The American Whiskey Trail is a journey. An American pilgrimage — but instead of Mecca, we were headed to Nashville, where the men drink, the girls dance, and you only get stoned for it if you pay the man $20.
As we boarded the bus, and then the plane, Frank told the nearly 20 writers, bloggers and reporters to drink responsibly. But this is America and we were headed South. And when you’re headed toward that border, I’m told you cross the line.
Yet still, we made the bus by 8:30. All the way into the country for a little George Dickel.
And “if you only know Jack, you don’t know Dickel.”
Started by George in 1870, the distillery was kicked back to life in 1959, and today is run by Master Distiller John Lunn – the kind of man who is most at home in overalls, but studied chemical engineering at Vanderbilt University.
Dickel is probably my favorite Tennessee Whiskey. Affordable and delicious, its rye is my go-to. But they aren’t the biggest distillery in the world: With 26 employees, they sold 130,000 cases in 2013
And snuggled in the Tennessee Hills, motorcycles parked out front, Lunn and his cohost, the prettiest pregnant girl any of us had ever seen, were proud of Steve’s “computer chair”…
…the antique scale they used to measure the meal…
…and the one-story warehouse they age their whiskey in. (Not like those nine-story sky scrapers, over there in Kentucky, I’m told).
And there fermentation tubs were just as impressive as ever.
What makes Tennessee Whiskey different from Bourbon is that it is filtered through charcoal after it’s aged, taking out impurities (according to proponents) or flavor (according to opponents). At Dickel, even their delicious white whiskey gets a charcoal filter.
And after a tour of the distillery, Lunn told us to hop on the back of the truck for a look at the hill-top warehouses.
Which was nice.
And there, he had what our Nashville-decimated bodies needed: Pulled pork, potatoes, beans, iced tea, macaroni and cheese.
Just moments earlier, I’d told Mr. Moody that I would strike him down for a glass of iced tea. Lunn may never know that he saved Moody’s life that day.
When we had our first drink, I chose something I’d never had: Dickel Barrel Select. Dark golden at first sight, it has a sweet, cinnamon, maple nose, and on the palate, a nice burn. It was hard to pin down, but I’d say it tastes like a sweetened wood, or pine needle, with a light cinnamon burn. Barrel Select has to be at least 10 years old to be considered. Ours was 11 and a half.
But enough backwoods relaxation: It was time for the No. 1 whiskey distiller in the United States of America.
If Makers Mark is Disneyland, Jack Daniels is Disney World, complete with moats, flags…
…and, unlike their cousins at Dickel, computers.
But when we got to the loading area, we realized it was a little more strict than we’d been used to. “Turn your phones off or to airplane mode, and no pictures,” one young official told us. “For safety,” she helpfully clarified, responding to the range of confusion and annoyance spread across the group of reporters’ faces.
“For safety” is a term we heard a lot that day. And some of it was legitimate – Jack Daniels is a sprawling, active, working factory. And “you wouldn’t want to be the person who blew up the distillery [because they made a phone call],” the young girl sagely imparted.
I wasn’t so sure: Blasted into immortality in a nationally televised, selfie-sparked whiskey explosion? Fortune favors the brave.
But when a Jack Daniels camera woman had to tell a reporter that she couldn’t take our group’s picture with the reporter’s camera, I began to suspect that the lawyers had a lot of sway in Lynchburg, Tennessee.
I guess that’s what happens when you’re as big and old as J.D.
With 87 warehouses spread across 2,000 acres, Jack Daniels is the oldest distillery in the U.S., and sells so much whiskey it has to pay $8 million in taxes every two weeks – though 60 percent of your average bourbon barrel is taxes anyway.
And all of the water comes from here:
Another drawback to being so big, is you don’t get to just burn pallets in a field to make your charcoal: You need an EPA-approved burnin’ building.
When Jack is done aging, they filter it through 10 feet of charcoal – a process that takes four to five days.
And though we couldn’t take many pictures (even in the movie room), we did get try J.D. as it tastes before the filtering, and it’s pretty damn good: The corn oil still left allows a lingering sweetness that is gone from the filtered whiskey.
The Single Barrel is pretty delicious, too, with a dark, ruby-amber color, maple and vanilla on the nose, and a better taste than old Jack, with that vanilla and maple more accentuated, and a stronger finish.
Turns out someone calling themselves “President Barack Obama” bought a single barrel once, though it later turned out to be fishy. Yahoo Moody figured this one out and asked what the deal was. It was like a blast of cold water. Oh yeah, we’re reporters!
The others seemed to remember this at the same time, and the questions volleyed forth in a frenzy.
It was day five. I wasn’t going to start reporting now. So The Daily Caller asked if it had anything to do with Benghazi. Our tour guide, Wes, didn’t know. He was near his limit. Benghanzi didn’t help.
This story is still developing, subpoenas pending.
Nasvhille by Night, Pt. II
Nashville is music. Real or fake, it’s everywhere. Even the sports bars have live bands (though me thinks it a disheartening gig to play in front of a giant TV playing the basketball game).
Behind the beautiful Corsair Artisan Distillery hosting us in a once industrial part of town, Aussie Nick and I met up with Jamey Grosser, a former motorcycle racer who had teamed up with Hank Williams Jr. to legally produce Popcorn Sutton’s moonshine in a garage.
And from start to finish, it seems legit. Now, I’ve had real moonshine twice before. Once, a friend shared a glass from Virginia. It tasted like slightly sweet, clean and clear spring water. Stunning, really. The second time I tried some moonshine, it was about as awful as something can be. Popcorn tastes like the former.
And true to the attitude of its namesake, moonshiner Popcorn Sutton – who killed himself in 2009 rather than going to prison — the words he carved for his own headstone are engraved on the faces of the stills: “Popcorn said fuck you.”
That night, at Robert’s Western World that night, Raj and I finally found our classic country, when these guys…
…jammed on Hank Williams’ Jambalaya (On the Bayou) to cheers, claps and hell-yeahs from a few boot stompers and myself.
For five days, not a one had slept later than 7:30, nor been in bed before 3:00 in the morning. For five days, we’d gone hard, traveling, learning, drinking, dancing, meeting, eating and even singing a little.
“Where we going next?” I asked Frank.
“Scotland,” he tells me.