George Dickel Tennessee Whisky’s (trademarked) slogan is “Handmade the hard way,” and you’ll hear this often when you visit the distillery (from here on out, I’ll be using the American spelling, “whiskey,” but Dickel does use “whisky” on its label). Master distiller Allisa Henley is fond of repeating the phrase. And, as in so many marketing devices in the whiskey industry, it’s true and it’s not true. Compared to that other Tennessee whiskey, the juggernaut that is Jack Daniel’s, Dickel does indeed feel like a smaller, more hands-on operation. But Dickel is owned by the gargantuan spirits conglomerate Diageo, and it sources its rye from MGP over in Indiana – a detail that irks some people, the same wrongheaded snobs who won’t drink excellent non-distiller produced liquid from the likes of Michter’s and Bulleit. It seems that, at least outside of Tennessee, Dickel is often overlooked. This might change as the distillery continues to expand and has just released an older expression that can hang with the likes of Blade and Bow 22, IW Harper 15, and Wild Turkey 17.
I recently had the opportunity to visit the Cascade Hollow distillery on a press trip sponsored by Dickel. After cavorting in Nashville for a bit, checking out some honky-tonks, and trying some Hattie B’s hot chicken (next time, Prince’s, I promise), I headed down to tour the distillery’s bucolic grounds and check out the warehouses with Henley. But first, a little bit about what makes Tennessee whiskey unique. According to federal law, Tennessee whiskey must be made in the state of Tennessee, unlike bourbon, which can be made anywhere. On a state regulatory level, like bourbon the mash bill for Tennessee whiskey must be at least 51% corn. In addition, it must undergo the Lincoln County process, which means that the new make whiskey is filtered through about 10 feet of sugar maple charcoal, which is supposed to “mellow” the whiskey’s flavor.
Dickel continues to grow and expand with the world’s general interest in American whiskey, having recently broken ground on what will be the distillery’s 13th warehouse with a capacity of 52,000 barrels. Also, there’s the aforementioned new expression, available as of June 1st, George Dickel 17 Year Old. The story behind this whiskey is one you’ve heard before, and must be taken with a grain of salt. Master Distiller Henley was combing through the warehouses and stumbled upon a forgotten row of 17-year-old barrels – think Orphan Barrel, also owned by Diageo. It seems unlikely that such a tightly controlled operation would actually forget about inventory in one of its warehouses and just randomly come upon it. But it’s entirely possible this is how it went down, so let’s assume the distillery’s story is true. Whatever the origin, the liquid is quite delicious; a rich, dark, complex, syrupy whiskey that pops with deep vanilla, oak, and caramel flavors. This limited release comes in smaller 375 ml bottles which are only available at the distillery or at select Tennessee retailers. On the day I visited, over 600 bottles had already been sold to people traveling to the distillery expressly for that purpose. Clearly, there are some devoted Dickel fans out there.
I spoke with Henley about a variety of subjects, including why Dickel sources its rye instead of producing it on its own grounds. She said that the hope is to someday bring rye production back to the distillery, but for now they will continue to source from MGP – they do put the liquid through the Lincoln County process there with charcoal shipped directly from Tullahoma. We also spoke about Dickel’s relationship with Jack Daniel’s, a brand that is increasingly being perceived as something more than a sweet, anodyne shot to go with your beer, as it releases excellent cask strength, rye, and single barrel expressions. Her take seemed to be one of general camaraderie, something you frequently hear from distillers when talking about the competition. After all, who wants to be known as the bitter, shit-talking brand? But in general the theory that what is good for one distillery is good for the category in general seems to hold true, and energy spent on bickering is energy wasted.
Dickel seems to be well positioned to ride the apparently endless wave of interest in everything whiskey-related. The brand expertly promotes its identity as a “handmade” product, which in this case doesn’t feel like something completely manufactured, even while production and storage capacity are increased. Will Dickel ever catch up with Jack Daniel’s in terms of sales and popularity? Maybe it doesn’t need to; maybe being the smaller of the big Tennessee whiskey names is part of its appeal.