Drinking Diageo – Part V: George Dickel's Tradition

What does it mean when a traditional distillery is owned by a larger conglomerate? Does it mean that the whiskey no longer has street cred as a serious brand? Now that Bruichladdich is owned by Remy, do the last ten years of edgy, independent, well-crafted booze no longer matter? George Dickel is a traditional Tennessee whiskey distillery that's still operated much in the same way it has been since the late 1950s. The fact that it falls under the Diageo umbrella, however, has some people thinking differently. I recently spoke with Dickel Brand Ambassador Doug Kragel to gain a bit more insight into this idea and see how he felt about Dickel's role within the larger empire.

David: Thanks for taking the time to talk Doug. What is your position at George Dickel?

Doug: I am the national brand ambassador for George Dickel.

David: To give you some context, I've been doing a set of articles this week for our website about breaking down stereotypes concerning large-production distilleries that may be unfair. Maybe certain brands get unfairly catagorized simply because they fall under the umbrella of a larger corporation. Could Dickel possibly be an example of that?

Doug: I like that your bringing this idea to light. I think it's definitely important to talk about this.

David: How long has Diageo been involved with George Dickel?

Doug: When you follow the line of the large companies in the liquor industry, Diageo wasn't around when George Dickel distillery was relaunched in 1959 -- Dickel was owned at the time by Schenley. But if you trace back through some of those mergers, between the bigger spirits companies, Diageo has, in some incarnation, had their hands on George Dickel since 1959.

David: So Dickel was a distillery before 1959, but had just been non-operational?

Doug: It was, back in George's day. They began making whiskey back in the 1870s, but what happened was, when Tennessee prohibition came down in 1911 -- statewide prohibition came down before the federal -- they actually tore the distillery down and the family -- George Dickel's family, he had already passed away at this point -- but the survivors of his family decided not to get back in the game when repeal happened. So George Dickel didn't exist from 1911 until 1959, when a man by the name of Ralph Dupps, who worked for Schenley -- he was actually from Louisville, but had a lot of family down in the Tennessee area -- he pioneered and spearheaded the project of bringing George Dickel back -- doing the research and gathering all the information he could to make the whiskey as authentic as possible. The current distillery is actually located about a couple hundred yards away from that original site. If you ever get a chance to go down there, you can actually go and see some of the old foundation from the original distillery just down the road.

David: Do you think the production of Dickel has changed since 1959 with higher production levels? Has Diageo been able to control quality despite these increases?

Doug: Well, production methods really haven't changed since 1959. That's a big part about what I like to stress to people when we're talking about the brand. So since the reopening they've figured out how to make good whiskey and we really haven't had any reason to change or to update the distillery more than any regulation would force us to. For example, when we weigh our corn -- which we do on-site, and that we get locally, we actually have our own hammer mill on-site that we use to mill the grain -- we use 11,000 pounds of corn for every mash that we do. We then weigh it on an old counter-balance scale. So we actually have a guy working that grain room all day long, monitoring that scale to make sure we get to that exact measure, but it's not a digital scale because we don't need it to be that way. That scale is as accurate as we need it to be to have a good tasting liquid come out in the end.

David: What do you think is the key characteristic of Dickel? What makes it different from other whiskies?

Doug: I think there are a few things. The first is that corn is a very big part of American whiskey, but very important for us in particular because we have a high corn content mashbill and I think that creates a unique quality. It's 84% corn, so especially in our number 8 and number 12, you really taste that full-bodied, creamy sweetness that comes out of a high-corn content whiskey. The other thing that really sets us apart from whiskies is, for Tennessee whiskey, the Lincoln County process is very important -- that charcoal mellowing process. For us, we do a couple of things differently that I think really smooth out the finish of the whiskey. We actually chill our whiskey down to forty degrees before we put it through the leecher. So before we put it through ten feet of charcoal, that we burn onsite and dry onsite at the distillery, we actually chill it to forty degrees allowing it to pass very slowly though the charcoal, allowing it to pull out all the impurities we don't want in the whiskey, to make for a real soft, smooth, sipping quality.

David: Dickel kind of has this "working man's" whiskey reputation, simply because they never release any kind of expensive top-shelf, super-limited, special edition expressions. Obviously there are older stocks of Dickel that are getting released in this new single barrel program, so why do you think Dickel and Diageo have never chosen to release anything older in the past? Was it never seen as something marketable?

Doug: Well, we definitely have old liquid, but typically we don't really let the liquid in our warehouses go past 14 years. In our master distiller John Lunn's eyes, and his previous predecessors's, that's about where the liquid starts to change in the barrel into not what we want for the George Dickel profile. So fourteen years is about as much as we want before the wood takes over and it becomes a little more robust, and lends itself more to the Bourbon category -- which wouldn't be a quality that sets us apart from other producers. Also, it's not necessarily that it's not marketable, for us it's more that it doesn't hold the quality that we want. We want the general, easy-drinking whiskey quality. The older the whiskey, as you know, the more the wood can overpower it and it becomes more complex than we want for the casual, everyday whiskey.

David: I love that there are people out there dedicated to "everyday" whiskey only. It seems like today no one is comfortable with "everyday" anything. Every release has to be super special to merit any attention. With the #8 and #12 expressions, can you shed a little light on how they're created and what makes them different? Are they single age whiskies or are they comprised of different ages married together?

Close up of a Dickel column stillDoug: They're made from whiskies of various ages. Our number eight is five to seven years old and 80 proof. We're only running one spirit off our still at Dickel, and so it's going to grow up to become either the #8, the #12, or the Barrel Select. For the #8 we want the younger whiskey to show the marriage between the high-corn content and the charred oak barrel -- those vanillas and caramels that really come out at the beginning of the aging process. As opposed to the #12, where with a couple more years in the barrel and at 90 proof (we do allow the proof to be a little higher) the wood mellows out just enough into a sweet spot where the corn really highlights the flavor and pops out. We're mingling a lot of barrels together within those age ranges, but it's all about the flavor profile rather than the age, which is we call it the #8 recipe and the #12 recipe instead.

David: So if they're only using these age ranges, what was the point of holding back older whiskies? For the Barrel Select?

Doug: We do use the older whiskies in the Barrel Select.

David: But that's a relatively new release compared to the other two, right?

Doug: The Select itself is newer, but it originally came out in the mid to late 90s as a limited edition. We started holding whiskies back a little before then, but it became so popular that we retooled the package a bit and re-released it as an extension to the line, so the core now consists of those three. We only use ten barrels for every bottling of the Select from within a ten to fourteen year age range. And now we've started the single barrel program you were talking about, which uses specific age statement barrels for an offering of something limited with an extra connection to an already down-home, easy-to-relate-to brand.

David: Is there anything else you think I should know that I haven't asked you and that you want to tell me?

Doug: You know, one of the big things to highlight, since we're talking about the brand as being that "working man's" brand, that easy drinking whiskey, is to make sure people understand that there are only twenty-five employees involved in the production of George Dickel. They make all the Dickel in the world. There are about thirty-five employees total that work at the distillery and some of these guys have been there for over thirty years, so when you think about the turnover rate it's obviously one of the best jobs in Coffee County. There's an intimacy in knowing that, with no computers, there is a man at every step in the whole process really taking care of the production of the whiskey.

David: And that kind of runs against what people think of when they think of Diageo. In Scotland there has been a lot of technology put into the whisky-making process, so it's good to know that some distilleries under Diageo have remained the same in favor of tradition.

Doug: Yes, it's great that they've recognized that this brand is something that needs to be preserved, just like the location where it is. There's a reason they own 600 acres around the distillery, because it needs to be preserved as what it's always been.

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll