Dickel Steps in the Rye

The newest rye in the burgeoning market for spicy, brown goods is a bit of curveball: George Dickel Rye Whisky, a distiller better known for its sweet Tennessee Sour Mash Whisky. But the new, five-year-old rye, which will be available at the end of November, packs a whopping 95 percent rye in its grain makeup.

While Dickel’s latest entry will share its charcoal-filtering method, it is distilled and aged in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, before being shipped to Plainfield, Illionois, where it is chilled and charcoal-filtered in sugar maple prepared at the Dickel facility in Tullahoma, Tennessee. George Dickel Tennessee Sour Mash Whisky is made solely in Tennessee. In the case of the Sour Mash Whisky, the liquid is charcoal-filtered before it is aged. Diageo, the parent company, has also had its Bulleit brand of rye distilled in Lawrenceburg even while Bulleit Bourbon is made in Kentucky.

John Lunn, the Dickel master distiller said that the 95 percent rye mashbill was chosen to be in keeping with the historical roots of rye, which called for a much larger rye portion than is currently typical of the whiskey that has had a great resurgence in the last few years. "We wanted to make sure that we were not just part of fad."

For George Dickel, a spirits maker since 1870, this is its only divergence from an exceedingly corn-rich mashbill of 84 percent corn, 8 percent malted barley, and 8 percent rye. By law, straight-rye whiskey must have at least 51 percent rye in its grain recipe. The Dickel rye contains no corn (the remaining five percent is barley). Typically, rye adds spice to whiskey and corn brings sweetness. Barley is used to help the mixture turn to fermentable sugars.

Portrait of John Lunn.
Dickel's master distiller John Lunn.

If not unique, a charcoal-filtered rye is exceptionally rare. But it is in keeping with the Dickel tradition. Tennessee sour-mash whiskey is the term that describes Dickel’s other products (No. 8, No. 12 and Barrel Select). That style is very similar to Bourbon in that it requires a mashbill with a minimum 51 percent corn and that it be a straight whiskey (aged in new, charred-oak barrels). The Tennessee designation comes with the Lincoln County process, a filtering for mellowness in charcoal made from sugar maple. Dickel and Jack Daniel’s are the only two major producers of that style of whiskey.

While rye whiskey emerged from settlers on the East Coast in Pennsylvania and Maryland, its vast majority is now born of Bourbon makers in Kentucky. However, a newfound popularity for spicy whiskey has craft distillers making small amounts of rye throughout the country, with a couple of them in Tennessee.

The new Dickel rye is part of a resurgence for the venerable distiller. The distillery at Cascade Hollow in Tullahoma, Tennessee, was shuttered in 1999, as demand failed to keep up with supply. In 2003, new interest in whiskey caused the company to reopen the plant and it was faced with shortages before new spirits could be brought to sufficient maturity. A new brand, Cascade Hollow, with less age, was introduced as a stopgap measure for shortages.

Since 2003, Dickel has also bottled Barrel Select, using whiskies of 10 to 12 years of age, alongside No. 8 (four to six years) and No 12. (eight to 10).

Some of the hallmarks of the George Dickel methods are that the new-make spirits are chilled before filtering, the aging is done in short-stack warehouses of one story to maintain consistent temperature and the warehouses are located on hilltops to promote air circulation. The closing of the distillery also meant it hasn’t gone through modernization, and the staff takes pride in its handmade methods, lacking computerization.

(Tasting notes and cigar pairings on next page)

George Dickel Rye Whisky (90 proof or 45 percent alcohol by volume, $29.99)

APPEARANCE: Dark honey color with skinny, slow legs.

NOSE: Alluring mixture of sweet and spice at first blush. Some olive oil oozes in to be replaced by honey and the slightest bits of menthol and citrus.

PALATE: The first impression is gobs of mellow, doughy rye bread. Then comes the flush of spice, followed by a fruity sweetness. Once again: a fascinating combination in a rye that shows an urge to be all things to all whiskey drinkers.

FINISH: The finish is more candied, then slowly returns to the rye bread and takes on the character of a doughy, but sweet pastry.

CIGAR PAIRING: La Duena Petit Robusto ($7.50, 90 points, October 23 issue of Cigar Insider) Dark and streaky, this veiny robusto is earthy and spicy with touches of cedar and mint. Cinnamon-sugar sweetness and a touch of leather add complexity. The rye enlivens the spice content of the cigar, while also heightening the sugars. The cigar gives back by further rounding out the breadiness in the whiskey.

Padrón 1964 Anniversary Series Maduro Exclusivo ($11, 91 points, September 11 issue of Cigar Insider) Rolled and pressed with a dark, attractive wrapper, this cigar has a slightly firm draw but dead even burn. Its herbal start warms to show coffee, spice and earth. The Padrón shows off its nutty charms when paired with the Dickel, which just gets spicier. There’s a wonderful gutsy, meaty quality to this pairing that is hard to attribute specifically to either participant.

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