Tuesday, July 15, 2008

You don't know Dickel

Of the three distilleries I have visited in three countries in the last month or so, George Dickel in Tennessee ties for first place. Bushmill's, in Northern Ireland, was cool in the grand scope of it, the diversity of products, and most of all, the four hundred year history. The gentleman at the bar was one of the most knowledgeable people I have ever met when it comes to whiskey. He was well versed in Scotch, Irish Whiskey, and knew a good deal about American Whiskey too.

Glenkinchie was just OK in all respects. They don't malt there, they don't kiln there, they do not even barrel and age there. It was purchased a couple of decades ago by Diageo to round out the company's offerings to include distilleries in the major regions of Scotland. Prior to that, it did not offer single malt whisky. In fact, all of the production went into blends. The young man guiding the tour did not know anything other than the script and, as I found out as I stood at the bar sipping my way through the offerings, doesn't really like whiskey. There was an older gentleman that was more knowledgeable about his national beverage. I wrote a bit about him in "What I learned about Scotch."

George Dickel Distillery was as interesting as Bushmills, though the other end of the spectrum. Our guide was a southern gentleman who walked us the the operation with a slow, deliberate pace. Their offering is limited to their number 8, number 12, and a Barrel Select Whisky. Note the different spelling. George Dickel proclaimed that his whiskey was as smooth as the finest Scotch and therefore opted to spell it without the customary "ey." The history, although not as nearly as long as Bushmill's four hundred years, was still interesting and dates back to 1870. The location was carefully chosen for its proximity to the pure water that naturally filtered through the layers of limestone located there. As Tennessee implemented prohibition, the distillery moved just over the Kentucky border along with countless other distilleries. National prohibition forced the closure of the distillery as it did with so many other distilleries, breweries and wineries.

George Dickel's daughters inherited the property and it sat without a distillery for many years. Then about fifty years ago, as our guide explained, a master distiller who used to drink the whisky came back after many years and was disappointed to see the distillery was defunct. He approached the daughters about selling it. Upon their approval, he went back to Kentucky to secure financing. When he applied for a permit to rebuild the distillery, however, he was denied. Some time later, the story goes, someone stumbled upon the original distillery license and delivered it to the master distiller. The local government then grandfathered in the license and the distillery was rebuilt. George Dickel kept very thorough notes and the old formulas were once again flowing from Cascade Hollow, Tennessee.

A sampling of things that make Dickel unique include the fact that it is double distilled. The first is in the traditional column still followed by second distillation in a pot still. Another difference is that the "white dog" or clear distillate is chilled before being filtered through sugar maple charcoal lined with virgin wool blankets. The twenty feet of charcoal is equal to that used in the production in Gentleman Jack and double that used for standard Jack Daniel's production. They say the chilling of the liquor prior to filtration removes the fattys acids and oils in a manner similar to pouring gravy through ice.

The big difference from the other distilleries is in the absence of a large computer control panel. Everything is done by a handful of guys the old fashioned way. Both of the other distilleries I visited looked like the set of an old star trek episode with the boxy computerized controls. At the Dickel distillery we placed our hands over the open fermentation tank to feel the heat. "this one is about three days now, it will come out tomorrow" our guide explained. We all walked to the next tank and placed our hands over the bubbly liquid. "this one is about a day behind, notice it is not as warm. It will feel like that one tomorrow" our guide continued, "it will come out in two days."

We were unable to visit the aging barrels. Apparently this part of tour was done away with after September 11. I guess all that flammable alcohol presents a security risk. They had a mock-up of the barrel storage were our guide explained another difference. The barrels are stacked only six high, for consistent aging. Our tour concluded with a short film showing them opening barrels after a skillful roll down the hill. Finally, we went to the gift shop were I bought a bottle of Barrel Select.

The differences between the three distilleries were broad, a fact made all the more interesting by the fact that all three distilleries are owned by Diageo, a conglomerate company with holdings such as Smirnoff, Cruzan, Bailey's Irish Creme, Guinness, Tanqueray, and more.

Even amongst the globalization of industry, local flavor still manages to shine through.