George Dickel: The Other Tennessee Whisk(e)y

As a former Kentuckian, I have pretty high expectations when you describe a location as a hollow (or holler). Rolling into Cascade Hollow, the remote home of the George Dickel Distillery, it looked as though even if there wasn’t a big distillery there, the hills on either side of the local creek would still be home to a lot of whiskey making. It’s a proper hollow, sure enough, and a beautiful day to visit the home of the “other" Tennessee whisky. OK, sure, so there are more than two Tennessee whiskies, but when you’re talking heavyweights, it’s Diageo-owned George Dickel and their neighbor just a little ways up the road, Brown-Forman’s Jack Daniels.

George Dickel himself was a retailer, not a distiller. What was then known as the Cascade Hollow distillery was founded in 1877 by John F. Brown and F. E. Cunningham. Dickel bought a controlling interest in the company in 1884 and secured for himself exclusive rights to bottle and sell the distillery’s whiskey. When Dickel died in 1894, his shares of the company passed to his wife, Augusta, who it was assumed would in turn sell them to some interested male party or other. Instead, she held onto the shares, only passing them on at the time of her death in 1916 to her brother, V. E. Shwab. In 1910, Tennessee’s Prohibition Act (which started much earlier and ended much later than national Prohibition) forced the company to move to Kentucky. National Prohibition shut the company down completely.

What we recognize more as the modern George Dickel picks up after Repeal. New York’s Schenley Distilling Company (which was eventually sold to Guinness, which eventually merged to form Diageo) acquired Cascade Hollow and ran it in Frankfort for a spell, making Geo. A. Dickel's Cascade Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whisky -- spelling “whisky” the Scottish way (no “e”) because, according to their marketing, their whiskey was just as good as anything from Scotland. Perhaps harboring a grudge after a failed attempt to buy Jack Daniels, Schenley moved Cascade Hollow -- renaming it George Dickel Tennessee Whisky -- back to Tennessee. Dickel was first bottled in 1964, shut down in the 80s after the whiskey market sort of crashed, and reopened in 2003 as the company we know today and were visiting at the behest of master distiller John Lunn (who also manages the Diageo-owned Stitzel-Weller warehouses in Louisville). 

As fate would have it, we arrived shortly after a leaky roof caused an emergency shutdown of the stillhouse, which was good and bad. Bad because, well, no distilling going on. Good because it meant John Lunn was free to give us a personal tour (we were the only ones there that day) that included nooks and crannies we might not have been allowed to poke around in if production was actually occurring. The distillery is neither a Jim Beam-esque leviathan nor a Corsair micro-distillery. It’s of average size, and the no-nonsense industrial nature of the building is offset by the gorgeous country surroundings.

For most of the process, making Tennessee whiskey is no different than making bourbon. Same basic mash bills, same sort of distilling. What makes Tennessee whiskey “Tennessee Whiskey” -- or whisky -- is the charcoal filtration process that changes the overall nature of the spirit and results in rampant, if justified, abuse of descriptors like “smooth” and “mellow.” Dickel makes their charcoal themselves, in a fire pit out front of the visitor center (“a fella just comes by from time to time and makes some”), which is one of my favorite things about the whiskey business. Even the biggest whiskey makers still have plenty of down-home, by-hand ways of getting the job done.

There’s no rickhouses to visit (they’re elsewhere nearby, but the tour visits a model rickhouse) and no bottling plant. Diageo tends to bottle their spirits offsite. In the case of Dickel, that’s Connecticut. And most heartbreaking, there are currently no tastings. But the warmth of the staff at the distillery and their willingness, top to bottom, to make sure you get the most out of your visit is well worth the detour off the interstate and through a series of small towns whose sole source of income seem to be speed traps. Not far away is the slick, polished tourist juggernaut of Jack Daniels. That has it’s own appeal, but for a decidedly more laid-back, less charcoal-filtered look at charcoal-filtered whiskey, it’s hard to beat stopping by Cascade Hollow.

The range of George Dickel whiskies available are: Cascade Hollow Sour Mash, No. 8 Sour Mash, No. 12 Sour Mash (a winner in the 2012 NY International Spirits Competition) and Barrel Select. More information on the products, history, tours and "Cookin' With Dickel" available here.

For more photos of the distillery, please visit our album on Facebook. (And if you like what you see, well, you know what to do...)