American Whiskey:
July
13, 1998 -- Tennessee Whiskey Country


The George A. Dickel Distilling Company
Cascade Hollow, Normandy, Tennessee

George Dickel No.12 Tennessee WhiskyThis morning we awoke nearly an hour later than we’d planned, upset that the motel had missed a requested wakeup call. Fortunately, before I had a chance to embarrass myself by calling the front desk, Linda remembered that we are now in the Central Time Zone – an hour ahead of our watches! Ten minutes later, and right on schedule, the phone rang.

Today we are going to explore the entire (legal) Tennessee whiskey industry, which consists of only two distillers located less than twenty miles from one another. Our first stop is at George Dickel’s Cascade Hollow distillery just outside the unincorporated village of Normandy, near Tullahoma. Getting to the site involves traveling along several small country back roads, but the George Dickel folks have provided signs to make finding their site quite easy. The winding drive through the Tennessee countryside is really lovely, especially around the Normandy dam and lake area.

Yesterday was a really beautiful day; sunny and not too humid. Today is not quite like that. It started out gloomy and raindrops began falling as we arrived at the distillery. The setting itself is lovely. Set against the hillsides on both sides of the road, the distillery, charcoal making area, and visitor center are clean and attractive. This is partially due to the fact that the entire operation is much newer than most. George Dickel (also known as the Cascade Distillery) has had a fascinating history of moves and changes, and the current plant was built in 1958, although the ruins of the original, pre-prohibition sight is only a couple hundred yards down the road. The visitor center, made to look like an old general store, looks and feels like it was built just last summer – the smell of fresh-cut wood fills the air. The store, run by Nancy Peterson is filled with Dickel-oriented wares and souvenirs, a old-time counter, an operating post office (Dickel, Tennessee, 37388 – although all their correspondence uses Tullahoma as the return address, with the same ZIP code), and small café. As we entered, there were two men having breakfast at one of the handful of tables. Behind the general store is the visitor center, a big, rustic wood, lodge-like room with a fireplace and couches, a little kitchenette-looking area with a TV and VCR for showing the history of George Dickel, and displays of distillery models and Dickel products.George Dickel Visitors Center

The General Store at George DickelIt is from here that the visitor tours start, and this is where we met our tour guide, Sonjia Crutchfield. We were the only people here for the first tour on a Monday morning and we couldn’t have asked for a more personable and knowledgeable guide. Sonjia took us to see all the places the tour normally covers, but she was able (and happy) to spend a lot more time with us at each stop. Sonjia CrutchfieldShe pointed out details that showed us clearly how each process is done, and also showed how much she is aware of the way the distillery works – not just what the tour guides are trained to know (remember that when we get to Jack Daniel later on today).

After the tour we returned to the general store where we bought some souvenirs (including the second in what will be a long series of shot glasses) and a bottle of 10-year old Special Reserve. The General Store at George DickelThe whisky had to be purchased in a separate, tiny room reserved and unlocked just for that purpose. It is the only place in the county where liquor can be legally sold. We said goodbye to Sonjia, who gave us a pre-printed sheet of directions from the distillery to Jack Daniel’s location in Lynchburg.


Jack Daniel's Old Time Distillery
Lynchburg, Tennessee
(pop. 361)

 

People who visit Jack Daniel’s Old Time Distillery first and then go on to George Dickel won’t be quite so lucky. The folks at Jack Daniel appear reluctant to even admit there is another Tennessee Jack Daniel - Tennessee's best-known whiskeydistillery, let alone provide directions on how to get there. Geor... the other distillery isn't mentioned by name.

The Jack Daniel distillery is large. Because of the way it is built into the hills and hollows, and because it is such a beautiful setting, you don’t easily realize just how big a whiskey factory it is. But there are over 50 million gallons of whiskey aging in Jack’s 48 warehouses. And the Jack Daniel folks are serious about making good whiskey. They understand how to do that while operating on a giant scale...

  • Be the same specialists you would be if your customer base were limited to just folks in your neighborhood. So, even though Jack Daniel is arguably the best-known American whiskey in the world, the company produces only four products (the original green label, the more familiar black label, the premium Gentleman Jack, and a very good single-barrel - probably the best Tennessee whiskey currently being made). All the brands are identified as "Jack Daniel’s".

  • Consistently deliver an excellent product whose most outstanding feature is that it is unobtrusive, inoffensive, and completely avoids the extremes of the flavor spectrum. I’ve always felt that Jack Daniel’s is the perfect whiskey for people who don’t really enjoy the taste of whiskey.

    Main warehouse at the visitor centerDon’t get me wrong, here; I’m not saying that Jack Daniel’s is bad, nor even "not good", only that the folks who appreciate it the most are the ones who don’t want bold, vivid, dominating flavor in their whiskey. And there’s a lot of those folks -- Jack Daniel's didn't get to be the success it is without giving a lot of people what they want.

    And I sure don’t mean to imply that it’s carelessly made. Like I said earlier, the people at Jack Daniel are serious about making good whiskey. They take extra pains to make the flavor of their product come out exactly the way they want it. The charcoal filtering process which defines Tennessee whiskey (and which Jack Daniel and its "nameless" competitor up the road are the only distilleries in the industry to use) adds considerably to the cost of production.

    So does the fact that all those 500-lb. barrels of whiskey in all those 48 Jack Daniel warehouses are rotated around by hand during the aging process. That is a very labor-intensive (and thus, expensive) process, especially on this large a scale.

    Do they have to do those things? Well, if they want it to be Jack Daniel’s they do.

  • Promotion, promotion, promotion. The Jack Daniel logo is one of the best-known images in the world, right up there with Budweiser (another alcoholic beverage made to be tolerable to millions who don’t really like the taste of beer). There were people on this tour who actually arrived at the distillery wearing Jack Daniel’s tee shirts, hats, belt buckles, and so forth. They dressed themselves in these items in preparation for the visit, the same way people wear Mickey Mouse paraphernalia to go to Disney World. And with public image being such an important part of Jack Daniel’s marketing, it’s amazing how varied that image can be. Jack Daniel’s is strongly associated with Harley-Davidson motorcycles and the hard-drinkin’ blues and Southern rock bands I grew up listening to, but it was also widely known as Frank Sinatra’s exclusive brand of choice. Thus, it fits right in with debonair New York/Chicago sophistication just as well.

    Another impression that is highly valued by the Jack Daniel folks is the "good ol’ boys sittin’ on th’ bench whittlin’ an’ watchin’ th’ whiskey age" image so carefully portrayed in their advertising all the way from the mid-fifties to the present. That is why, despite the fact that everyone else in the plant is dressed in what you might call "work clothes modern", all of the tour guides are dressed like farmers from the 1940’s. They look just like the people in the advertisements, because they are the people in the advertisements. Now, I’m not saying that they’re just actors, like you’d find at Disneyland or Knott’s Berry Farm; I’m sure they’re real people just being themselves. But I also kind of suspect they were hired because they look and talk that way. Same with the two old men who "spin yarns" every day on the bench in the town square of Lynchburg (pop. 361)®. Are we supposed to believe those are the same two old men who were there in 1951? How about 1971? Or even 1991? Don’tcha know, it’s not as if there are any 30- or 40-year old guys getting older on other benches. In fact, those two colorful characters (specifically highlighted in the brochures and ads) are the only non-modern looking people we saw in Lynchburg (pop. 361)®.
    (by the way, according to homefinder@AMSHomeFinder.com, those 361 people apparently live in 1,912 individual houses).

MorganOur good ol’ tour guide, Morgan, led our party of about 15 or so up and down steps, into and out of buildings and even through a cave opening where the famous limestone spring emerges, all the while mixing down-home stories and witty sayings with a lot of information about the way whiskey is made in Tennessee. True, there were a couple times when the tour seemed just a little too scripted, for instance when a member of the party (not me) asked something about the fermentation tanks that apparently wasn’t covered in the "101 Things a Guest Might Ask" chapter of the Tour Guide’s Guide, but then this wasn’t a one-on-one type of tour either. I'm pretty sure if it had been just us and Morgan, we would have experienced a completely different kind of tour.

It was certainly thorough. Taking over an hour, Morgan showed us just about everything there was to see, except for the bottling line. They have recently upgraded and enlarged the bottling area and now it’s all FDA controlled. So until they come up with a way for a group of unsterile tourists to observe the activity, we’ll just have to use our imaginations. Of course, we didn’t see any bottling at George Dickel, either, but that’s because they don’t bottle their whiskey at the distillery, preferring to ship it to a bottling plant in Kentucky instead. Go figure.

We also didn’t see the fermenters in action, but that’s because they’re basically shut down for the summer. Nearly all distilleries use the hot months of July and August to shut down and do repairs, since neither fermentation nor distilling does well in the high heat; Jack Daniel is no exception. They also don’t burn the huge ricks of sugar maple lumber to make the filtering charcoal at this time of year either. If you want to tour whiskey distilleries, spring and fall would be better times to do it.

Of course, none of this kept Morgan from vividly explaining all this to us in a way that most of us could understand. All in all, it was quite a good tour, especially for a large whiskey factory owned by a corporation headquartered in another state. In fact, it was a very good tour if you compare it with Jack’s real competition to the north. The Jim Beam Distillery, also a corporate-owned giant, won’t even let tourists near their actual production area, choosing to keep them confined to some displays located well away from the actual distillery buildings.

Unlike most tours, this one didn’t end in a gift shop. This tour ended in a mockup of the old White Rabbit saloon that Jack Daniel once ran in Lynchburg. Lemonade is served free to the visitors and there are displays of current and past Jack Daniel products. We were surprised to find that, with all the Jack Daniel’s collectibles and promotional items available, none were offered here. The suggestion is strong that a visit to Lynchburg (pop. 361)® would be the best way to find Jack Daniel’s gifts and collectibles. We were able to buy a special Bicentennial bottling, again from a small room in the corner of the saloon.

After leaving Jack Daniel’s, we (of course) drove into Lynchburg (pop. 361) which consists of a town square, one block on each side, with an old public building and some lawn in the middle. This is surrounded by shops along the outside of the four streets that border it. These are not "plastic-quaint", modern shops all built at the same time by a developer; these shops occupy storefronts that have been here for generations. There is a road leading in and another leading out. It’s really more like four small, one-block-long strip malls in a circle. The two whittling yarn-spinners occupy a bench on one side, next to a watermelon wagon. We shopped at the gift shops but we didn’t buy anything. Basically they all carried exactly the same "collectibles" at exactly the same prices.

For really serious collectors and fans of Jack Daniel's fine products, we recommend that you visit Jean-Paul Schuurbier's excellent website. "Jee-Pee", as he's known, has a most impressive collection of historic, modern, and rare Jack Daniel's items, and the site shows photos of many of them. It also has news, history, and links to just about every Jack Daniel's website in the world. Click here and we guarantee you'll know Jack!  

After leaving Lynchburg, we stopped at a liquor store several miles away in Fayetteville where we bought some unusual bottles and talked for a long time with the very knowledgeable woman who owns the store. Then it was on to Frankfort, Kentucky, a long drive, much of it through heavy rain, that got us to the Days Inn around 9:00 this evening.
 


February 16 & 17, 1999: Return to Lynchburg
On a winter trip in February 1999, we again traveled into this part of Tennessee. We stopped for awhile at George Dickel, which is still such a beautiful place to visit, full of charm and friendly people. We didn't see anything new, since the distillery hasn't been in production since last year. And like Sonja, our guide from last summer, the person we visited with, Doreen, knows a lot more about her company and about whiskey-making in general than the guides in some better-known distilleries. So although we had a good time, we didn't stay very long.


Thus, we arrived in Lynchburg quite a bit earlier than we’d expected. Which was good, because we drove all over, through, and around the little village in search of the Lynchburg Bed & Breakfast. After our previous experience (see the side bar) we were really beginning to wonder whether B&B’s are such a great idea. Finally, we stopped at the electric company's drive-up payment office and asked where Mike & Virginia Tipps lived (we figured they’d know) and then followed directions up the hill to their place.

Tipps' Lynchburg Bed & BreakfastThis was much nicer. Built over 120 years ago, the house is not at all run down. And our room was warm and immaculate. It was the sort of romantic place we’d imagined, and just perfect for enjoying Lynchburg. The proprietor, Virginia Tipps, was especially gracious and made sure we felt completely at home, but also completely private. The floor did slant a bit, and we joked about it, but the room was really charming. We could see the Lynchburg town square two blocks down the hill from our window.

It was around 4:30 and we walked down into Lynchburg, shopping at a couple of stores and eating dinner at the Copper Kettle restaurant. Then we walked up the hill to the house and relaxed. We decided this Bed & Breakfast idea was okay, if you got the right place. We watched the TV sitcom Dharma & Gregg for the first time tonight. It was about their adventures at a Bed & Breakfast.

WEDNESDAY - FEBRUARY 17, 1999

It’s raining this morning. That makes the trip official (we’ve never had a vacation without rain – not even the Wild West trip through the Great American Desert). It’s not really much rain, just a light drizzle, and it actually looks pretty from the window of our room. Two birds are bathing in the rain gutter along the roof. Virginia deposited a large woven basket on the table in the sitting room just outside our door and knocked. The basket contained home-baked blueberry and banana muffins, marmalade, coffee, orange juice, and fruit. We took it inside and moved the little table & chairs so we could look out the window. It was a beautiful breakfast and we were very happy to have stayed here. We had originally planned to spend two nights in Lynchburg, but had let Virginia know when we arrived that we’d shortened our trip plans and would be spending only one night. Two nights in this home would have really been nice, but three days in Lynchburg would certainly be overkill.

Because of the drizzle, we stopped in the square this morning before visiting Jack Daniel’s and looked through a couple shops to find me a hat to wear. Of course we got an official Jack Daniel’s hat, so now that can take its place in the whiskey display room. At the distillery, we took the tour again. The last time we were here we’d thought the tour seemed kind of "rehearsed" and a little bit artificial, but generally our guide Morgan was pleasant, witty, and entertaining. We enjoyed his down-home stories. The guide this time around (neither of us can remember his name) was dull, not very knowledgeable about whiskeymaking, and seemed to carry a chip on his shoulder. Linda noticed that every time someone asked him a question he had to go back and repeat the last couple lines of his monologue in order to catch up to wherMiss Mary Bobo's Boarding House - Lynchburg, Tenn.e he’d been. His response to my question about what degree of char Jack Daniel’s used for its barrels was that all the barrels are charred. When another guest asked about the age of the whiskey, our guide’s response was that all the whiskey is aged for five years (which is wrong, by the way) and that’s good enough for millions of people around the world so he guessed it ought to be good enough for the guest. Not many questions were asked after that. I felt that at least a couple of people in our group would think twice before purchasing any Jack Daniel’s whiskey after the tour.
 


Our first-ever experience with Bed & Breakfasts was earlier on this same trip, and it was, shall we say, "not encouraging". We'd booked two nights in Lawrenceburg at a 19th-century mansion that had once belonged to a bourbon baron. The advertisements gave an impression of charm and history, and really it did have those things. Maybe even a little too much feel of history. Life was less comfortable a hundred years ago. When we arrived, we were shown upstairs to our room, huge and cheery, if somewhat dilapidated. And cold. The hot water radiator was not working at all, and turning the knob accomplished nothing. We got our bags moved in and went downstairs to enjoy a really nice buffet dinner served in the large dining room. Why did people build homes with such high ceilings? And such enormous doorways? This residence is named for, and was once the home of, an important family in bourbon history, perhaps not as well-known as some others, but important enough to warrant an honorary label revival from Heaven Hill. I even brought a bottle of this bourbon with us to toast our staying in this historic place. The dinner was nice, and the owners (a woman probably in her seventies and another, apparently her daughter) were very friendly. There were really quite a lot of people there, not just guests (there are only three rooms with guests) but also folks from town. And the Reverend was coming over to lead in line dancing. We would have enjoyed at least watching, but with the temperature in our room rapidly falling we were becoming a little worried. Our hostess promised to come right up and get the radiator working, though, so we waited (with our coats on). And waited. And waited. And really got a chance to notice things such as the fact that there were ashes from a previous guest in an ashtray in the room. And that the furnishings were not only shabby but also filthy. And that there were still Christmas decorations on the shelves, in February. We waited for a long time, watching our breath and the transparent lace curtains (no drapes) rippling in the drafts blowing through the window casings. After nearly an hour, we agreed that it would be unlikely that I could remain tactful in confronting our hostess, and the best thing for us to do would be to let Linda go downstairs again to see what was keeping her so long.

Linda was also gone for a long time before finally returning. It seems she had arrived to find everyone dancing in the parlor, and stood ignored at the side until the Reverend pulled her into the dance line! She got the attention of our hostess, but only for a moment, after which the woman promptly forgot about us again. Finally, Linda called her aside and said we really weren’t going to stay and that we’d pay for the meal and be gone. She came upstairs and told me, we took all our luggage out in one trip, and Linda sent me straight out to the car to put the bags away while she took care of paying the dinner bill without making a scene (the way I most likely would have).

We drove to Frankfort and stayed at the Super 8 Motel there. It was small, but comfortable.

And the heater worked.

After the tour, we had time to spend looking in all the shops of Lynchburg (there’s only a few) and checking out the antiques. It began raining considerably harder as we were walking out toward Miss Mary Bobo’s Boarding House where we have reservations for lunch, but the shower didn’t last very long and was over before we left the covered walkway.

Miss Mary Bobo’s Boarding House is a restaurant experience in Lynchburg that is a first-class culinary attraction in its own right. Miss Lynn TolleySteeped in Lynchburg and Jack Daniel history, the boarding house was run by Mary Bobo from 1908 until her death in 1983 (at 101). It is now operated by Lynne Tolley, a lovely woman whose family is as firmly entrenched in Tennessee whiskey history as the Daniels, Motlows, and Dickels. Meals are served twice a day, once at eleven o’clock and again at one. We ate at the one o’clock sitting. There are several rooms, each with a long table seating about a dozen people family-style and a hostess to guide the meal and the conversation. We were lucky enough to have Lynne herself as our table’s hostess. The sumptuous meal included fried chicken, pot roast, turnip greens, fried okra, mashed potatoes, gravy, rolls, baked tomato, and for dessert a delightful baked apple turnover in whiskey sauce with Jack Daniel’s whipped cream.

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We left Lynchburg after lunch, driving to Tullahoma and from there to Shelbyville. This is also horse country, but the horses here are of the Tennessee Walking Horse breed. They are famous for their spirited, high-stepping strut and we passed some fine examples along the way. They certainly are distinctive-looking.Tennessee Walking Horse

According to Oklahoma State University, the most prominent characteristic of Tennessee Walkers is "their swift and smooth 'running walk.' This gait is inherited and cannot be taught to a horse who does not possess it naturally. It is a square four-beat gait with a gliding motion, and a bobbing of the head and swinging of the ears accompany each step. Some Walkers are even known to snap their teeth in time. When performing the running walk, these horses will overstride, placing the back hoof ahead of their forehoof print. Traveling at speeds from 6 to 12 miles per hour, Walkers can sustain this gait for long distances without fatigue to themselves or their passengers."
 

We are driving to Owensboro, Kentucky this afternoon. We will be visiting the Charles W. Medley distillery there tomorrow morning, and in a cell-phone call to Charles, he warned us to avoid Nashville rush-hour traffic at all costs. As we continued along the back road into Nashville we accomplished that goal by missing a turn and ending up driving east on I-40 all the way out to Lebanon, where we turned north and drove back up our familiar old friend US 231, and then State 25 through Gallatin and on out to I-65. Along the way we were treated to a breathtaking sunset in the Tennessee hills. We probably got there about the same time we would have if we’d been stuck in traffic, but it was lots more scenic than looking up some delivery truck’s exhaust pipe. We drove north on I-64 to Bowling Green, Kentucky and then took the Green River Parkway to Owensboro.

We stayed at the very newly renovated Motel 6 in Owensboro. It had only been reopened about a week ago and everything looked brand new. We were lucky to get a room at all; it seems Owensboro motels fill with business travelers nearly every weeknight. We had dinner at the Texas Roadhouse.
 

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Story and original photography 1998-99 by John F. Lipman. All rights reserved.