George Dickel is often overshadowed by it’s mega-giant neighbor Jack Daniels, but Master distiller John Lunn shows us why the one who makes the most noise isn’t always the one you should listen to. It’s the quiet ones you gotta watch, right?
DM: Most masters come from a long line of the same, often generations deep. How did you get into distilling?
JL: On a whim. I applied to an ad in The Tennessean (the Nashville newspaper). I have a chemical engineering degree from Vanderbilt. I was working at a sponge factory and saw an ad for a Master Distiller trainee, and I thought “why not?” The story of how I got the job is really cool. I had to send my resume to Diageo corporate, and I made the first cut, and came in for a second interview with Dave Bacchus, the master before me. I’d never tasted Dickel before that so I went out and bought a bottle of 8 year and a bottle of 12 year to study up for it. The guy at the store was cracking up because I told him I needed a bottle of Dickel for a job interview. I was never really a big drinker. A friend called the morning of my interview and told me to take deer hunting pictures with me to relate to the people down here in Tullhoma. I told him “you know I don’t hunt.” I started to panic thinking “what am I gonna do?” So I figured in the world of rednecks and rural Tennessee what’s next best to hunting and fishing? I had two old Willis Jeeps I was restoring. Old cars is up there right? So I stuck two pictures of my Jeeps in the notebook I took for the interview. After an hour Mr. Bacchus was looking at his watch, so it was obvious he was over it and wanted out of the interview, so I let the pictures “accidentally” fall out of my notebook and he asked what the pictures were. It turned out he had one also and we ended up talking about cars for two hours, and the job was mine after that. He also told me that one of the things he wanted was someone local who would preserve the heritage.
DM: So what is a typical day for you? What does a master distiller do?
JL: Ideally I like to come in and check the distillery and make sure everything is up and running. . . Then I come down to my office and handle the business stuff since I’m also director of operations. Then I’ll go do a quality check on the distillate that’s coming out. If we’re filling barrels I’ll go check on those guys, or go up to the warehouse to see where we’re putting barrels away. Or we could be dumping instead. . . Of course it’s always better when we’re dumping because I get to check the product to make sure it’s properly aged. Our bottling is done at a Diageo site, so probably the biggest thing, or what I like the most, is having the last word in whether or not the product meets my standards and is ready to go out before the tankers can leave.
DM: Does your chemical engineering background help you as far as making spirits?
JL: It helps in understanding the distillation part. How the beer still is set up, how the doubler works. It’s my understanding that a lot of people getting into the business come from either a chemical or biology background so they understand the process.
DM: You said you run a small operation here. How small are we talking?
JL: Including everyone in the distillery, the tour guides, administrative, secretaries, and security guards we have thirty-four total employees. We may not have the long family background of some other distillers (the Dickel family got out of the business during prohibition) but we have plenty of employees who have been here over thirty years.
DM: Are you and the other guys down the street the only Tennessee whiskies?
JL: There may be a few very small operations popping up, but as far as the major players are concerned we’re the only two. We produce roughly 1,500 to 2,000 barrels per month. All of our products are made exactly the same, and the only difference is how long they’re aged. The 8 year is our biggest seller, followed by 12 year, Cascade Hollow, and Barrel Select. The Cascade Hollow is our newest product. If you go back in the history of whiskey to George’s days in the 1800’s, they didn’t age their whiskey twenty years like we do now. They made it, and tried to sell it as quick as they could. What we decided to do was go with a younger version, so this one is three and a half years old.
DM: What about the Barrel Select? Do you personally select each barrel?
JL: Yeah. I get to pick the barrels that go into that, and it’s all twelve years or older.
DM: So is there a sweet spot above twelve years that you prefer or does it depend on the barrel?
JL: Typically its around fourteen years, but it does depend on the barrel. To me, the twelve-to-fourteen year range is the best time. Anything longer than that, the quality starts to go back down, and it gets too oaky for me. I don’t want the oak flavor to get overwhelming.
DM: Can you tell me about the facilities?
JL: We have 600 acres. . .We like to think of ourselves as a handcrafted whiskey. There are no computers or robots anywhere in the place. Every step of the process is done by people. People can get in there and see stuff, and taste it, and smell the mash and tell if it’s ok, and a computer can’t do that. . .Every bottle of Dickel tastes exactly like what you expect, and that would be much harder without a human touch. Using a forklift probably wouldn’t change the end product that much, but to me it then loses its ‘cool’ factor. It’s just so much better to see guys up there rolling barrels. These guys take it very seriously. They approach their job as if their name is on every bottle, and it definitely shows in the final product. That’s why people who drink Dickel are very loyal to the brand.