There are thousands of wineries in America. And there are seven whiskey distilleries in Kentucky. But there are only two whiskey distilleries in Tennessee: Jack Daniel’s and George Dickel. They are located 20 minutes from each other but are polar opposites.
Jack Daniel’s is famous because of its ownership by a giant beverage conglomerate and the subsequent advertising. George Dickel is a small, relatively unknown distillery that still handcrafts their whisky the way it was done hundreds of years ago. They’re both worth a visit, which would include a tour. And they can be reached via car and combined with a trip to Nashville or Memphis. When you’ve visited them both, you can say you’ve been to “all the distilleries in Tennessee.”
For those of you who know nothing about whiskey, the first thing you need to know is that there are types of whiskey. Bourbon is a type of whiskey. There are a few things that make bourbon bourbon. Most importantly, it needs to be made in Kentucky. Tennessee whiskey has more recently been recognized officially as a type of whiskey. Tennessee whisky has to be made in… duh… Tennessee. Just as Scotch whisky has to be made in Scotland and Islay whisky has to be made in the Islay region of Scotland. So now that you know what Tennessee whiskey is, now you need to know how to get there.
Jack Daniel’s Distillery:
The Jack Daniel’s distillery is about an hour and a half from Nashville in Lynchburg, Tennessee. It’s a nice ride, and if you’re like me, the main reason you were even in Nashville was to have a reason to go to the distilleries. (Not to say anything bad about Nashville as there’s plenty to do there for a short visit. I’ll put up a separate article about barbeque in Memphis and Nashville soon.) But Jack Daniel’s is five hours from Memphis, so you won’t be able to start your day out there. You’ll want to stay in Nashville the night before. If you leave your hotel at a reasonable time, you’ll be able to make it to both distilleries before they close. And don’t worry about driving back, because you won’t taste any whiskey or whisky during these visits because—are you ready for this?—both distilleries are located in dry counties. Yes, that’s a true statement!
Jack Daniel and George Dickel were actually contemporaries and friends. The fact that one of their whiskies is internationally known and the other is relatively unknown has nothing to do with their quality. Jack Daniel’s is a great place to visit. They have ample parking, a free tour and a huge staff. If you’ve never been to a distillery before, you will learn about all aspects of the whiskey-making process: Buying the Grain. Preparing the grain. Mashing. Fermenting. Distilling. Aging. Blending. And bottling. You’ll also learn interesting facts about Jack himself. They’ll even show you why Jack picked this specific spot to build his distillery. It sits on an underground spring that has a fresh water supply that can be accessed via some caves. You’ll see the caves and even see old vehicles that were part of the Jack Daniel’s distillery’s private fire brigade. They’ll tell you all about how Jack died by stubbing his toe. (Actually, he died after kicking his safe. Somehow he kicked it hard enough to give himself lead poisoning that was never diagnosed.) By the end of the tour, you will be an expert. And you’ll understand how the distillery’s modern technologies help them keep up with the demand for the product.
George Dickel Distillery:
When you make the 20 minute drive down the road to George Dickel, you’ll find a much smaller, simpler distillery. George Dickel doesn’t get the foot traffic that Jack Daniel’s does. The distillery was reopened in 1958 by master distiller Ralph Dupps, using George’s original recipes. It even closed for a few years in the ’90s when the supply started to outweigh the demand. Its quaint, tucked-away location doesn’t draw as many visitors as JD, but they also give an amazing tour. You learn what makes George so drinkable and smooth. What most distilleries consider “double filtered,” the people at George Dickel consider “single filtered.” And for those of you who didn’t know this, whisky is filtered (or mellowed) through a variety of different elements that may affect its taste.
Jack and George are both filtered through charcoal, which is supposedly unique to Tennessee whiskey. Irish or Scotch whiskies are often filtered through moss, which gives them that grassy (or literally mossy) taste. George Dickel is smooth because of its charcoal-filtering process. Not only do they call a double filter a single filter, but they are the only distillery that filters their whisky cold. The tour guide will explain why the cold filtering makes it so that you don’t get quite the hangover with George. And he’ll tell you about how he made the switch to George before he started working there. He tried it once, knew it was his favorite, and never looked back. The tour guides, employees and the post office/general store-themed visitor’s center really add to the charm of George Dickel. And if you were wondering, George Dickel spells whisky with no ‘e,’ which is how it is spelled in Scotland, because they believe their product to be as smooth as the finest Scotch whiskies.
You’ll need to buy a couple different bottles of George Dickel while you’re there. The prices in the gift shop rival a regular liquor store. And if you’re from out of state, you’ll need to stock up, because you can’t always find George at your local liquor store. They sell a couple of different varieties of George at the distillery, and you can’t go wrong with any of the choices. The Old No. 8 with the black label is 80 proof, while the Superior No. 12 with the ivory label is 90. You can also try the Barrel Select if you want to spend a few dollars more. You really can’t go wrong with any of these three products. They also put out a younger whisky with a red label called Cascade Hollow, which was put out when the mid-’90s closing created a near-shortage of the Old No. 8. Now that the shelves are stocked with Old No. 8 again, the Cascade Hollow is supposedly discontinued. But I’ve been in a grocery store more than once in the last year and only found the Cascade Hollow available. It’s drinkable, but it’s definitely not the best.
If you’ve never done a distillery tour and you’re in Tennessee, I would highly recommend it. Most people drink without thinking about the history and hard work that goes into what they’re drinking. You can ignore what you’re drinking and just drink to get drunk. Or you can take a little pride in knowing where something comes from and how it gets made. Learning about Tennessee whiskey is a great place to start. After that, you’ll want to learn about bourbon… a much bigger category.
Collier and McKeel Distillery:
There is now a third whiskey distillery in Tennessee, Collier and McKeel, but their website says nothing about visiting, and their products can be only be purchased at two stores in all of Tennessee. Collier and McKeel is named after a 200-year-old whiskey-maker, but the distillery seems to be very new. If they are recreating Collier and McKeel’s original recipe—as they did over at George Dickel—they could really have something in the works (because George Dickel is my favorite whisky or “whiskey” of all time.) Collier and McKeel is made just outside of Nashville, but they import their water from the Middle Tennessee limestone aquifer, and they seem to be doing the rest of the whiskey-making process in the traditional Tennessee fashion. So if you come across some, try it and tell me how it racks up against the rest.
Or send me a bottle!