A few months back, a friend came to town from Tennessee. His schedule was jammed as was mine, but I was eager to see him. He works in insurance and I inevitably learn a lot when he explains the various fallouts of Obamacare and Trump’s subsequent war against it.
“I have something from George Dickel to bring you for review,” he added. That was that. Logistics be damned, we were going to meet.
He came by my office and pulled from his bag a small of gold from Tullahoma—George Dickel Reserve 17-Year Old Tennessee Whisky (43.5% ABV; 87 proof). There is a whole cockamamie story about how this whisky was a happy accident; some barrels got mis-inventoried or somesuch. I love the folks at Dickel but I am not sure I buy it. That, however, is neither here nor there. This is the longest aged Tennessee whiskey to be found, and you can sip it straight with ease. The deep copper liquor offers notes of corn, white pepper, caramel, apple, and toffee. Wow.
George Dickel 17-Year is not cheap. A half-sized bottle (375 ml) runs around $75. But for the American whiskey fan, or for friends enjoying a rare meet-up, it is more than worth it.
Being a drinks writer has its perks. One never knows when a courier will arrive with an unexpected delivery. On occasion I have shrank back in horror when I opened a box to find dill pickle vodka or a similarly evil concoction. Typically, though, I receive good drinks.
Oh, yes. We love the standard George Dickel, so this super-duper premium one is a real treat. It is 86 proof, and has a big spearmint note up front then oozes grain, menthol, and a little white pepper. Mmmmmm. (Rating: Excellent)
No to rock-hard fruitcakes. No to hideous neckties that match nothing in one’s wardrobe. No to useless contraptions like the Ronco inside-the-egg scrambler. And no to more electronic gadgets that pester and scatter the mind with pings, bleeps, and jangles.
Go for drinky gifts instead, which cannot fail to delight and provide hours of levity in these weird times of creepy willy-wavers in America and belligerent lunatics on the other side of the globe.
Thirty years ago, the best beer I could find in most groceries was Michelob or Lowenbrau. How times have changed in our grand land. These days, you can throw a rock in any direction and it has a high probability of hitting a good bottle of beer. Which makes shopping for brews easy.
Icky sweet apple ciders in 12-ounce bottles are common in U.S. grocery stores. Skip them and grab a 750 milliliter bottle of old style cider. Le Lieu Cheri’s Cidre Fermier and Cave de la Lotterie (imported by Wine Traditions Ltd) are dry, light, and decidedly earthy ciders ($10-$12). The aromas arising from these sparkling beverages are sour and mushroom-y. I served these ciders as whistle-wetters before our Thanksgiving dinner. At a mere 5 percent alcohol they can be enjoyed without getting you loopy.
Bourbon, whiskey, and rye
Never has it been a better time to be a whiskey drinker. Newer brands like Angel’s Envy Bourbon (aged in port barrels and $50 a bottle) and the splendid Filibuster Dual Cask Bourbon (finished in French oak barrels and $40 a bottle) are among the brands that have reconceptualized the flavor profile of bourbon without abandoning its essence: sweet and fiery. Traverse City Whiskey Company’s flag ship straight bourbon whiskey (86 proof; $35) gives the tippler a sense of what the whiskey century ago must have been like: a thick with charred barrel flavor and a little hot on the swallow.
Iowa’s Cedar Ridge Distillery, which won the American Distilling Institute’s distillery of the year award, offers the whiskey lover a veritable smorgasbord. They make a wheat whiskey, a bourbon, a malted rye whiskey, two single malts, and an unaged whiskey. All retail for $40 to $60. Smallish (200 ml) bottles of five different Cedar Ridge whiskeys come in the oh-so-givable American Whiskey Explorer package ($70).
Rye, as everyone knows, has made a yuge comeback. To get a sense of old rye versus new, consider giving someone a bottle of Rittenhouse Bottled-in-Bond Rye (100 proof; $27) and a fifth of Filibuster Dual Cask Rye (90 proof; $45). The former tastes of grain, black pepper, and a little apricot. The latter is gentler, slightly sweet, and offers apple and floral notes. I love each of them. If you want to impress a rye aficionado, pony up $110 for WhistlePig 12-year old rye (86 proof).
Wine and fortified wine
Hands down, the best wine I tasted this year was also the priciest: Ken Deis Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 ($60 most places; $25 via NakedWines.com). This red tasted like a cross between Bordeaux and a new world fruit bomb. It was utterly succulent, and showed faint blueberry and cedar notes. I nearly wept when the bottle was empty.
If you want remarkable bang-for-the-buck, wrap up some bottles of Jose Maria da Fonseca wines (imported by Palm Bay International). These Portuguese red wines have remarkably diverse flavor profiles. Da Fonseca’s Ripanço ($12) reminds me of beauojolas nouveau. It is light bodied, floral, and only a little fruity. The Jose se Sousa 2015 ($17) is very old world—it is dry, vegetal, and shows a clove note. Meanwhile, Da Fonseca Periquita Reserva 2014 ($15) is very new world. It offers immense fruit and vanilla notes and all but screams for pairing with steak, roasted vegetables, and gooey or salty cheese. For those with deeper pockets, the $40 Domini Plus 2014 would make a welcome gift for a wine collector. This inky red wine is very fruity, tannic, and dry, and will age well. Da Fonseca, I should add, produces terrific fortified wines. The Alambre Moscatel de Setubal 2010 ($17) would appeal to those who enjoy port. It has floral and peach notes. Yum.
For the person who loves to read of drink, there are abundant choices. Alexei Damon Murray and Stephen Sorrell’s Alcohol (Fuel, 2017) carries eye-popping photographs of Soviet anti-drink posters from the 1960s to 1980s. The government produced bazillions of them, but the downtrodden citizenry kept boozing. Steven Grasse’s Colonial Spirits (Abrams Image, 2017), as I previously wrote, is a wild and amusing romp through early American drink.
Robert Simonson’s A Proper Drink (Ten Speed Press, 2016) is a lengthy, deep-dive report on how America’s cocktail scene revived over the past 30 years. As someone who was in the thick of the whole New York City drink scene in the 1990s, I can attest that Simonson got much of the truth. Those of an antiquarian bent might enjoy receiving a copy of Sherry Monahan and Jane Perkins’ The Golden Elixir of the West (TwoDot, 2018). It is filled with amusing old yarns about American whiskey.
Friends and family who like to DIY can be given Emma Christensen’s Modern Cider (Ten Speed Press, 2017), a pretty tome that teaches how to make various fruit ciders, shrubs, and wines.
And those feeling charitable to the industrious hack who has written innumerable columns for your eyes, you can help feed his family and fishing habit by filling stockings with his slim tomes on whiskey and moonshine.
Don’t get me wrong — Jack Daniel’s is a very impressive company. Its sales growth over the past 40 years is mind-boggling. During the 1970 and 1980s, most American whiskeys saw their sales drop. They laid off workers and cut back on capital upgrades.
But not company the Jasper Newton Daniel started 150 years ago. It went gangbusters, helped in no small part by celebrities like Frank Sinatra and Michael Anthony of Van Halen, who guzzled it on stage. (Anthony even had an Old No. 7 electric guitar made.)
And Daniel’s did itself a great favor by taking a rather fanatical attitude toward execution. If they were going to make a bazillions cases a year, they were going to keep quality high. It presently keeps three full timers on the payroll to do nothing more than burn wood into charcoal, which is used to filter the whiskey after it comes off the still. It continues to use a copper still, and gets its barrels from its parent company, Brown-Forman, and nobody else. A Jack Daniel’s microbiologist cultures the yeast it uses by the thousands of gallons, and the lactobacillus for its sour mash. To call the Jack Daniel’s distilling crew control freaks is both accurate and a high compliment. No wonder the stuff sells in 160 countries.
Many moons ago, we put these two Tennessee whiskeys side-by-side for a tasting. Which was best, the global goliath and cultural icon, or the less-well-known brand from Tullahoma?
To see, read the below classic review from the year 2001.
George Dickel No. 12 and Jack Daniels Old No. 7
by F. Sot Fitzgerald
The other night I was in a classy restaurant. Eyeballing their cocktail and liquor list, I laughed. “Look!” I said, leaning nearly into the lap of a woman I had just met, “They screwed up. They have Jack Daniels listed as a Bourbon.” She looked at me confused, and returned to her drink. I slinked back on to my stool and let her be.
Since I couldn’t tell her that all Bourbon is American whiskey but not all American whiskey is Bourbon, I’ll tell you. And if you know this already, well, then, skip ahead. Bourbon is a type of American whiskey. By law Bourbon must be made from 51% corn and it must be aged in new charred white oak barrels. Contrary to what some folks say, Bourbon does not have to be made in Kentucky to be Bourbon (it’s not like Champagne, which must be made in Cham…you get the point).
Jack Daniels and George Dickel are Tennessee whiskies. What makes a whisk(e)y a Tennessee whisk(e)y is filtration, about which more is said below.
Jack Daniels Old No. 7 (86 proof) is made of corn, rye, barley malt and “iron-free” water. It’s filtered (poured) through charcoal before going into barrel. It’s ridiculously popular but is a good whiskey. It tastes of caramel, some vanilla on nose, and charred wood close.
George Dickel No. 12, though less likely to appeal to whisky (note the “e”-less Scottish spelling of Whisky that Dickel uses) novices, is superior to Jack Daniels Old No. 7. It’s distilled from corn, barley and rye, and as they note, it has “no preservatives, dyes, or strange ingredients you can’t pronounce.” It is double distilled then charcoal filtered through sugar maple before being “chill-mellowed” for 7-10 days.
What’s chill mellowing? I’ll let the folks at Dickel speak for themselves:
“Somewhere along the way, George discovered that the batches of whisky he tasted during the winter months were noticeably smoother than the ones from warmer seasons. George learned that the chilled whisky became more viscous (thick), so it filtered more cleanly. This produced an extraordinarily smooth-bodied whisky. He called the process chill-mellowing.”
Then it’s plopped into charred American white oak barrels and aged for no less than 8 years.