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Visiting the George Dickel Distillery

Posted by Reese On May - 19 - 2015

In March, I had the honor of traveling to Tennessee to visit the George Dickel Distillery.  Visiting a distillery and seeing the process, place and people first hand gives me a much deeper understanding of a spirit than marketing materials, buying a bottle or even a guided tasting can.  Touring the Dickel Distillery in Cascade Hollow drove home one fact.  “Handmade the Hard Way” is far more than just a slogan for all of the people involved in making Dickel whiskies.  It is truly a way of life.

George Dickel

George Dickel Distillery      George Dickel Distillery      George Dickel Distillery

A Bit of History

Driving to the distillery, which lies about an hour’s drive southeast of Nashville, you leave the city and its surroundings and then almost immediately plunge into rolling hills, grassy meadows and dense forests.  As you get closer to Cascade Hollow, your surroundings change to pastures and farm land surrounded by dense wooded areas.  Looking at the aerial maps (thanks Google) you can clearly see where the forest has been cleared away to make room for that pasture and farm land.  Thinking about it, you start to get an idea of what the area must have looked like in the 1860’s when George Dickel first visited.  Tucked back in a valley, it’s easy to see why he chose Cascade Hollow as the home of his namesake whisky distillery.

In the 1860’s, George Dickel was a prosperous merchant in Nashville with interests in shoemaking, orchards and most notably liquor wholesaling.  Legend says George Dickel and his wife visited Cascade Hollow in 1867 on a vacation from Nashville and established the distillery shortly thereafter in 1870*.  Having found a spring near the site of the distillery there was an abundant source of pure water for whisky production.  Dickel quickly began production of his namesake whisky, which he insisted was on par with any of the more famous Scotch whiskies and, to show that fact, insisted on dropping the ‘e’ from whiskey.  George Dickel died in 1894 and oversight of the distillery and other businesses passed to his wife Augusta.  She ran the distillery with George’s long-time business partner until Prohibition changed everything.  Prohibition hit Tennessee earlier than the rest of the country when the sale of alcohol was prohibited in 1907.  Ten years later (and 2 years before the rest of the country), the possession of alcohol was also made illegal in TN.  This put an end to distillation at Cascade Hollow for over 40 years.  In the late 1950’s the Dickel distillery was rebuilt on the old Cascade Hollow site.  Ralph Dupps took over operations at the distillery and the old recipes were shared by distillers who had made the whisky in years past.  Operations haven’t changed much since then as I was soon to find out.

Water From Dickel's Source      Water From Dickel's Source


Like every distillery, the water used to make the George Dickel line of whiskies is essential to the flavor profile they’re looking for.  When first scouting the area George found a spring not far from the site of the current distillery.  This is where he established his original operation as it wasn’t worth it to transport the water down the valley.  The distillery now uses the same water source but pipes it down from the mouth of the spring.  In addition to providing what is possibly the most important ingredient in the whisky, the spring also feeds a picturesque little stream that divides the distillery proper from the visitor’s center.

Malted Barley      Mash Tub #1      Mash Pumping Into Tub

Grain, Mashing and Fermentation

Dickel uses a mash bill consisting of 84% corn, 8% rye and 8% malted barley.  All of the corn is sourced from Tennessee and the rye and barley sourced from as close as possible while maintaining the quality the distillers require.  I had always wondered why so many whiskey recipes call for malted barley and Allisa informed us that without malted barley your mash will lack an enzyme that assists with the fermentation.  You can add the enzyme, but at Dickel they find the barley also contributes to the flavor profile they’re looking for.  The grains are milled on site in a hammer mill and combined in succession during the mashing process.  It was interesting to see that the grain is weighed manually in a huge balance above the mash tubs and recorded, also by hand, in a paper ledger.

Dickel leverages the sour mash process in a pair of 10,000 gallon mash tubs which, all told, takes about 4 hours.  After the mash process completes the two tubs are combined into one of nine 20,000 gallon fermenters.  Into each fermenter the distillers pitch Dickel’s proprietary strain of yeast and begin the fermentation.  It’s somewhat odd, I’ve been on quite a few distillery tours and I’ve only ever seen the yeast once.  It’s one of those secrets that distillers generally keep to themselves.  Dickel was no different in that respect.  Fermentation is a 3-4 day process and is, not surprisingly, monitored by hand or rather, taste, smell and temperature.

George Dickel Column Still

Sugar Maple Charcoal      Boil Out Tank #1      Charcoal Mellowing Vat

Distillation and Mellowing

Once fermentation is complete, the distillation can begin.  The first distillation of Dickel whisky is by way of a ~30ft column still.  This brings the spirit to a proof of 110-115.  From there it goes through a “doubler” which brings it to a final proof of 125-135.  Next comes Dickel’s signature charcoal mellowing process.  But first the whisky is brought down to 40 degrees F.  I asked why, thinking it strange that they’d spend the time and energy for this step.  Allisa explained that George Dickel produced whisky year round, but for reasons he couldn’t explain found that whisky made in the colder winter months tasted better.  This chilling process is what became of George’s findings.  Does it have an impact, I can’t say, but there are certainly chemical changes that occur or are inhibited depending on temperature, so there is probably some merit there.

Once chilled the whisky is poured into the mellowing tanks.  In these tanks is 10-13 feet of maple charcoal bookended by stainless plates and wool filters.  Upon entering the mellowing tank the whisky will take 7-10 days to fully move through the charcoal and come out the bottom.  This is, hands down, the longest part of the distillation process.  But, tasting their rye really showed me the value of this process.  Compared to very similar ryes (same mash bill, age, producer) that hadn’t been mellowed, the Dickel rye was smoother and had much less bite.  Oh yeah, those mellowing tanks, they’re filled by hand, bucket brigade style, one bag at a time.

Warehouse E

Warehouse E      Warehouse E      Barrel Position Guide


Dickel whisky, once mellowed, is barreled by hand (no surprise there), two barrels at a time and transported up the hill to the warehouses.  Dickel has 11 original warehouses which store 13K-15K barrels each and a brand new warehouse that can hold 52K.  Each of the original warehouses is a single story.  Barrels are racked 6 high and 27 deep.  Touring a barrel house like this is really an amazing experience.  The smell alone makes you want to never leave the place.  It’s an aroma of wood, moistened with whisky and the undeniable feeling of age.  Hard to explain and even harder to forget.  As we were walking around we asked about a hand written cardboard chart hanging from one of the racks.  Allisa explained that since the barrels go 27 deep and they get there by rolling over and over, this chart indicates where the bung on the barrel needs to start so that when the barrel stops rolling the bung will face up and not leak.  It’s these touches that we saw throughout the distillery that kept hammering home that “Handmade the Hard Way” slogan.

Dickel whisky isn’t aged to become a specific bottling from the start.  Instead barrels are sampled throughout the aging process and it’s then decided if they’re on their way to flavor profile of Number 8, Number 12 or possibly Barrel Select.  There is even rumor of some “older stuff” having recently been discovered.  Fingers are certainly crossed for some more of the older hand selected barrel or even something else interesting.

One bit of math before I move on.  Assuming the new warehouse isn’t used yet, that gives Dickel 11 warehouses with, conservatively, 12K barrels each.  That’s 132K barrels.  If each holds about 52 gallons of finished whisky, that multiplies out to 6,864,000 gallons of whisky being aged at any given time.  That’s about the capacity of 10 olympic size swimming pools or a pond 500 feet in diameter and 4.5 feet deep.  Best. Water. Feature. Ever.

Distiller Allisa Henley Leading Our Tasting

Dickel Whisky Tasting      George Dickel Distillery      George Dickel Distillery

Misc Thoughts

Through the day at Dickel there were constant reminders of their slogan or, rather, the way they live their life and make their whisky.  It was interesting to hear that they had recently switched to two shifts but could quadruple their current production without having to change the process too drastically.  With a giant parent company like Diageo they could easily be forced to make changes but Allisa assured us that Diageo appreciates Dickel’s handmade qualities and that Dickel has “a lot of room to grow and stay the way we are”.

Allisa herself embodies “Handmade the Hard Way”.  She was born and raised in Tullahoma and started her career at Dickel with the goal of creating a tour program.  After about 6 months, Allisa moved to a more hands on role in producing the whisky.  She spent the next 10 years working along side the master distiller and ambassadors crafting tasting events, trainings, etc and grew into the Distiller role she holds now.  Allisa summed it up best. “I have the best job in the state … the country!”

PS – The rest of the pictures are in this Flickr album if you’re so inclined.

* There are other stories, but I rather like this one.

† The George Dickel Distillery paid for this trip (as mentioned).  As such, it falls under my sample policy. If you’re wondering what that means check out my sample policy.

Cinnamon Liqueurs – Red Hot or Not so Hot?

Posted by Reese On February - 12 - 2014

Guest post by Elisabeth, Cocktail Hacktress in training.

One of my favorite Valentine’s Day sweet treats is Red Hots candies.  For the last couple years it has been difficult to find them in stores and I thought it would be fun to see if anything captures that spicy cinnamon sweetness of the candies.  After hunting down a bunch of tiny sample bottles from the liquor stores, Reese and I sat down to taste 10 different cinnamon flavored alcohol products.  First up – cinnamon liqueurs.

Cinnamon Liqueurs

Hot Damn (15% ABV):  At 15 % ABV, this really isn’t going to warm you from the inside.  In general, not worth it.  Too watery to get the cinnamon punch, has a weird aftertaste and doesn’t even give you much in the way of cinnamon aroma.

Aftershock (40 % ABV):  Aftershock is the Icy/Hot of the alcohol world.  It is very sweet, not too cinnamony and the finish is all menthol-like.  Reese is always skeptical of pink liqueurs and, with this one, I would say he has good reason.

Goldschlager (43.5% ABV):  Goldschlager is actually something I had in my cabinet.  I use it for my Naked in the Woods martini to give a slight cinnamon flavor and beautiful gold flakes.  This is not a complex cinnamon liqueur, but a one note flavor.  I like it, but Reese didn’t feel it was too authentic.

Tuaca Cinnaster (35% ABV):  Tuaca Cinnaster is a cinnamon and vanilla liqueur.  My initial reaction to its aroma is that is smelled more like caramel than cinnamon and vanilla.  The cinnamon flavor is more of an authentic cinnamon (not Red Hots) but it is not strong.  The finish of this is vanilla and butter notes.

Original Cinn (45% ABV):  Reese was pretty happy to finally sample a brown liqueur rather than something artificially correction-pen red.  This one actually tastes like real cinnamon and is very sweet.  I personally felt this one tasted super sweet because of the authenticity of the cinnamon almost made it seem sweeter – maybe less burn than you’d get with a Red Hots type of flavor.  A good choice if you are looking for an authentic cinnamon liqueur for a mixer.

Fyr, by J&L Distilling in Colorado (50% ABV):  I was intrigued by this one and hauled Reese out to the distillery to sample it.  This was introduced to us as a “European style” liqueur.  The cinnamon shines through beautifully, but there are other complexities to it (clove? orange? vanilla?).  The spice flavor lingers on this and it definitely made me feel a little more grown-up where the others we sampled made me feel like I was doing shots on a ski trip.

Next, we sampled some cinnamon whiskey, another popular flavor on the market right now.

Fireball (33% ABV):  I see this as the most recognizable cinnamon whiskey.  The whiskey notes were not super strong, but did give the liquor more of a complex flavor than you typically get with the cinnamon schnapps we sampled above.  This smells faintly of Red Hots, but you really felt the cinnamon in the back of your throat as this goes down.

Yukon Jack Wicked Hot (35% ABV):  The Yukon Jack tasted like cinnamon, was sweet, and had a little whiskey flavor.  This was not and offensive cinnamon whiskey, but not particularly remarkable in any way.

Fire Eater (33% ABV):  The aroma of Fire Eater was very chemical in nature, which made me think it would taste worse than it did.  It tasted like whiskey and left you with a cinnamon aftertaste.  The cinnamon is more subtle in this whiskey versus in Fireball.

Evan Williams Cinnamon Reserve (35% ABV):  This particular cinnamon whiskey must be an acquired taste.  When you smell it, you get faint cinnamon notes with a little bit of floral undertones.  When you taste it, it tastes like you dropped your Red Hots into rose water.  I’ve never had Evan Williams alone, but this cinnamon one was rather unusual.

Overall, we recommend Original Cinn for a good cinnamon schnapps flavor.  Of the whiskies, Fireball is a passable cinnamon whiskey if that’s your thing.  And finally– if you really want something fantastic, get ahold of some Fyr from J&L Distilling in Colorado.  You won’t regret it.


**P.S. – After tasting 10 cinnamon liquors in one evening, we highly recommend you avoid this at all costs.  It is a little rough on the stomach!

Review – Roundhouse Corretto

Posted by Reese On August - 13 - 2009

You listened patiently while I waxed poetic about Roundhouse Gin, which I still claim is one of the most interesting and tasty gins I’ve ever tried.  Well shortly after posting that review I got an email from Roundhouse‘s founder and distiller Alex Nelson letting me know that they’d recently released Corretto a new coffee liqueur.  Knowing this I zipped out and picked up a bottle.

Roundhouse Corretto Coffee Liqueur

Corretto is aptly named after a popular coffee preparation in Italy, the Caffe Corretto.  In a Caffe Corretto your shot of espresso is corrected with the addition of a shot of liquor.  I think I could really change my stance on coffee if I can expect each cup to have a nice shot of alcohol included in each.

Given this week’s cocktail it seemed like a great time for a review.  The White Russian always calls for another prominent coffee liqueur, which for this review will remain nameless. It seemed only logical that I should compare the two.  Corretto has a light maple syrup color while the other is darker, closer to molasses.  The nose on the Corretto is certainly lighter than the leading brand, but has a cleaner coffee aroma.

Let’s face it the flavor is what really counts.  Corretto is less sweet but the coffee flavor is intense and very fresh.  While I do like the leading brand quite a lot for me Corretto is the winner.  Alex summed it up best in his email when he described Corretto as “a coffee liqueur that’s been blowing the pants off of <nameless giant> in our blind taste tests.”  If Corretto is for sale in your area pick up a bottle.  If not, let me know and we can work something out.  Either way happiness will ensue.

Cacha̤a РBrazilian Rum?

Posted by Reese On February - 28 - 2009

You’ll note that on every bottle of cachaça you buy in the US there is a sublabel listing it as Brazilian Rum.  It’s not a coincidence or marketing gimmick.  Rather this is a requirement of the Alcohol & Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB).  The TTB in their own words defines a rum as:

Spirits distilled from the fermented juice of sugar cane, sugar cane syrup, sugar cane molasses or other sugar cane by-products at less than 95% alcohol by volume (190 proof) having the taste, aroma and characteristics generally attributed to rum and bottled at not less than 40% alcohol by volume (80 proof)

In addition the TTB requires that every bottle of alcohol sold in this country be labeled with, among other things, the class and type designation of the spirit.  Which means , to the dismay of the producers, that although cachaça is distinct from rum it must be labeled as such to be sold here.  So, now that you have some background on why it’s labeled as rum, let’s discuss why it’s not rum at all.

Cachaça is a spirit produced from fermented sugar cane juice where as most rum is produced from fermented molasses instead.  Like rum the distillation process for cachaça varies from producer to producer, but there is another interesting wrinkle in the production process that sets cachaça apart.  Legally additional sugar can be added to the final spirit to alter the flavor profile.  Namely, up to six grams of sugar per liter can be added to the product without declaring on the label.  Camper English, in this interesting post about cachaça, goes on to note that if the producer adds between six and fifteen grams of sugar per liter the cachaça is now referred to as sweet cachaça or cachaça adocada.  This is an interesting tidbit to be sure as it explains some of the differing flavor profiles we experienced in our tasting.

There are lots of other interesting facts about cachaça.  For example Brazilians consume the equivalent of eight liters per person yearly and cachaça is the number three most distilled spirit in the world behind vodka and soju.  If you’re interested in reading up on some more fact this page on the American University web site has some good info and goes in to moderate detail about the history of the spirit as well.

Before getting started this week I’d certainly heard of cachaça in the past and read some comments about it.  I even had a bottle in my collection, but always thought of it simply as another kind of rum.  So I went to work educating myself.  I did some reading about cachaça’s history, read up on fellow bloggers comments and took a look at the brands available.  Once I felt slightly more well informed I did what any good cocktail fan does, I invited some friends over for a cachaça tasting.

Nearly everyone at the tasting had never had cachaça before so this was an educational and entertaining experience for us all.  Our process was dead simple.  I gave everyone a small bit of each cachaça one at a time and we sipped and commented.  I frantically wrote down the thoughts and present those results here for your enjoyment.

Pitu Cachaca The first thing you’ll note about Pitu is its warm, buttery fruit aroma.  Following that initial sniff you’ll start to pick up the vegetal notes that are common of both cachaça and rhum agricole.  The flavor echoes the vegetal characteristics and buttery notes from the aroma and adds a very subtle wood aged flavor.  Ted wasn’t fond of the wood flavors, but that’s not particularly suprising as he generally doesn’t like wood aged spirits at all.  The rest of us found it quite pleasant though.  In tasting this cachaça you’ll also note it’s drier than some of the others you’ll come across, about the level of a white rum.  Overall a good cachaça and very affordable.  If this is the only cachaça available in your area you won’t be disappointed.
Boca Loca
Boca Loca Cachaca Boca Loca was up next on the docket.  The first thing you’ll notice about the aroma of this cachaça is additional sweetness.  You’ll get some of the same buttery notes in the aroma but less of the vegetal qualities.  The flavor, not surprisingly, echoes both the aroma.  You get a subtle, pleasant sweetness that comes through as well as a nice butterscotch/caramel flavor.  Overall this cachaça has a much more mild flavor and, as one of the tasters put it, “you can tell it’s going to be friendlier to you.”  Of the five cachaças we tasted this was our second favorite.  Because of the milder, less funky flavor this would be a great cachaça to introduce people to the spirit.  This brand is also very affordable and is certainly worth picking up if you’re looking to make some caipirinhas.
Ypioca Crystal
Ypioca Cachaca Crystal Next up was a bottle of Ypioca Crystal that my cousin brought back from a trip to Mexico.  Since this bottle was purchased at a duty free store you’ll note there is no “Brazilian Rum” category on the bottle.  Just an interesting tid bit.  This cachaça had a very unique fruit aroma, specifically that of a granny smith apple.  The fruitiness isn’t as aparent in the flavor, rather you get a bit of initial harshness that fades in the aftertaste.  Not an unpleasant cachaça, but also not our favorite of the evening.
Cabana Cachaca Cabana is a bit of the odd man out in this tasting for a couple of reasons.  First it bills itself as authentically Brasilian which has peeved some natives as, although the spirit is produced in Sao Paulo, the company is owned and managed from NYC by a former employee of JP Morgan.  Second, Cabana bills itself as an ultra premium cachaça and to that end employs a double distillation process.  You’ll immediately pick up the extra distillation in the aroma or lack there-of.  Colton, who had just arrived as we were pouring the Cabana, commented that it “smells like liquor.”  Which, although humorous on the surface, is actually quite true.  You pick up very faint grass notes in the aroma, but that’s about it.  The flavor is similar to that of a vodka.  Overall we didn’t much like this cachaça and at the high end of the cost scale (~$35) I would say it’s not worth it.
Leblon Cachaca Leblon was our final cachaça for the night and the crowd favorite.  In the aroma the buttery notes are more subdued and the grass is more forward with this one.  In addition you’ll pick up additional fruit smells peeking through.  Ted described the aroma as reminding him of corn candy which, if you’re not familiar with it, is sweet corn flavored hard candy you can find in asian markets.  There is a subtle golden hue to the spirit which likely comes as a result of the short aging in brandy barrels.  The flavor is more complex than the others hitting on the fruity and grassy notes picked up in the aroma.  Finally, you don’t get the same aftertaste that you do with the Pitu, Ypioca and Cabana.  In summary, this is my cachaça of choice for a caipirinha as it adds a great level of complexity.  It’s a bit pricier than some of the others, but I think the additional cost is well worth it.

So, now you at least have enough information about cachaça to talk intelligently at a dinner party and I certainly hope our tasting has given you some guidance on what brands to keep an eye out for.  If, however, you’re a skimmer and would prefer not to read this whole post, let me give you the two second summary.  Cachaça although labeled rum in the US is most certainly a different beast.  If you’re looking for your first bottle to add to your home bar try Boca Loca or Leblon.  Boca Loca is going to give you a more mellow, slightly sweeter flavor and the Leblon is going to be more complex and slightly more expensive.  You won’t be disappointed with either.

So there you have it.  Go forth and imbibe.

Review – Cadenhead’s Old Raj Gin

Posted by Reese On January - 6 - 2009

CH Gin Tasting 2008-06-25

The final gin in our tasting was Cadenhead’s Old Raj Gin.  The first thing you notice about Old Raj is its pale golden color.  This unique color is imparted through the use of saffron added personally by the company chairman to assure consistency.  Next you’ll encounter Old Raj’s notable strength.  Bottled at 55% ABV or 110 proof in the US system Old Raj is one of the market’s highest proof gins (Plymouth Navy Strength is 57%).  This higher than usual proof gives Old Raj a fiercer than normal burn, but interestingly the burn fades very quickly.  The scent of Old Raj is equally powerful but very pleasant.  The first note you pick up is juniper followed by a wonderful mix of the other botanicals.

The flavor…is fantastically bold and the botanicals shine through brilliantly.  One of the tasters summed it up best when he said “Holy…Crap…”  You get the juniper very strongly at the outset then it mellows slightly giving way to the other flavors.  The next note that I picked up most was a nice flavor of cardamom.  The finish on this gin is a warming juniper flavor that stays with you for quite some time.

The Raj is powerful mojo to be sure and it takes a special application to make it shine.  Although it seems a bit counter intuitive due to its price ($60+) simple applications suit this gin well.  I’ve tried it in both a Gin and Tonic and a Gimlet and found that it works extremely well in both.  But these applications seem like a bit of a waste of the Raj.  If you want to enjoy the subtleties of this, or any, gin try it straight up or on the rocks.  You’ll be amazed at the complexity and flavors.

I couldn’t post this review without adding a choice picture.  Jeff arrived at the tasting right as we were sampling the Old Raj and this is the fantastic result.

CH Gin Tasting 2008-06-25