George Dickel Distillery Tour

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The lesser known of Tennessee’s distilleries, George Dickel is somewhat more convenient for those passing by on the interstate.  And, if it’s not exactly convenient, then it’s certainly a scenic drive... one that ends up in a scenic “hollow.”

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Cascade Hollow, that is.  Here it is back around 1964, when the present site was built for... (wait for it)... 1 million dollars!

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It’s not much different today.

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Here’s the other side of the plant.  No, not very interesting, other than a hydrant system made it all this way.

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The original distillery began making whisky back in 1870 just down the road.

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Dickel was a merchant and would buy the distillery in 1884.  At the time, the brand was Cascade Whisky, “mellow as moonlight.”  There is no “e” before the “y” as he is attributed with saying that as “his whisky was as smooth as the finest Scotch” he would spell it in the Scottish tradition.   Here’s George in front of his visitor’s center.

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So, the process begins with maple logs, which are cut into 2” square lengths and stacked in “ricks.”  About 9 times per year, they burn these behind the shed seen in the left of the photo below.   A whole bunch of them.  These burn to the desired ash consistency to be considered maple charcoal.  These are hand shoveled and trucked across the street to the plant.  Old fashioned, it is.

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Ingredients include 84% corn and 8% each of rye and barley.  These are milled and brought to a broil with local water forming the “mash.” Imagine big steel tanks.  Afterwards, yeast is added in open steel vats (~19,000 gallons each) where fermenting takes place, forming alcohol and carbon dioxide.  These can be seen in the tour at various stages of bubbling based on how many days they’ve been in the vats, and there is a slight odor of alcohol (~10%).  You will note explosion proof electrical fixtures in the facility, one reason, at least, why pictures are not allowed within.

Distillation involves separating the alcohol from the wort (or used mash).  Dickel has a rather striking 3 story distillation column, which has baffles throughout, in which this is done.  Essentially, boilers heat the liquid so that the alcohol boils into a vapor and is collected, while the water and solids pass through. The used mash is high in proteins and sold as livestock feed.

As the flavor of their whisky was observed to be better in winter months, they chill the whisky to 40 degrees before it enters the mellowing vats.  These vats are 13’ tall, filled with the maple charcoal but further filtered by a layer of virgin wool cloth at both the top and bottom of the tank.  As opposed to dripping the alcohol through in a regular process by their larger nearby competitor, Dickel fills the vats to smooth, mellow or otherwise make the stuff easier to drink. 

After mellowing sufficiently, the alcohol is moved to holding tanks, after which it is filled into 53 gallon oak barrels (made by others in Kentucky).  These are aged from, I gather, 5-12 years in 9 warehouses that are all nearby (~200,000 bbls).  A small warehouse is located on site.  Interestingly, these are all single story warehouses (6 rows of barrels), which provides a very uniform flavoring.  Multistory warehouses have different flavor profiles which must either be utilized or shifted during the aging years.

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They show a short video to show how this is done.  Afterwards, the (now) whisky is diluted with water to achieve the desired alcoholic content, and... shipped to Illinois in unmarked tankers for bottling.  That’s kind of anti-climactic.  If, however, someone were to purchase a single barrel, as sometimes happens, then those barrels are bottled on site.

The fact is that Dickel is owned by Diageo, a British multinational alcoholic beverage company that is quite a bit larger than the company which owns their nearby competitor.   But this is a small operation, with the distillery being operated by 29 employees and no automated controls.  There’s plenty of history to be found on the web – the Prohibition years and the like, if you look for it.

Depending on the tour you take, you may get a tasting as well.  Here’s what that looks like:

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The White Corn Whisky is said by some to have a flavor of corn.  I’m not one of those people.  It’s not aged in barrels and tastes like (watered down) alcohol.  No one apparently knows why they refer to their main brands as Old No. 8 and Superior No. 12.  The No. 8 is aged from 5-7 years and is considered a mixing whisky where you’re not fully concentrating on the flavor.  The No. 12 is definitely suitable for sipping, the extra years (7-=9 total) having mellowed the flavor despite 5% more alcohol in the mix.  And the Dickel Barrel Select...  better still.  Barrels are sampled for flavor and 10 are mixed to form this “small-batch” release each year.  These are matured in barrels slightly  They’re also aged between 10-12 years.  My opinion?  I’m not an expert in these things.  But the Select I would consider more complex in its flavor, and, in my limited recollection, preferable over any of the Jack Daniels products I’ve had. 

Below is their Visitor center, where you can purchase their product and the usual assortment of logo novelties and clothing.

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An old advertisement posted for bathroom humor:

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A light so you can read the above sign in the bathroom:

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And, the afterthought comment of the tour.  The tree is outside the fermenter, where air is vented.  As a result, a blackish fungus grows on the tree (which remains perfectly healthy), but black trees were apparently tip-offs to revenuers when searching for illegal stills in them thar hills.  Or hollows.

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