Reviving history Sippin' 'whisky' flowing again at Dickel disti

Tuesday, September 30, 2003

TULLAHOMA, Tenn. -- Whisky is flowing again at the George Dickel distillery, which shut down four years ago when an attempt to compete with Jack Daniel's failed miserably and left the company with a glut of spirits.

Now that the 126-year-old Dickel brand is getting a new life, it won't try to compete again with its powerhouse cousin down the road.

This time the Dickel distillery, tucked away in Cascade Hollow near this southern Tennessee town, will rely on its popularity with the gun-and-rod set while it cautiously tries to expand its appeal.

British beverage giant Diageo PLC is behind the resumption of production. Earlier this month, the first barrel since 1999 was filled.

Master distiller David Backus is crafting it much the same as his predecessors: weighing the grain by hand, using water from the cold spring that runs through the property, double-distilling the alcohol, filtering it through maple charcoal to make it smooth and differentiate it from bourbon, then aging it in charred white oak barrels for at least four years.

"We wouldn't make anything but good whisky. That's just the way it is," Backus said at a party to celebrate the distillery's re-opening. He's currently making 60 barrels a day.

Dickel has always spelled it "whisky" -- without the standard "e" -- because its founder felt his blend had more in common with the finest smooth Scotch whiskys than the more rough-hewn American spirits.

George A. Dickel was a German immigrant in the 1840s who started a boot and shoe business in Nashville but decided he could make more money selling liquor and became a distributor.

After a vacation to Tullahoma in 1867, he decided to sell his own product made from the vaunted local spring water. The George A. Dickel Co. was founded three years later and Cascade Tennessee Whisky was on the market by 1877.

After Dickel's death in 1894, the whiskey was renamed in his honor.

Prohibition put Dickel, like other U.S. distillers, out of business. It reopened nearly four decades later near the original site, and production continued until 1999 under various owners.

In the 1990s, the ownership changes and the grandiose plan to compete with top-selling Jack Daniel's whiskey, which is made 12 miles away in Lynchburg, crippled the business. Dickel's owner at the time, United Distillers & Vintners, had pumped up production and marketing, but remained a distant second in sales.

Dickel has always been a local favorite, as well as a popular choice with what the distillery identifies as its core demographic: 35- to 49-year-old men who hunt and fish.

After the distillery was shuttered, sales held steady -- there was even a little growth -- without much marketing.

Dickel was acquired as part of the business deal that created Diageo, which now is increasing the marketing budget, with plans to focus on its current niche while reaching out to new drinkers.

"We've got the core of loyal customers, people who love and identify with the brand. We want to expand that now, particularly to those who say 'I want to slow down from the pace of everyday life and enjoy something hand-crafted,"' Diageo spokesman Jason Linde said.

Diageo is also considering offering tours of the distillery and reopening the old-fashioned general store in a log building that encompasses a patio with a bust of the company's founder.

There's also talk of a "whiskey trail" between Tullahoma and Lynchburg similar to the "bourbon trail" in neighboring Kentucky.

Still, Dickel faces some significant challenges.

Bobbie Evenson, manager of Carroll St. Liquors in Tullahoma, says although Dickel is a best seller among locals, tourists from other states don't even know it exists. And near the Christmas holidays, she said, Jack Daniel's far outsells Dickel because of the Lynchburg company's commemorative bottles and special displays.

"You can't find anybody who hasn't heard of Jack Daniel's," said Evenson.

There's such a surplus of Dickel that the No. 12 white label brand on liquor store shelves is actually 12 years old.

Whiskey gets better the longer it sits in the barrel, but that process stops once it's in the bottle.

"We're giving away age," Backus, the master distiller, said. He would prefer to be selling bottles about half that old.

John Dunn, owner of J&S Party Pac in suburban Nashville, said Dickel is not a premium brand but is similar in taste to Jack Daniel's.

A liter of No. 12 sells for $15.99 at his store, while the same size bottle of Jack Daniel's Old No. 7 costs $28.49.

"It's more of a house brand. I wouldn't want to sip it straight; I'd mix it with something," Dunn said.

Allen Kimbro, former mayor of the small town of Normandy near the distillery, said he considers Dickel a better sippin' whiskey than Jack Daniel's.

"It's smooth. It doesn't burn. You put it in a deep freeze, then turn up the bottle and swallow it down straight. But you better find a place to sit pretty quick," he said laughing.

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