Sunday, March 16, 2014
What Would Ralph Say?
Schenley was one of the 'Big 4 'post-Prohibition liquor companies. In 1956, founder Lew Rosenstiel had his eye on a little Tennessee distillery that was doing well and needed money to expand. The Motlow family rejected Rostenstiel, turned to Kentucky's Brown family instead, and Brown-Forman bought Jack Daniel's.
In response, Rosentiel reached into his portfolio and found Cascade Hollow Bourbon, which he had acquired in 1933 from George Dickel's heirs. He'd show the Motlows. He'd send Cascade Hollow Bourbon, renamed George Dickel Tennessee Whiskey, back to Tennessee. He would make it in a brand new distillery he would build as close to the original as possible.
The man he chose for the job was Ralph Dupps, a mechanical engineer by training, who was then running the company's Bernheim Distillery in Louisville. Dupps moved his family to Tennessee and began building. He stayed on to run the new distillery and in 1958, they started distilling. They brought the first bottle of George Dickel Tennessee Whiskey to market in 1964.
Like Jack Daniel's, George Dickel Tennessee Whiskey followed all of the specifications for bourbon, including aging in new, charred oak barrels. They also charcoal filtered their product before aging. Most bourbon-makers charcoal filter too, but in a different way.
Dupps retired in 1977 and lived another 30 years. John Lunn, George Dickel's current master distiller, spoke to Dupps before he died. "Don't change a damn thing" was Dupps' advice.
George Dickel Tennessee Whiskey became part of what is now Diageo in 1987. The George Dickel Tennessee Whiskey you buy today is made exactly the same way as that bottle from 1964, but all of a sudden Diageo doesn't think new charred oak barrels are all that important. Used barrels will do just fine.
What's that you said, Ralph?
In Friday's press release from Jack Daniel’s, Master Distiller Jeff Arnett was the spokesperson. Lunn has been silent. He knows he can't make the same product with used barrels. Everybody knows that.
Diageo knows that.
So what is Diageo up to? Diageo and its predecessors have tried to take Jack Daniel's down since 1956. Diageo has failed in the marketplace. Jack is about to surpass Johnnie Walker, Diageo's flagship. Diageo can't beat Jack fair and square so it wants the Tennessee Legislature to gut the legal standards for Tennessee whiskey that Tennessee put in place a year ago, the exact same standards both Jack Daniel's and George Dickel have been following voluntarily for more than 50 years.
This, they believe, will weaken Jack Daniel's, and they'll gladly sacrifice George Dickel (and you too, Tom Bulleit) if it will save Mr. Walker.
I know, Ralph. I know. I feel the same way.