George Dickel is like Jack Daniel’s less popular little brother. Quieter, calmer, a bit more likely to sit back and watch things develop rather than to seek the spotlight. Contrasting a visit to George Dickel’s Cascade Hollow Distillery to the choreographed show that is a Jack Daniel’s visit says everything about the distinctions between these two Tennessee titans of whisk(e)y. Jack is an entertainer, Dickel is a quiet companion.
Cascade Hollow sits off a rural road outside Tullahoma, Tennessee. Surrounded by deep green trees and hills, it’s a lovely setting for a distillery; it’s a lovely setting for anything for that matter. The visitor center is a bit like a country cabin, rustic, uncluttered, full of old stuff. There’s a quaint little post office on site, a relic of an earlier time. A short stroll over the creek and across the street takes you to the distillery itself, a place where everything seems a bit slower and more quiet than the other distillery down in Lynchburg.
There are a total of 33 employees here in Cascade Hollow, about 1/10 the number at the distillery down the street. The tour itself is straightforward, you get to see the full distillation process, and they’ll answer just about any question you can throw at them. They know to point out the distinctions between George Dickel and Jack Daniel’s – both of which use charcoal mellowing as a calling card, both of which call Tennessee home.
The main distinctions are thus:
1) Dickel employs a combination column still then pot still distillation process, closer to what you’ll see in Scotland than Lynchburg. (They also use the Scottish spelling “whisky” rather than the more traditional American spelling “whiskey.”)
2) Dickel likes to simulate their original approach of distilling in winter by cooling down their newly distilled whisky to about 40 degrees F before charcoal mellowing.
3) When it comes to charcoal mellowing, Dickel does a couple things differently (though the use of sugar maple charcoal is the same as Jack) – Dickel places virgin wool blankets at the top and bottom of their charcoal mellowing tank to act as a filter, and they have metal plates that more evenly distribute the whiskey as it drips down. At Dickel, the whisky spends about 10-15 days to drip through 13 feet of sugar maple charcoal, vs. the 6 days or so it takes at Jack to drip through 10 feet of charcoal.
4) Dickel ages their barrels in single story barrelhouses up on the hill, in the belief that a single story approach yields more consistent results. While this does result in a more consistently aged product, it also means that aging Dickel barrels on average will be a “slower” process than aging barrels at a multi-story barrelhouse (like most whiskey producers use). Jack Daniel’s actually makes a point of showing how different the same batch of whiskey will look after a few years from the top of a barrelhouse vs. the bottom of the barrelhouse. It is significant. The greater temperature variation at the top of a tall space, especially in a warm summer, will produce greater interaction between the barrel and the whiskey.
5) So, in part at least due to single story aging approach… Dickel is aged a bit longer than Jack, though neither labels their products by age. According to my guide at Dickel, Dickel No. 8 sees about seven years in the barrel (vs. four years or so for Jack’s Old No. 7), Dickel No. 12 sees about nine years, and the Dickel Barrel Select clocks in at 10+ years (vs. six years or so for Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel.) Again, older does not necessarily mean better, it just reflects a slightly different whisk(e)y philosophy.
I must say that, while Jack impresses, and their Single Barrel whiskey is a darn good drink, Dickel is the one more likely to win my heart. From the low key approach, to the longer aging, even to the fact that their parent company (Diageo) treats them like a forgotten child, Dickel is the underdog that deserves rooting for. Now, don’t come to Cascade Hollow expecting to taste the goods. You’ll have to do that elsewhere. But once you do, you’re likely to find that the less popular little brother of Tennessee whisk(e)y is the one you’d rather have by your side on a peaceful evening.
(For a nice comparison of Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel and George Dickel’s Barrel Select, check out the tasting notes at Sour Mash Manifesto. It’s worth pointing out, though, that single barrel bottlings and small batch bottlings are inherently variable – you will find differences from bottle to bottle.)
And while you’re here, also check out all the stops on our Tennessee whiskey tour.