I often make interesting discoveries while lost, but this one was special. I had wandered into Cascade Hollow, home of George Dickel’s Tennessee whisky.

The history of whisky in America is long and colorful. In the first years of the nation, corn whisky was easier to transport, and more profitable, than corn itself, which made it a central part of the frontier economy. In 1791, when the “East Coast Establishment” imposed an excise tax on whisky, the Whisky Rebellion erupted. President Washington was eventually compelled to raise a militia of over 12,000 troops (larger than the army that fought the Revolution), placing it under the command of Revolutionary War hero “Lighthorse” Henry Lee. (You have probably heard of General Lee’s son, one Robert E. Lee.) The episode is somewhat ironic; at one time, George Washington was the largest distiller in the Colonies. In the 20th Century, Prohibition created a new industry—the traffic in illegal spirits. My late father-in-law allegedly ran bootleg Canadian whisky from Detroit to Chicago for a fellow named Capone. (Whisky trivia—Scotch is made from malted barley; Bourbon and Tennessee whisky are made mainly from corn; and Canadian whisky is based on malted rye.)

The history of George Dickel reflects America’s. The distillery was founded in 1870, to produce “Cascade Tennessee Whiskey.” Mr. Dickel, a successful Nashville businessman, purchased the operation 1884 and ran it until he retired in 1888. In post-Civil War Tennessee, whisky was again easier to transport, and more profitable than corn itself. In 1910, the State of Tennessee went dry, and operations moved to Kentucky. When Prohibition was imposed nationwide, operations ceased. The Dickel family sold off the trademarks during this time. In 1958 the distillery in Cascade Hollow was rebuilt and bottling of George Dickel Tennessee Whisky, based on Mr. Dickel’s original recipes, began in 1964, to the delight of drinkers around the Universe. (We’ll get to that shortly.)

That time lag—from 1958 to 1964—illustrates one of the challenges of starting a distillery. Years may pass before the product is ready for market. That lag also distinguishes “whisky” from “moonshine.” Commercial whisky is aged in oak barrels for three years or more. The tannins and sugars in the wooden barrels give the whisky its color, character and “smooths” the drink. The longer the whisky ages, the more complex it becomes, and the more expensive. That 21-year-old bottle of spirit represents a very long term investment by its maker. The aging process can also be responsible for occasional shortages. If demand increases unexpectedly, there is no way to increase the production immediately. Each barrel ages at its own pace.
Producing grain alcohol is relatively simple; allow a solution of water, grain and yeast to ferment. Boil the solution to drive off the alcohol. (Alcohol boils at a lower temperature than water, so it will evaporate first.)Capture the alcohol vapor in copper pipes and cool it so it returns to liquid state. You should now have a clear liquid consisting mostly of grain alcohol. You can add it to gasoline to create ethanol or drink it, if you are daring. Based on the one or two times I’ve sampled raw spirit, I’d say you can also use it to remove rust or strip paint. Turning that spirit into a beguiling whisky is part art, part science. Which may explain why John Lunn, Dickel’s master distiller, served a lengthy apprenticeship after obtaining a degree in chemistry.

The grain—corn, barley and rye—is why Dickel differs from Scotch, which is made primarily from malted barley. It was surprising to learn that the rye comes from my home state of Wisconsin. The types of grains used, their precise sources, and the amount of each is a carefully-guarded secret. Another secret is the strain of yeast. The yeast is so important that backup samples are kept in secure, off-site locations. As for the water, it comes from a local spring renowned for its purity. Indeed, the distillery was located in Cascade Hollow to take advantage of this remarkable water.
But the water is not the only remarkable feature of Cascade Hollow; it is rivaled by the distillery tour. When the clock ticked around to my time, I was the only visitor present. My guide smiled, handed me safety glasses and paper hat and led me across to the distillery. We lingered for a bit on the bridge over the stream, watching the fish swirl and dart below. I met the men who fill the vats, got to throw the grain release lever, and was invited to stand over the mash tuns and breath deeply the scent of whisky being born. I even received my own souvenir chunk of charcoal. Outside the distillery we explored the tiny house that once housed Treasury agents, assigned to monitor production and ensure that not a drop escaped untaxed. Up the hill (and, I must add, not part of the regular tour) is the barrel house, where countless gallons of whisky are slowly maturing. The warehouse foreman explained the art of racking barrels—rolling the 55 gallon barrels down long wooden ways, and ensuring that, at the end of the run, the bung hole is on top, where it can be easily accessed.

“Do the barrels ever leak?” I asked.

“Sometimes,” came the reply.

“How do you deal with it?”

The answer came with a slow smile: “First I fetch my tin cup and try a sample or three to be sure it is really a whisky leak, and not water from somewhere. If it tastes like whisky to me, I call the other fellas to get their expert opinions as well.”

The Dickel tour is a rare opportunity to step back in time, to watch dedicated craftsmen create an age old product using their hands, their experience, their knowledge and their pride. Employee turnover is almost unheard of, as are workplace injuries. In an age when even the corner grocery store may be computerized, the distillery has none. Need further inducement? Cell phones don’t work in the Hollow, and contrary to certain TV commercials, Cascade Hollow is the real land of happy cows. Whisky begins with a mash of high quality cereal grains, and the spent mash is regularly trucked away—to feed the local livestock.

As he walked me to my car, my guide said “Come back next Saturday, we’ll be making charcoal.” The charcoal is not for fuel—the distillery fires are gas fired. Rather, they routinely burn ricks of hard maple to charcoal, and use the charcoal to filter the raw spirit. In fact, they filter it through 21 feet of charcoal. This filtration is what sets Tennessee whisky apart from the more familiar bourbons of Kentucky.

What of the whisky? Mr. Dickel set out to make a product comparable with the more famous Scottish brands, which is why he elected to use the Scots spelling—“whisky,” with no “e.” He succeeded. To my taste, it is smooth complex, yet gentle on the tongue, with a chocolate after-taste I have found in no other spirit. While all taste is subjective, if you splurge for a bottle of Old No. 8 (ivory label, 90 proof, $20 or so), you might find you’re no longer interested in $80 bottles of Scotch. You might, in fact, join the intergalactic George Dickel fan club. Cast your mind back to the glorious days of the original Star Trek. Recall Scottie’s prized “Saurian brandy” in the outlandish curved bottle? That’s a bottle of George Dickel, Laddie.

Tom Hall is a Wisconsin attorney and writer. He has been thrown out of some of the best bars in the US and UK and believes that nothing is safe to drink unless it is fermented. He is an unabashed fan of Dickel’s Barrel Select and Number 12, despite being an alumnus of a Scottish university.

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