Collier and McKeel Tennessee Whiskey

It’s not easy going head to head with Jack Daniel’s and George Dickel. But that’s essentially what any product that calls itself Tennessee whiskey has to do, no matter how different the process, the batch size, the target audience, or the ratio of “done by hand” to “running on automatic.” The final stop on this year’s Thirsty South tour of the Tennessee whiskey trail was the newest distillery in the state (at least for the time being – there’s at least one more on the way next year), little Collier and McKeel. Collier and McKeel introduced their first products this year, and their flagship is a Tennessee whiskey. They also have a white dog, a cinnamon whiskey, and a vodka, but let’s focus on that Tennessee whiskey for now. Collier and McKeel is situated next to Corsair Artisan in Nashville’s Marathon Motor Works building, their startup home. They use a 570 gallon copper pot still made by Vendome, and just about everything (down to a thumbprint on each bottle) is done by hand. Given the small batch nature of their production, Collier and McKeel has been experimenting with the optimal barrel size and aging time to deliver the profile they’re looking for – a throwback to Tennessee whiskey of old. The barrels thus far have been tiny compared to what the big boys down in Lynchburg and Tullahoma are using, starting with 5 gallons and moving on up to 15 gallons. The smaller barrels provide a greater degree of interaction between the oak and the whiskey, given the greater ratio of barrel surface to whiskey volume. Now, as for being a “Tennessee whiskey,” Collier and McKeel does use sugar maple charcoal mellowing, just like the big boys. And they make their own charcoal, too. However, Collier and McKeel’s approach is a bit different, as they pump the new make whiskey up slowly through the charcoal, a few times, rather than using a gravity-driven drip process. The mash bill is a mix of corn, barley and rye, on the order of 70/15/15. And they use limestone filtered water, straight from the “family farm on Big Richland Creek,” making for a nice story of earth-to-bottle (not unlike the stories told by Jack Daniel’s and George Dickel, by the way). Collier and McKeel’s whiskey is available in Tennessee for now, but they hope to expand distribution in 2012, including Atlanta. If you happen upon a bottle, be sure to check it out and contrast it to the more commonly found Tennessee whiskeys. This little distillery certainly has the gumption to take on the establishment, and now it’s up to the whiskey to do the walking. Note: The Collier & McKeel distillery is not typically open for public tours, but send them a note to see if a private visit can be set up.

While you’re here, check out all the stops on our Tennessee whiskey tour.

A Taste of Home at Prichard’s Distillery, Kelso, Tennessee

Continuing our tour of Tennessee whiskey

A visit to Prichard’s Distillery in little bitty Kelso, Tennessee, is like a visit to someone’s home. It’s a family affair. Phil Prichard, his wife Connie, his son, his friends, everyone seems to be pitching in. It’s decidedly un-corporate, and the fact that the distillery sits in the town’s old schoolhouse and community center just reinforces the feeling. The basketball goals are still up in the gym that now houses bottles and labels and empty boxes waiting to be filled with fine rum and whiskey. The disco ball still hovers in the air, calling to mind all the dances and good times that must have happened here in the heart of tiny Kelso. Prichard’s Distillery is certainly keeping the flame, as much a product of Kelso as all the kids who walked through the schoolhouse’s doors years ago.

Prichard’s has been turning out award winning rums for over ten years now, a bridge between the old stalwarts of Tennessee distilling and the new breed. While their image is not as edgy and progressive as Corsair Artisan up in Nashville, they are certainly not slackers when it comes to pushing the envelope and trying out new things. There’s a long line of rums (including a Key Lime version), an array of whiskeys (from a “single malt” to a “double barreled” to a “Lincoln County Lightning”), and experimental bottles of things like aquavit, cranberry liqueur, and chocolate-infused bourbon sit on the old school desks that sit in what is now Prichard’s office. There are even small custom barrels filled for progressive bars and liquor shops around the country (ever hear of The Violet Hour in Chicago? I happened to see a barrel with their name on it).  Prichard’s is a small batch craft distillery when it comes down to it, with two beautiful Vendome pot stills that do most of the heavy lifting, and that small batch mentality is a perfect precursor to trying new things.

While rum has been Prichard’s calling card for many years, the whiskey line-up is what seems to be gaining steam and is an increasing focus for the distillery. A new rye is on its way, and time in the barrel is the main thing that sits between some Prichard’s whiskey and a large number of thirsty fans. True to their roots, Prichard’s prefers to use a local white corn that has a particularly nice sugar content, ground at the historic Falls Mill down the road in Old Salem. That Lincoln County Lightning gets bottled fresh out of the still, and boasts a tremendous corn character that reflects the fine local ingredients. Phil Prichard is a storyteller at heart, and he shared a few cocktail names he has for his Lincoln County Lightning. A Bloody Mary becomes a Bloody Bubba, and his name for a white lightning-based spin on a Margarita is almost enough to make a bootlegger blush (I won’t share that one here, but would love to hear your guesses in the comment section below!).

Prichard’s is definitely worth the stop if you’re heading up to their much bigger neighbors up the road a bit. Jack Daniel’s is just a bucolic, fifteen mile jaunt, but Prichard’s is indeed a world away. Be sure to call ahead, though, if you’re interested in visiting. You wouldn’t want to make an unexpected house call, after all.

Prichard’s Distillery in images, continues below… 

And while you’re here, also check out all the stops on our Tennessee whiskey tour.

and out onto the roads of Lincoln County…

Corsair Artisan, Tenn-tucky’s Crazy Craft Distilling Kids

Continuing our tour of Tennessee whiskey country, we head on to the distillery that is the polar opposite of Jack Daniel’s monolithic magnificence…

Andrew Webber at Corsair Artisan Distillery is like a kid in a candy shop amidst his stills and barrels and grains. Five gallon barrels contain all kinds of experimental concoctions. Bottles line the shelves, filled with all manners of strange things. Lagered quinoa? Why not? Their biggest hits to date include a cocktail-friendly unaged rye whiskey and an American “single malt” featuring three varieties of smoked barley – one smoked with American cherry wood, one with Scottish peat, and one with German beachwood. A recent experimental batch steeped cacao hulls (not the bean, but the shell) in bourbon for an intensely nutty, dark chocolatey depth.

Corsair Artisan was basically the first micro-distillery to pop up once Tennessee’s distillery laws opened up, and they split up their operations between Nashville, Tennessee, and Bowling Green, Kentucky. It’s yet another untraditional choice that shows these guys aren’t afraid of doing things differently. The Nashville distillery and taproom sits in a gorgeously revitalized old Marathon Motorworks auto factory on the rough edges of downtown, industrial chic at its best. Old brick, doors large enough to fit a semi through, ghosts of production lines long gone.

Inside, the science lab mentality is in full effect. The beautiful old copper stills are tricked out with modern gadgets, mechanical eyes and agitators, to help manage the distillation. Even the barrels themselves are part of the experimentation – small barrels from Black Swan Cooperage feature staves with grooves and honeycomb shapes carved into them (inside the barrel) to allow for greater interaction between the spirit and the wood. Supposedly, 10 months in one of the 5 gallon barrels gives you a similar level of interaction as 15 years in a 52 gallon barrel. And for a nimble little distillery that likes to play with lots of things, that fast “aging” makes a big difference.

The guys at Corsair also have a brewer’s approach to the craft… they like playing with the mash, sourcing unusual grains, trying different roasts and smokes. There’s cherry-smoked barley, chocolate-roasted rye, red winter wheat, oatmeal, quinoa. It sounds like the bulk isle at a progressive natural foods store. But Corsair has proven they can make great things out of unusual grains.

There’s no “tour” per se at Corsair, but if you call them up and they have some free time, they’re more than happy to share the ins and outs of the distillery with interested fans. And the taproom, formerly occupied by Nashville’s Yazoo Brewing Company, is still a great place to grab a beer at the end of the day. Meanwhile, outside Nashville, you can find Corsair Artisan’s lineup of regular and seasonal craft products (there are lots of interesting rotating options, like Pumpkin Spice Moonshine!) at bars and liquor stores alike. Just call up your favorite place to see what they have in stock.

Corsair Artisan in images, continues below…

And while you’re here, also check out all the stops on our Tennessee whiskey tour.

Dickel’s For Drinking: A Visit To George Dickel’s Cascade Hollow Distillery

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.

Related Posts:
A Visit to Jack Daniel’s Distillery
Touring Tennessee Whiskey Country

(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.

Jack Daniel’s IS Tennessee Whiskey (For Better or For Worse)

If you’ve been reading Thirsty South lately, you may have noticed that I recently hit the Tennessee whiskey trail and reminisced about how my Grandpa was a Jack Daniel’s man. Now we’re going to provide a stronger taste of each of the five Tennessee distilleries we visited on this trip, starting off with none other than Jack Daniel’s.

For better or worse, to most of the world, Jack Daniel’s IS Tennessee Whiskey. I don’t mean to disparage them. They are the oldest. The biggest. The mother-blastin-money-makin-est. They pay about $16 million in taxes every single WEEK, so our government is mighty thankful for their success. They are the most secretive (no photos allowed in the production facilities!). They are the closest thing to Disney World that Tennessee has (outside Dollywood, of course, and Graceland). And visitors do pour in from around the world to get a glimpse of the making of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey – though not a taste, since the county in which Jack Daniel’s is made is famously a dry county (unless, that is, you are buying a whole single barrel, approximately $10,000, in which case they will offer you samples from the barrel to help you choose).

Jack Daniel’s Distillery is set in the little town of Lynchburg, Tennessee, a town that looks like a set out of a movie being made about Jack Daniel’s. There’s a cute little town square dominated by Jack Daniel’s memorabilia, and a fabulous Southern experience of a restaurant that goes by the name of Miss Mary Bobo’s Boarding House, which first opened its doors in 1908 (and is now owned by none other than the Jack Daniel’s Distillery).

The distillery itself is a mess of old buildings and a nice new visitor center plopped down in a bucolic setting of streams and trees and hills. After all, the distillery made its way to Lynchburg for the “cave spring water” that still flows by today. The visitor center is an informative little museum of Jack Daniel’s history, and the starting point for frequent free tours of the property. The tour guides are real deal local Jack Daniel’s-bleedin’ Tennesseans schooled in storytelling and are likely to be wearing overalls and a cap and go by a name like “Goose” (who can take you through a virtual tour online, seriously, check it out after you read this), and they know their lines by heart.

The tour begins with a quick bus ride to the “rickyard” and what is probably the most impressive fireplace you will ever see – the place where sugar maple wood is turned into the charcoal that is used to mellow the whiskey (the famous “Lincoln County Process” that most Tennessee whiskey is known for). The neat stacks of wood, built up like a mighty massive game of Jinga, are doused with 140 proof unaged whiskey to help the fire get going, and it burns HOT until nice piles of charcoal are all that remain. Even standing 50 yards away, you get a blast of heat from that fire. (Note: the fires are not always burning, our tour happened to get lucky and come at the right time.)

The tour continues on foot, by the cave spring and the statue of Jack Daniel himself perched on a rocky stand, which is the only place in the county where you can get a shot of Jack on the rocks. (Get it? A SHOT of Jack, on the rocks! As in a “photo” of Jack, standing on some rocks!? Not my joke, that’s written on the base of the statue, actually.)

Before moving on to the production process, you get to see the little old office that Jack used to run the distillery, along with the safe that supposedly led to his death (one of many long stories on the tour). You then go by the grain mill where grain is held before going into the mash, into the still house where the grain mash is distilled into whiskey, up and into the mellowing building where the whiskey is dripped through charcoal, then into the barrel house where the whiskey is aged. By the way, our guide informed us that good old Jack Daniel’s No. 7 typically ages about 4 to 4.5 years, and the Single Barrel product ages about 6 years – these are not age labeled, and the distillery insists that every barrel makes its way into the bottle at the right time.

It’s actually a good and interesting tour that gives you the basics quite well, told with character and love for all things Jack. You also get a quick video on the barrel making process (they make their own), and a push to be one of the lucky few who get to select a whole single barrel for purchase. Which leads us to…. the fact that I was fortunate enough to be with a group of friends who were buying one of those said barrels. More on that in a second. First, some food.

After our tour ended with a sip of lemonade at the (dry) bar, we took a stroll into town for “dinner” (that’s what they call “lunch”) at Miss Mary Bobo’s. The food was great, and so was the experience. Dinner is served only at appointed times, and you need a reservation. Crowds of tourists and locals alike congregate in the halls and rooms of the old house as Lynne Tolley, current proprietress and great-grandniece of Jack Daniel, begins to call out names. You are introduced to your hostess, who will join you at your family-style table for the meal and will make you feel quite at home. Sweet tea is obligatory, and the food is brought out and put on a “lazy Susan” which is carefully spun around to make sure everyone can serve themselves a portion of whatever they like. And the food is good. At our table, we had good Southern fried chicken, succulent pork loin with a peppery gravy, crisp fried okra, a rich squash casserole (do I detect Cream of Chicken soup?), green beans with smokey ham, a sweet and spicy tomato salsa-like salad, and sweet cinnamon apples (a house specialty which includes a touch of Jack Daniel’s whiskey). Dessert was a stunningly decadent slice of “Tennessee chess pie” made with coconut and a bit of orange juice for a tangy sweetness. Stories were told around the table, of drunken nights, and wildfires, and bootlegging beer in a big rig up a steep country road with a police car passing by. I’m not naming any names, but the stories were as good as the food.

So, sated with Southern supper, we headed back across the little bridge to Jack Daniel’s for a private tasting of three barrel samples – one of which would be my group’s Single Barrel purchase. As noted earlier, a single barrel will run you somewhere between $9 and $12 thousand, actually based on where you’re having the bottled whiskey shipped to from the distillery (taxes, y’all).  A single barrel will produce approximately 240 bottles, sometimes a bit more depending on the individual rate of evaporation for that barrel – AKA “The Angel’s Share,” so the price is not the draw (it’s about equal to buying it at retail). The draw is the ability to pick your own barrel, to have it specially marked, and then to have it to share with friends and family. And it’s amazing how different the nuances of single barrels of Jack Daniel’s can be. Jeff Norman, one of Jack Daniel’s “Master Tasters,” helped choose three barrel samples for us, all from the same batch of whiskey that was originally put in the barrel on July 6, 2005, just over six years ago. All of these samples were deemed good enough for consideration (and worthy of the “Single Barrel” designation), and six years in a barrel is plenty of time for the mingling of this whiskey and charred American white oak that determines so much of the character of the finished product.

I’m not a huge fan of old No. 7, but Jack can make a fine single barrel whiskey once it’s aged a bit more. Our three different barrel samples were all quite good, but after smelling and tasting, the individuals in our group almost all came to the same conclusion that two of them were significantly better than the third. So we narrowed our contenders to two. The losing sample came across a bit more harsh than the others, a bit smokier, simply less compelling for mysterious reasons. The other two were not far apart from each other, but, again, there was near unanimous agreement on which was “best” after spending some time with each of them. One was a bit more round, robust, with soft caramel on the nose and an almost buttery texture leading into a pleasant lingering burn (clocking in around 94 proof).  The other had a more subdued nose, flatter, and a spicier kick in the mouth that felt slightly out of balance, at least relative to its sibling. After time, it was an easy call and a happy decision. We had our barrel, and I my minor 5% share of that barrel, about a dozen bottles that I look forward to sharing.

I know most folks won’t be buying their own barrel, but that last hour and a half we spent tasting and talking with Jeff (the Master Taster!) was the best part of our visit to Jack Daniel’s, and an illuminating look into how aged Tennessee whiskey develops character and distinctions, from barrel to barrel. I’m happy to have those bottles on their way to my home bar. And I’m proud to share a home state with (my Grandpa) and Jack Daniel’s.

While you’re here, also check out all the stops on our Tennessee whiskey tour.