BY SCOTT MILLER
My buddy Reed and I travelled to Tennessee this fall on a drinking trip with a little fishing thrown in for good measure. I’d like to say it was a fishing trip, but my unaccountable tendency towards honesty won’t let me.
It would be unseemly to glorify our attempts at fly-fishing in Tennessee by referring to them collectively as a fishing trip. We had fun fly-casting for hours on the Caney Fork River, but it was like trying to raise the dead. The trout were there, you could see them rising and I saw more than one follow my fly. But no takers. The only salve to my pride was that the locals didn’t fare any better. I was left to daydream about how some of these clear and clean waters taken from their spring sources ended up as whisky, and how off the water at day’s end I would enjoy some of that good Volunteer state product with a cigar come nightfall.
It turned out that I would be needing some consoling of the liquid kind before too long.
It wasn’t just that we didn’t catch trout. Instead of a trout, I caught a longnose gar on a fly rod. A longnose gar is an ugly, large prehistoric fish that’s been around for a hundred million years. Literally. It looks like the ungainly mating product of an alligator and a pickerel. It doesn’t flop back into the water, it slithers there. Enough said about that. I caught two of them and felt doubly cursed. After we and the Tennessee locals were done getting blanked by the big trout at the Caney Fork it was time for a drink and, although Reed and I had failed to catch fish of our intended species, we succeeded in drinking. After all, we were right in the heart of whisky country.
You may have noticed that I spelt “whisky” without an “e” in it. That’s how they do it in Europe, and that’s also how they do it at the George Dickel distillery in Tullahoma, Tennessee. In the case of the Dickel distillery, it’s an expression of their faithfulness to the old ways. As someone who fly-fishes rather than take the easy way to piscatorial success, I can relate to that. Traditions matter. It’s not always about how frequently you get a result, but the kind of result that you get. Following the old ways can make for not just success, but new friends. That’s how it went for us at the Dickel distillery.
I had never heard of the place before, or the whisky. My education was about to begin.
As we drove down Cascade Hollow Road, it felt like a trip back in time. For a moment, I was reliving days I spent as a student abroad when I had visited every distillery that my foreign friends and I could find. Now, truth be told, there isn’t much that can touch the scenery where Talisker is made at the head of a fjord on the Isle of Skye. In scenery as in whisky, Scotland stands second to few. But the more subdued surroundings in which Dickel whisky is produced contain a rare gem of an operation, where the people are as special as the product they make.
South Central Tennessee is a great part of a great state, as down to earth as it gets. No highfalutin types need apply, or visit. Dickel epitomises that both in its history and in the folks who work the place now. George Dickel was a German immigrant who began his distillery in a modest fashion, tucked away in a hollow located just a short distance from the current production facility and closer to the spring source that provides the special water from which Dickel whisky is made. It’s always been a small distillery. It has a long history of independent operation and approach that endeared it to country singer Merle Haggard, so much that it became his personal favourite. A silhouette of Merle is stamped on some of the jug containers that Dickel has sold from time to time.
That’s an endorsement I’d take any day, and twice on Sunday.
The small creek that tumbles out of the foothills and passes by the distillery provides spring water for Dickel at its source. It is clear, cold and full of fish. It also has warning signs along its banks, advising visitors to beware of the snakes that might lodge among its edges. We kept our eyes open for copperheads.
As we approached the building where the tours begin, we saw where sugar maple ricks were stacked crosswise in a clearing before being turned into charcoal. It turns out that the few employees at Dickel draw straws each year to allocate the task of shovelling the charcoal into containers before it is used in whisky production. Apparently, this is not a pleasant task, but democracy prevails and who does the work is based on luck of the draw. Short straws equal hours of charcoal shovelling in the hot summer sun.
However, some of the best things emerge from difficult, even ugly processes that we may not want to witness in their fullness – think laws and sausages – and the same is true here. Dickel is fortunate in that their rick burning is on such a small scale that no hood to trap the smoke is required. As a result, the “black frost” released from burning sugar maple escapes into the air and does not blow back onto the charcoal. Courtesy of the unique EPA exception from the hood requirement allotted to Dickel, the cleanest charcoal results from the burn and, not by chance, the cleanest whisky.
No, I do not own Diageo stock (Diageo is the parent company that now owns Dickel), nor am I blowing prodigious quantities of charcoal smoke up a certain posterior region of your anatomy. You have to taste this stuff. Don’t get me wrong. I love Jack Daniel’s. Heck, who doesn’t? But for the connoisseur who notices details and seeks out a superior product, this is the business. There isn’t an extensive product range at Dickel, and it can be hard to find. Their best whisky occurred by accident when they misplaced a quantity of barrels that then aged for an unusually long time, with the unintended result that the “angels’ share”, a result of the evaporation that takes place inside the whisky barrel, nearly claimed the entire barrel. It wasn’t economically viable to produce, but the result was pure heaven. And after all, in life as in whisky production, some of the best things happen by accident – longnose gar caught on a fly rod excepted, of course.
The folks at Dickel don’t use computers, either. Not in the production of the whisky, and not in the bills of lading and other paperwork. That may seem a little bit retro to some, but I love it. I think it reflects the calm, patient and down to earth atmosphere at Dickel that finds its way into the mellow taste of their whisky. Nothing is rushed, and nothing is done by a computer that couldn’t be done by a person instead. The place retains the feel of the family operation, as a result, that was the original basis for the distillery, every bit as much as the clean spring water that also provided the foundation for its humble but auspicious beginnings.
At the conclusion of our tour of the Dickel distillery, our guide Kyle ushered our group into the tasting centre in a separate building set aside for that purpose. The flights were already there, poured and ready.
We started the flight with the un-aged, “white lightning” corn whisky that is Dickel No. 1. I love that Dickel bottles and sells that stuff, it’s like good old fashioned moonshine. Then we moved on to their mid-range product, Dickel Classic No. 8.
“Now,” said Kyle, “this is a product that has some particular flavour notes. Unlike the No. 1, it’s been aged in our charred barrels. Put your nose over it and breathe in, then taste it and hold your tongue to the roof of your mouth. Let those flavour notes elaborate in there and tell me what you feel.”
“Caramel,” one member of our group offered.
“That’s right,” replied Kyle. “What else?”
“It has the feeling of maple syrup,” said another member of our group.
“That’s also right. Anybody else?”
The group was quiet. We had a pretty sedate bunch for our tour, Reed and I excepted.
“Alright,” said Kyle. “Now, I think there’s a taste of crème brûlée here. I suppose you could hear my Tennessee accent and think that I might not know what crème brûlée is,” he remarked wryly, “but I am college educated and that’s what I sense here. Does anybody agree?”
I raised my hand to ask a question.
“I thought Crème Brûlée was an exotic dancer in Nashville.”
Kyle and my buddy Reed next to me both stifled a laugh. No one else cracked a smile.
“Well, that’s, uh, a very interesting observation.” Kyle smiled and raised his eyebrows when he said it. He looked around the room and there was dead silence, you could hear a pin drop. He had to move on. “Anyone else?”
No further comments from the peanut gallery. What a pity. I’d thought that I could get some good humour started.
Kyle caught up with us after the flights were all tasted. Reed and I were the only two left in the room, and we were in no hurry to leave.
“Sorry about the Crème Brûlée crack,” I said. “I just couldn’t pass on it.”
“Well, I thought it was funny as hell. You just got a very sober room for an audience.”
“It happens. Doesn’t take the wind out of our sails, though.”
Reed sagely nodded.
“Are you boys vacationing up here?” Kyle asked.
“We were fishing,” said Reed, “but the fish didn’t cooperate. So we came over here.”
“Well, we’re glad to have you,” replied Kyle. “I do a lot of these tours and it’s a pleasure to get a little comic relief from the crowd once in a while, so I don’t have to carry all the water.”
“Glad I made you laugh,” I added. “Our fishing wasn’t near as entertaining. Everyone we saw on the Caney Fork got stumped just like us, and didn’t catch a thing. I got a couple of gar on a fly rod, that was it.”
“Gar? Really?” Kyle mused, scratching his beard.
“Yeah. It was in this place that had a rope swing that had broken and looked like an old swimming hole. I’ll tell you what,” I said, “I wouldn’t want to share the water swimming with those gar, that’s for sure. Parts of my anatomy just wouldn’t feel safe, if you know what I mean.”
“Well,” said Kyle, “it just goes to show you.”
“Goes to show what?” Reed inquired.
“In Tennessee, you better keep both hands on your Dickel.”