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).