viewing area, the layout is fairly compact, with a mash tub, two copper tailboxes and the lower section of a column still all in close proximity. The tailboxes are essentially the American equivalent of the traditional Scottish spirit safe; this is the piece of equipment where re-condensed distillate can be accessed for measurements as it flows to a holding tank.

At this point a few technical details were revealed. Current production capacity is 650 barrels per day. The use of a roller mill to crush the grain was a point of distinction, as most other American distilleries employ a hammer mill. They claim this adds less heat to the grain as it is being milled, which keeps the whiskey from developing bitter flavors. The mash bill is 70% corn, 16% wheat and 14% malted barley.

In the early day of Maker’s establishment, William Samuels Sr. put together a focus group of industry heavyweights which included Pappy Van Winkle to help him refine the process he would use. With their influence, he chose to burn the old family recipe and start over with a less common wheat based recipe.

Spirit comes off the column still at 120 proof and the pot still at 130 proof (like Dickel, Maker’s Mark employs a pot still “doubler”, but that piece of equipment isn’t visible on the standard tour at either distillery). Barrel entry proof is 110 and after aging the whiskey typically ends up between 110 and 116 proof.

Next we moved into another section of the same building which houses the fermentation tanks. There were eight of them in this room and they were traditional Cypress tanks which looked quite old. Additional fermenters are housed in other, newer buildings. When I pressed for details the guide did tell us that there where 50 more tanks and they were all made of stainless steel. She also noted that the fermentation cycle lasts three days. We were all encouraged to dip a finger in the mixture and take a taste, which was a nice touch.

From there we stepped outside, crossed a small bridge over the stream that runs across the distillery grounds and feeds into Hardin Creek and walked over to Warehouse A, which dates to 1889. We went inside the two-story building which holds the barrels in wooden racks, six high (the wood “floors” only run down the aisles, not between the rows of barrels). In spite of the outside temperature reaching upwards of 60 degrees, the warehouse interior was maintaining its rather chilly winter temperature.

The vast majority of the whiskey made here is aged in more modern warehouses located various distance from the distillery and averaging six stories high. To produce a consistent finished product which is aged for about six years, all of the new barrels are entered on the top floors of the warehouses and then rotated down one floor roughly once a year.

There was also a cutaway of a Maker’s 46 barrel which showed its inside. This first (and only, if you don’t count different bottling proofs) variant of Maker’s Mark was introduced in 2010. It is produced the same way as standard Maker’s Mark in every respect, up until the end of the aging process. After six years or so, the whiskey is transferred into special barrels which have 10 seared French oak staves standing upright in the center. The additional maturation lasts for 9 to 11 weeks, and then the whiskey is bottled at 94 proof (slightly higher than standard Maker’s 90 proof). This new expression was created by William Samuels Jr., who had been running the company since the late 1970’s. He had been responsible for growing Maker’s Mark from a regional brand into a national one, but wanted to leave a more enduring legacy for himself as he neared retirement.

From Warehouse A, we went back outside and took a short walk to the bottling hall. It was late in the day so we only saw a few employees doing some cleanup and maintenance rather than any bottling action. The bottling line looks fairly modern, but the bottle tops are still all dipped in wax by hand. I asked about the miniatures, and yes, even those are hand dipped. This process does have quality control standards; the wax isn’t supposed to touch the label and there are an optimal number of wax legs that should run down the neck. Still, each person that does this job has their own unique way of dipping and rotating. Apparently if one of these employees goes into a liquor store they can actually pick out the bottles that they dipped. It all sounds pretty cool until they mention the production quota and the expected pace of twenty something bottles per minute. Oh, and that stuff is real hot, you definitely wouldn’t want to splash it around too much.

After the bottling hall, it was back outside and over to Warehouse D. This one looks very similar to Warehouse A on the outside and is only slightly newer, dating to somewhere between 1889 and 1900. But the inside is a whole different story; only a short part of the building’s center section still serves as a barrel warehouse and the two ends have been repurposed and modernized. Entering from the south end brings you into a large, open, modern looking space which is divided into three separate tasting rooms by floor-to-ceiling glass panels; two to the left of a center aisle and a third, larger one to the right. Aging barrels can be seen through glass walls at the end of the space opposite the entrance.

We sat on bar stools at the three rows of free-standing wooden bar top where samples in tasting glasses had already been pre-set for us. We went through Maker’s White (unaged spirit at 90 proof), regular Maker’s Mark, Maker’s 46 and Cask Strength Maker’s Mark, with a brief discussion of each.

Next it was on to the gift shop at the opposite end of the building. This has been the configuration of Warehouse D since 2007, where visitors go from the tasting area to the gift shop by passing through the in-use barrel racks in the building’s center section, which spans about 40 feet. That short walk received a major enhancement in 2014, though. Rob Samuels, who had taken over as president and CEO of Maker’s Mark upon his father’s 2011 retirement, wanted to do something special for the brand’s 60th anniversary. He commission renowned glass artist Dale Chihuly to create a Maker’s Mark inspired piece which would grace the ceiling of that historical space. The 36-foot-by-6-foot backlit installation is visually stunning.

Like passing through a time portal, the doorway at the opposite end of the barrel rack section of the building brings you to the gift shop, which is another large, open, modern space. All of the Maker’s wares and bottlings were on offer, but I was after just one; Cask Strength Maker’s 46, which can only be purchased at the distillery. What came as a surprise bonus was when I was told that if buying a bottle at the distillery shop, you had the option of getting one that hadn’t been dipped in wax yet and dipping it yourself.

After paying $40 (there’s no extra charge for the self-dipping option) for my 375 ml prize, it was time to don the proper protective gear. With safety glasses, gloves, forearm gators and an apron all in place I was ready to approach the dipping station. My tour guide explained the process; dip, remove, hold the bottle sideways, twist the wrist to rotate it over, then hold it upright and let the wax run down. Aside from a few air bubbles, I had pretty good results for a first attempt.

In my last Maker’s Mark post I discussed their struggle with supply issues and compared the standard 90 proof bottling to the short-lived 84 proof offering and the new (at the time) cask strength bottling. Now I have the opportunity to compare the 94 proof Maker’s 46 bottling to my 110.8 proof example of cask strength Maker’s 46.

Maker’s 46:
The nose has strong commonalities with regular Maker’s Mark, but in an amplified, more volatile way. The leather and shoe polish notes are accompanied by ground cinnamon and vanilla aromatics.
A certain degree of sweetness still leads on the palate, but it’s less dominant and shorter lived when compared to the flagship offering. As with the nose, much more obvious vanilla and cinnamon notes seem to be the big differentiators here, and they partialy mask the corn-forward grain notes. It’s also notably more full-bodied.
The finish is where Maker’s 46 really comes into its own. The vanilla character peaks and then gradually fades as the spice notes build, becoming more intense and more complex. Cinnamon stick and cinnamon Red Hots are the driving force, but subtle hints of Ancho Chile and Paprika are also present.
Overall, this is a bolder, more assertive take on Maker’s Mark, which shows a broader evolution of flavors.

Cask Strength Maker’s 46:
The aromas are quite similar to those of the 94 proof version, but the higher alcohol level does make itself readily apparent when nosing.
The intensity of flavor on the initial sip is almost overwhelming. It’s profoundly spice-driven and just short of palate numbing at first. After a few sips to acclimatize the mouth it becomes more manageable, but it’s still a wild ride through a range of fiery spice notes. A hint of maple syrup and a bit of vanilla driven sweetness run through the background up front, but that soon fades, leaving spice notes that evolve and become quite dry as it moves through the lengthy finish.
This one gets right down to brass tacks, skipping the formalities and jumping headlong into waves of bold spiciness. The standard Maker’s 46 seems mild but better-rounded by comparison. The cask strength version of traditional Maker’s Mark nearly matches the intensity, but with more leathery oak and less spice character.

As I said in my previous post, my decision to visit Maker’s Mark was primarily driven by the fact that no other afternoon tours would work into my travel schedule that day. Don’t get me wrong, I like Maker’s Mark; it just wasn’t at the top of my priority list for distillery tours. That being said, I was really won over by the beauty of the place and the features of the tour.

I had actually made the mistaken assumption that this was where all of the general tourists go because the brand is so well know. But the distillery isn’t really near to much of anything; you really have to go out of your way to get there. While well-rounded bourbon enthusiasts might seek out other distilleries first, there’s no shortage of Maker’s Mark fanatics embarking on the pilgrimage to their ultimate destination.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Whiskey Road Trip, George Dickel tour

Having fulfilled my whisky dinner hosting obligations in Florida, as documented here, here, here and here, it was time to transport myself northward and partake in some long overdue tours of American distilleries.

When this trip was being planned, a limited number of dates were given to me as options for the Florida event. The one that worked best happened to be on a Monday. I was also trying to not take any more Saturdays off from work than necessary; that being my most profitable night of the week. That left me with a four day window, but the lengthy drives involved meant that it would break down to two travel days and two touring days.

The first step of the planning process was to take a look at a map and see where Kentucky’s major distilleries were actually located. They’re pretty spread out, but are basically arranged in two clusters; those around Bardstown and those around Frankfort. My first thought was that it made sense to end in Frankfort because it’s slightly further east, putting me a bit closer to home when I started the long drive back to Vermont on Friday morning. That was still going to be a 15 hour drive; not easy, but manageable. I’d done a few 17 hour solo drives in my younger days, so at least I knew what I was getting myself into.

I figured I wouldn’t get on the road too early the morning after hosting the Scotch dinner, and while I was looking at drive times on Google Maps I saw that it was going to be a 14 hour run whether my destination was Bardstown or Frankfort. Not liking the sound of that and preferring to have a bit more recovery time before jumping into distillery tours first thing the next morning, I started to consider the Tennessee option. This would mean a roughly 11 hour drive to the southern part of the Volunteer State, a nearby distillery tour the following morning and then a three to four hour drive to a Kentucky distillery for an afternoon tour.

A little more research ruled out visits to any new / craft distilleries in Tennessee, leaving Jack Daniel’s and George Dickel as the options. The latter was the more interesting of the two to me, so that decision was quickly settled. Of the major Kentucky distilleries, Buffalo Trace and Four Roses topped my priority list. They’re both part of the Frankfort cluster, so spending two nights in the state capital and visiting them on the second day of taking tours made the most sense.

Now I just had to figure out what to do in the afternoon following the Dickel tour. My first inclination was to do something a little different and visit a cooperage. Independent Stave, one of the two big players in the industry, offers tours at their Lebanon, KY facility. Unfortunately they only run two tours per day; one at 9:30 and one at 1:00. Even if I took the first tour at Dickel at 9:00 and left by 10:00, the nearly four hour drive between the two would have me arriving an hour too late.

Then, for some reason, I thought I should check to see if I was going far enough west to cross from the Eastern time zone to the Central time zone at any point. Yep, sure enough the line zigzags through the middle of both Tennessee and Kentucky, and I would be crossing it. All of the distilling industry points of interest in and around Bardstown and Frankfort are on East Coast time, but Dickel (as well as Jack Daniel’s, which is nearby) is in the Central time zone. For a brief moment I thought I might be getting back the hour that I needed to get to Independent Stave in time for their second daily tour. But a closer look showed that I’d be losing an hour on the drive from Tennessee to Kentucky. On the upside, I would get an extra hour of sleep after the long drive from Florida.

Now my timing between tours was going to be even more of a critical factor, and I eventually came to the realization that Maker’s Mark was the only Kentucky distillery that was close enough (in terms of the drive time from Dickel) and that offered a tour late enough in the afternoon to be a candidate for my second visit.

I ended up spending the night before the Dickel tour in Winchester, TN, a town which is about 20 miles south of the distillery. The drive up from Florida, which was primarily on Interstate 75, was fairly routine aside from seeing the overtly religious billboards that we just don’t have up north. As expected, I got a late start leaving Florida. The time zone crossing made up for that delay, and in spite of getting stuck in rush hour traffic in Atlanta I was still able to reach my destination in 11 hours. What was probably the most scenic and interesting part of the drive, where Interstate 24 passes through the Monteagle Mountain section of the Cumberland Plateau, was unfortunately done after dark and with thunderstorms rolling in.

Driving to the distillery the next morning took about 30 minutes. After passing through the small but densely developed town of Tullahoma, the last mile and a half of the road leading out the distillery quickly becomes quite rural as it brings you into secluded, tree covered rolling hills. While the distillery is by no means small, it still has the feeling of being tucked away in a classic Tennessee hollow (you’ll want to pronounce that “holler” if you’d like to fit in with the locals). All but one of the Dickel barrel warehouses are hidden from sight behind the hills surrounding the distillery, furthering its image of isolation.

This not being my first rodeo, I was well aware of the fact that Dickel was a Diageo owned distillery and that meant there would be no photography allowed in the production areas during the tour. This was a corporate policy that I learned about the hard way while visiting several of their distilleries in Scotland. I’m not really one to look for special treatment from the industry, but considering my intention to document these tours, being able to take pictures was kind of important to me. I decided to make this request about a week in advance through someone I know (albeit peripherally through a mutual acquaintance) who works at Diageo. While I had his ear, I also mentioned that I’d be happy to chat with the new master distiller if she was available (a long time Dickel employee named Allisa Henley, who had replaced the recently departed John Lunn). The response was quick, and I was told that she would be expecting me.

Well, I’m not sure what happened, but when I arrived shortly before 9:00 and mentioned that I was there to see Allisa I got a blank stare and a polite “who are you?” After a quick phone call or two they apologized for the fact that I wasn’t on her schedule and noted that she’d be in meetings all morning. In spite of the fact that I’d spent a good chunk of the previous evening brushing up on Dickel’s history and brainstorming topics for discussion, meeting with the master distiller would still have been a bonus to what I originally asked for; permission to take pictures during the tour. That first tour of the day didn’t start until 9:30, even though the information on the website gave the impression that it started at 9:00, so I was left with a half hour to putter around the visitor center.

Located across the street from the main distillery buildings is a replica of an old-timey general store which has the visitor center on one side and a gift shop, functional US Post Office and a small room for post-tour tastings on the other side. There was an interesting collection of historical artifacts related to the distillery on display, as well as a diorama of the equipment used in the distilling process.

When it was time for the tour to start, the guide laid out the ground rules, which of course included no photography once we were across the street on the production facility grounds (apparently the rather professional looking business card I presented when I originally introduced myself doesn’t carry much weight). At that point I was actually tempted to just say “fuck it” and leave, but after driving as far as I had I figured I should at last walk through and see the place.

The tour itself was fairly standard fare, although it did feel a bit scripted and I got the impression that asking too many questions might throw the whole thing out of sync. I think it’s kind of pointless to go into the nuts and bolts of what I saw in the distillery without any corresponding images to show, so I’ll just skip on to some of the interesting info I was able to pick up along the way.

The distillery is currently producing seven days a week with two shifts per day and an output of 600 barrels per week. The barrel warehouses, which are all single story and six barrels in height, are grouped together, on location. They have a total capacity of 200,000 barrels (which equates to about six and a half years worth of production). Like most of the major American distilleries, double distillation is performed here. First a column still brings the distillate to 115 proof, then a doubler (a type of pot still) takes it up to 130 proof. That distillate is then diluted down to 112 proof before barrel entry.

But before barrel entry, the distillate goes through the Lincoln County Process. This step of filtering the liquid through sugar maple charcoal is what essentially defines Tennessee Whiskey and differentiates it from bourbon. People love to argue about whether or not Jack Daniel’s and / or George Dickel are bourbons. In actuality they both fit the technical definition of bourbon, but are not simply because their producers choose not to label them as such. The process does differ slightly between the two brands. At Jack Daniel’s the liquid slowly trickles down through 10 foot tall vats of charcoal, while at Dickel the liquid is first chilled to 40 degrees F and then filled into 13 foot tall vats of charcoal, where it stays for about a week before being drained off.

One of the more interesting points that came out during the tour was when the guide mentioned that a distillery-only 17 year bottling would be coming out in the spring. In my post comparing Dickel No. 8 and Dickel No. 12, I discussed the more recent history of the distillery; specifically the events related its four and a half year closure, from January of 1999 through September of 2003. A new 17 year old would clearly be from some of the last distillate produced before that closure. The first word of an upcoming new whiskey is usually broken when its label approval appears on the TTB website. In the case of the 17 year Dickel bottling, word of the new label approval broke around mid April, as can be seen here. Finding out about the new release more than two months ahead of it becoming common knowledge was pretty cool.

At the time, I was told that it would be a smaller bottle size (than 750 ml), but that no price information was available yet. I didn’t ask about what proof it might be bottled at. When it finally became available in early June, those details emerged; 375 ml bottle, 43.5% ABV, $75. Looking at the Certificate of Label Approval on the TTB website, I noticed that the back label has information for bottle deposits in the states that require them (ME, VT and IA) and that the “net contents” section of the form list three sizes; 375 ml. 750 ml and 1 liter. This leads me to believe that the distillery-only release may be a precursor to wider distribution.

Now we come to the part of the tour where I get a little riled up again. This time it has to do with the distorting of history. The whiskey sold by George Dickel was originally produced in a distillery about a mile from the current one and marketed under the Cascade Distillery brand. Diageo has a pretty poor track record when it comes to using accurate historical information in the marketing of the Dickel brand, as documented here by Chuck Cowdery. What rubbed me the wrong way on the tour was their accounting of how the current distillery came to be.

The original distillery was established around 1877 and ran until Tennessee instituted state-wide Prohibition in 1910. Whiskey for the Cascade Distillery brand was then produced at the A. Ph Stitzel Distillery in Louisville, KY until national Prohibition was instituted in 1919. Finally, the current Dickel distillery was built in 1958. The construction project was overseen by a man named Ralph L. Dupps, who went on to serve as the distillery manager until 1963 and the president of George A. Dickel & Co. until 1985.

On the tour, they mentioned that Dupps had tasted and had an affinity for the pre-Prohibition Dickel whiskey (this is a questionable fact considering that he was born in 1917, though not entirely impossible). But the big problem was when Dupps was spoken of as if he was some sort of random benevolent character who just decided to up and move from Kentucky to Tennessee in the late 1950’s, build a distillery and bring back the old Dickel, all on a whim.

In reality, the Shwab family, relatives of Dickel’s business partner, sold the company trademarks to the Schenley Distilling Company in 1937 (George Dickel died in 1894, his wife, Augusta died in 1916 and Victor Shwab, her brother-in-law, died in 1924). Schenley was one of a small number of companies that bought up the tattered remains of many of the American distilling businesses that had been thriving before Prohibition. In 1956 the owners of Schenley made an unsuccessful attempt to buy Jack Daniel’s, whose founding family instead chose to sell to the Brown-Forman Company. Schenley’s response was to take the Cascade Hollow and George Dickel trademarks that they owned, as well as the original recipe, and build a new distillery based on them as close to the original facility in Tennessee as possible to compete directly with Jack Daniel’s. Ralph Dupps, a Schenley employee who ran their Bernheim Distillery in Louisville, was charged with that task.

Now, lest you think I’m singling out Diageo here, I’m not. Plenty of other companies twist around the historical facts related to the distilleries they own to suit their marketing purposes. It’s a travesty whenever it happens, and they should all be called out for doing it.

On to the whiskey in the gift shop. Five offerings were available; Dickel #1 (which is labeled as a white corn whiskey), Dickel #8, Dickel #12, Barrel Select and a Hand Selected Single Barrel bottling.

One of the first things I noticed was that the George Dickel Rye was not among the lineup. When I asked about that, I was told that state regulations didn’t allow them to sell it in the distillery store since it isn’t made there. Dickel sources their rye whiskey from MGP in Indiana, which is the same 95% rye recipe used by, well, damn near everyone. It does go through the same charcoal mellowing process as the other Dickel whiskeys, but in the case of the rye that happens after aging rather than before. Why? Because it is sourced whiskey that was purchased well after it had been entered into the barrels.

While the tour was still in progress, the guide mentioned the typical ages of the three non-age stated bottlings. It was 5 to 7 years for the #8 (80 proof), 7 to 9 years for the #12 (90 proof), and 10 to 12 years for the Barrel Select (86 proof). My previous Dickel post, which I also referenced above, noted the typical ages of these whiskies from a few different time periods. I asked about the rather stark difference I had noticed between the #8 and #12 the last time I tasted them side-by-side and was told that in addition to the age and proof differences, the master distiller chooses the barrels for each with a specific flavor profile in mind. That seems counterintuitive to the philosophy of single-story warehouses which largely eliminate the variable of barrel location during maturation. This is something I would have loved to discuss further with the master distiller.

I’m not sure if I’ve expressed my opinion of white whiskey on here before or not, so here it is for the record. Every time I taste a white whiskey I think to myself “Oh yeah, that’s why they go through the trouble of building warehouses, coopering barrels and aging the stuff for years on end”. I do think white whiskey is an important educational tool. It should be available on tours and in smaller format bottles for those who want a greater appreciation of where their whiskey comes from. I don’t really think it’s something that should be sold (or bought) as an everyday drinker though. That being said, I was surprised to see Dickel’s white whiskey priced at a scant $2 less than the #8 ($23 vs. $25). But before I even thought to question that, the tour guide launched into what seemed like a preemptive defense of the product, noting its higher alcohol level (91 proof) and extolling its virtues as a brilliant cocktail ingredient. They must get questioned on this frequently. The #12, which nearly matches the proof of the #1 and is aged more than the #8, was priced at $29. It seems to me like they’ve chosen to cash in on people who are willing to pay too much for white whiskey.

Speaking of cashing in, I was kind of shocked to two bottles of Barrel Select sitting next to each other on the retail shelf with different prices ($40 and $45). The only difference was that the more expensive ones had been signed by the master distiller. When I mentioned this the next day to my tour guide at Four Roses, where they had bottles signed by their master distiller with no additional markup, the response was a slack-jawed look of disbelief. In the case of Dickel, it appears that the corporate bean-counters have the authority over such decisions.

The final bottle on the shelf was a Hand Selected Single Barrel offering. It was 103 proof with a 9 year age statement and priced at $99. The tour guide had mentioned that this bottling was available as a 9 year old and a 14 year old. I did a little research after the fact and learned that the Hand Selected Single Barrel program was started in 2013, so at the time the 14 year old and 9 year old bottling would have come from whiskey distilled shortly before and shortly after the Dickel’s lengthy closure (Jan 99 through Sept 03). I also learned that the 14 year old was limited to 50 or 60 barrels. The 9 year old has been an ongoing release (the one at the distillery was bottled in 2015); perhaps the 14 year will become available again by the end of 2017.

If I recall correctly, I was given the option of purchasing either two or four samples after the tour. The Hand Selected Single Barrel wasn’t on offer and I was already pretty familiar with the #8 and the #12, so I tasted the #1 and the Barrel Select. I liked the #1, keeping in mind my above stated opinion of white whiskeys in general, of course. Corn is certainly the driving force of its flavor profile, as one would expect, given Dickel’s mashbill of 84% corn, 8% rye and 8% malted barley.

In my last Dickel post I noted that I was quite fond of my first bottle of #12, which dated to 2007, but a more recent example from 2013 was far less impressive. The former was probably aged 10 to 12 years, while the latter was likely in the 6 to 9 year range. I’ve also sampled a bottled from 2015, and it was essentially the same as the 2013. When I tasted the Barrel Select at the distillery the memories came flooding back; there was the flavor profile of that original bottle of #12 that I knew and loved. It was wonderfully flavored, but smooth, mellow and balanced. The current Barrel Select is said to be aged 10 to 12 years, but I think there is more than just age at play here. I prefer the #8 to the current #12, and according to the research I did the 9 year Single Barrel was generally preferred over the 14 year, which was said to still have a strong showing of the Flintstone’s vitamins / minerality character.

In spite of my less than stellar experience at Dickel, I would still recommend visiting the distillery. If I was in the area again though, I’d make a full day of it. The site of the original Cascade Distillery is close by and has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1994. Some physical remains, including the still house foundations and the spring dam can still be seen there. Also nearby, Machine Falls at the Short Springs State Natural Area looks like a great spot if you’re up for a short hike. I’m sure it would be interesting to follow up with a visit to Jack Daniel’s as well, to compare and contrast. All of that being said, if someone at Diageo wants to make amends by sending me a bottle of the 17 year Dickel, I’d be happy to give it a fair and honest review (I actually have no expectation of this happening, but it can’t hurt to throw it out there).