A few weeks ago I was invited to come out to Tennessee and see first hand how George Dickel is made. I packed up my camera and hopped on plane to Nashville; eager to see the birthplace of one of my favorite American whiskies. Which I’m not just saying because it sounds like “the thing to say” right here.
As I’m writing this I have a glass of the No. 12 to the right of me and I can count 11 bottles of George Dickel on the whiskey shelves in my apartment. To say I genuinely enjoy the stuff might be a bit of an understatement. However, that’s not what you’re here to read about so lets get out of my apartment and get our whisky loving selves down to Tullahoma, Tennessee. Home of the George Dickel Distillery!
When visiting the George Dickle distillery the first thing to note is that it’s about an hour – hour and a half away from Nashville, so get an early start because you’re going to be on the road for a bit. The second thing to note is that the drive out there is beautiful. Living in Los Angeles you don’t get to see country side like that too often and in a small way it made me miss aspects of my old homes in Utah and Wyoming… but only for a second.
We started our tour in the Visitor’s Center where we took a look at some of the old memorabilia from Dickel days gone by. This is also where we first met our tour guide to-be, their master distiller Allisa Henley. After chatting a bit about where we were all from, how we’re liking Nashville, who we write for (I was there with a group of other bloggers) and the usual pleasantries we stepped outside for a little bit of GD history next to the bust of Mr. Dickel himself.
It was interesting to hear what Allisa had to say about the history and backstory of the whisky and the distillery. The thing that stuck out to me most wasn’t when she talked about him as a whisky rectifier, but him as an an entrepreneur. Ole’ George owned all kinds of businesses all over Nashville and it was that tenacity and entrepreneurial spirit that helped Cascade Hollow whisky spread (wasn’t called Dickel till 1964).
After a quick Q&A we headed across the street to the distillery which was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1994. This is the first major distillery I’ve ever been in andI was plenty excited. Sure I’ve been to High West back in Utah, but that was before they got the setup they have now. This was a major operation with historical significance and while I’m not a religious person, the exact opposite one might say, for me it was like going to church when I walked through the doors and into the distillery.
Directly to our left as we walked through the door is Mash Tub No. 2 which is almost as big as the guy who runs it. Affectionately known as “Big Daddy” we watched him and his cohort work while listening to Allisa describe the process of what was going on inside the massive mash tubs. In a nut shell, this is where the mashbill (84% corn, 8% rye and 8% barley) is mixed with water and heated. This is where the enzymes found in malt start to break down the starch in the corn and rye and turns it into sugar creating the wort.
We then went upstairs where directly to our left Fermenter No. 2 was being filled with fresh wort. This is where the yeast gets added and is left to it’s own devices to eat sugar, excrete ethanol and fart CO2. I’m not being crass, that’s literally what the magical little guys do. After the Wort has fermented for about 3 days it’s then filtered and transferred over to the beer well where it sits patiently waiting to be distilled.
Fermentation creates heat and when it comes to tiny organisms like yeast that can be a bad thing. Much like me, the poor little guys don’t get much done when gets around 85 degrees so the folks at George Dickel use the crazy looking machine above to monitor the temperature inside their vats. No computers here man. The only way this could get more old school is a thermometer on a stick.
From there we went up a few steps to see where the grain was brought in to the distillery to be weighed and then milled. Again, there are no computers used here. Just some huge tanks they fill with grain and then weigh using the manual scale above. The weights are recorded on a sheet of paper and when everything matches up the way it should it’s milled together and then dropped into one of the mash tuns below. Then it was on to the stillhouse.
Here Allisa walked us through the process of them steam heating their massive column still where the distiller’s beer gets it’s 2x distillation and becomes white whisky. Which is to say the stuff that will be put into the barrels later on. Here we got to rub a little of the fresh-off-the-still new make on our hands and smell the rich vanilla and cornbread aroma of the new make. It was delightful.
At most other distilleries this fresh new make would then head off to barreled, but like it’s neighbor down the road, Jack Daniel’s, George Dickel utilizes the Lincoln County process which means the new make gets a charcoal mellowing before being barreled. Huge metal vats are filled with charcoal that they make there at the Distillery (which is schlepped up the stairs by hand in big bags). At the top and bottom are layers of perforated metal sheeting and wool blankets that help ensure the even distribution and filtration of the chilled spirit.
After several days of mellowing and filtering the spirit is ready for barreling and that’s where the H.R.Geiger looking spots above come into to play. Barrels are filled, by hand, 2 at a time. After filling they’re loaded up on a truck and then they head for the hills… which is where their rick house is. It’s also where we’ll be picking this tour back up tomorrow. So stay tuned for part 2!