Ever had the good fortune to taste a 15-year-old, single-barrel George Dickel Tennessee Whisky before? The answer is most certainly no, you haven't, because such a whiskey expression was not available to most of the public until it was poured for the 500 eager audience members who attended Sunday's Big Smoke cigar and spirits pairing seminar.
Per tradition, the pairing seminar concluded the 2013 Big Smoke Las Vegas weekend and was led by Cigar Aficionado's senior features editor and spirits guru Jack Bettridge. Titled Tennessee Two-Step, the seminar was a little different compared to year's past in that it focused on one spirits brand, Tennessee-based George Dickel.
Joining Bettridge onstage was Dickel brand ambassador Douglas Kragel, who brought along, in addition to the rare single-barrel whiskey, four whiskeys from the prestigious Dickel portfolio for the audience to sip: George Dickel Rye, No. 8, No. 12, and Barrel Select.
But what's a cigar pairing without cigars? This year's seminar smokes were provided by Davidoff and included the all-Dominican Puro d'Oro Magnificos and the 91-point scoring Davidoff Nicaragua Robusto, rolled entirely from Nicaraguan tobaccos. Brand ambassador Jeff Stone, who also was on the panel, said he chose these particular cigars because he felt they offered vastly different taste experiences due to their differing tobacco origins.
The panel's discussion covered a broad range of cigar- and whiskey-related topics: the importance of terroir in cigars and whiskey, a brief primer on rye's comeback, tips on the best way to drink whiskey, and, of course, in-depth descriptions of how all the products lit up or drank were created. As the talk occurred, audience members interjected questions, too, which gave the seminar a cozy feeling, as if it was taking place in a giant den or man cave.
Some of the tips Kragel offered to enjoy your whiskey included the importance of using a clean glass. He also recommended first tasting the whiskey neat and "then add an ice cube, preferably one of those large ones you may have seen in a cocktail bar. Those won't melt as fast as small cubes, so you will be able to experience the whiskey's full complexity."
While many mistakenly believe Tennessee whiskey is a Bourbon, it is actually a separate whiskey category, Kragel said.
"There's only three Tennessee whisky producers in the state at the moment. But we don't need to name the other major one right now..." Kragel joked, bringing smiles to the audiences' faces.
The primary difference between the Bourbon and Tennessee whisky, he continued, is that Tennessee whisky is filtered through maple-charcoal. Kragel described Dickel's famous maple-charcoal filtration process in great detail, explaining how it's first chilled to 40 degrees Fahrenheit before it is poured into a large vat packed with maple-charcoal that is made at the company's Tullahoma, Tennessee, facility. This charcoal filtration removes any non-essential fatty acids and oils, resulting in a smoother whiskey.
"The filtration gives our whiskeys a nice, smooth finish and mouthfeel," Kragel said. "The whiskey ends up passing through 13 feet of charcoal that actually has a sheepswool blanket under it to catch any impurities in the liquid. The whole process takes eight days."
The tasting began with George Dickel No. 8, a whiskey Kragel described as "downhome, with a lot of caramel and vanilla." The mashbill, Kragel said, is comprised of 84 percent corn, 8 percent rye and 8 percent barley. Bettridge asked the audience to spark the Davidoff Nicaragua for the first pairing.
The panel and audience continued to smoke the Nicaragua as they worked their way down the flight of Dickel whiskys. Bettridge, Kragel and Stone agreed that the cigar worked well with No. 12. "I get a nice sweetness on the palate with this one," said Stone, and the others nodded in approval.
The Davidoff Nicaragua also worked well with the George Dickel Barrel Select, which Kragel said is a blend of whiskeys that have been aging for 10 to 12 years. Bettridge noted the matching bodies of the whiskey and cigar meant the spirit and smoke could mingle freely, "a sign of a great pairing."
Bettridge then asked all to light up the second cigar, the Davidoff Puro d'Oro. The small break gave Stone the chance to explain the laborious process undertaken to create a cigar like the Puro d'Oro. Stone talked about how the Yamasá region of the Dominican Republic, where the cigar's wrapper is grown, and how the regions geography and climate affect a tobacco plant.
"Every Davidoff cigar has been touched by roughly 300 pairs of hands," said Stone.
With lit Puro d'Oros, the panel again worked through the flight of Dickel. This time, the consensus for the winning pair was the Puro d'Oro and Barrel Select.
"I get this amazing cherry flavor on the back end," said Stone. Bettridge concurred, and went on to say that he felt the smoke was pulling flavors out of the whiskey that he didn't taste before.
As the second pairing flight neared it's end, Mirage servers walked around the room and poured what Kragel called "the mystery whiskey": the 15-year-old, George Dickel single barrel, which was only available via purchase of an entire barrel of whiskey from the distillery. Kragel said the the rare liquid was being served because the the folks at Dickel wanted to do something special for Big Smoke attendees.
So how did it taste?
"My first reaction," said Stone, with a smile, "is that it's a really, really good whiskey." The audience and panel all laughed.
And thus concluded the 18th annual Big Smoke Las Vegas weekend.
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