Friday, March 7, 2008

Dickel Checks In.

I just got off the phone with Gene Song, Brand Manager for George Dickel at Diageo. He was very nice, but I can't say he told me anything to make me regret or take back what I wrote yesterday

There are a few things to report on the availability story. The shortage of Dickel No. 8 really has not abated, but the younger Cascade Hollow Recipe is selling well. They haven't decided whether or not the Cascade recipe will remain after they have sufficiently resupplied No. 8, but they certainly seem to be leaning in that direction. As for the shortages of Dickel No. 12 that people have reported, here and elsewhere, Song isn't willing to say there is an official shortage, but supplies are tight. 

Basically, Dickel has been enjoying its share of the bourbon boom. The interesting part is that it is not being driven by export, as Dickel is sold only in the USA. 

So, on to the history. Song said the web site hasn't been updated since it was launched, so those statements aren't based on any recent discoveries. He attributes them to "oral history" put together by Ralph Dupps, who built and ran the current distillery for its then-owner, Schenley, starting in the late 1950s. Dupps passed away last December, at the age of 90. As I said yesterday, my telling of the Dickel story is based on a timeline put together by Nick Morgan about 15 years ago. At that time, he was the company archivist. Now he's in charge of marketing their Classic Malts portfolio. Song said they've asked him to comment on my questions, but he hasn't responded yet. 

The "oral history" explanation is frequently offered by the companies. Doesn't it seem odd that there isn't more documentation for some of this stuff? We're not talking about events that occurred 2,000 years ago. We're talking about Tennessee in the post-Civil War period, so 140 years ago and less. They had typewriters then, manila folders, filing cabinets. They kept a lot of business records. Why do all of these histories (the stories they want to tell, that is) have to be based on "oral history"? 

But I can't hang that one on Dickel or Diageo alone. That's everybody: Beam, Daniel's, etc. When the Dickel company (mostly the Shwabs, George was dead by then) moved to Louisville after Tennessee went dry, they brought their records with them. All of that stuff is in boxes at the old Stitzel-Weller Distillery in Shiveley. I know there is a lot there documenting the Dickel company's relationship with the A. Ph. Stitzel Distillery, which made Cascade Tennessee Whiskey until National Prohibition put everybody out of business in 1920. 

Song did provide one interesting piece of documentation, the brand's trademark filing with the United States Patent and Trademark Office. The trademark was filed in 1895, but it cites 1870 as the date of first use, and the trademark is for "Cascade" Distillery Handmade Sour Mash Tennessee Whiskey Geo. A. Dickel & Co. Does that mean, contrary to other indications, that Dickel was marketing Cascade brand whiskey, made at Tullahoma, as early as 1870? Not necessarily, but it certainly suggests that someone was using the Cascade name that early, though I think it most likely was John F. Brown and F. E. Cunningham, the distillery's founders. 

On the other hand, most accounts put the founding of Cascade at 1877 or 1878 and, in fact, there is some good documentation that Brown and Cunningham bought the land that year, although that doesn't mean they weren't operating as Cascade somewhere else. There's no question Dickel himself was in business by 1870. That's the first year Dickel & Co. shows up in the tax records. Morgan puts the founding of Dickel's business as early as 1853, so the person who put down 1870 as the date of first use wasn't referring to the Dickel part of the mark. 

The 1870 clearly refers to the Cascade part of the mark. So the 1870 date on the trademark filing is pretty good evidence for a first use of Cascade, by somebody, in 1870. But not necessarily by George Dickel. In fact, probably not by George Dickel, contrary to what the web site claims. The 1895 filing unquestionably proves that Dickel and Cascade were one and the same by that point, but we pretty much already knew that. Company A buys Company B. Company A was founded in 1920. Company B was founded in 1820. Even though Company A is the entity that remains, having assimilated Company B, it can claim an 1820 origin if it wants to. In buying Company B, it buys Company B's history too. 

In 1888, 70-year-old George Dickel takes a fall off his horse and withdraws from active participation in the business. His partner, Victor Shwab, is in charge. In short order he buys controlling interest in the Cascade Distillery and the Dickel Company becomes exclusive distributor for Cascade whiskey. Seven years later, when Dickel submits the trademark application, it invokes the assimilated company's history as its own. There is nothing wrong with that, but you should use the assimilated company's actual history, not a made-up history that projects Company A's principal into Company B's narrative almost 20 years before it actually took place. 

The most likely history is still the timeline Nick Morgan put together in the early 90s, as it cites to actual documents, not oral history. It's unlikely that George and Augusta Dickel ever visited Tullahoma. If putting George Dickel in Tullahoma at any point is the goal, that's a problem. His business was in Nashville, not Coffee County. When I have these conversations with brand managers, they always tell me how much they care about the industry's history. Well, talk is cheap. Where is the company that will step up, fund some real research, publish the results, and let the chips fall where they may? It won't make the whiskey taste any different either way. 

Finally, if you're still reading this, welcome to my world. I don't know why I concern myself with this stuff, but I do, and if you're curious enough to read it, well, then you're probably not much better. It can be fun, it can be frustrating, but most of all it's mighty thirsty work.


Anonymous said...

I'm glad the Brand Manager finally spoke with you. I'm surprised they took so long to do so, especially after I submitted my own questions to them.

Mason Christensen said...

I noticed these inaccuracies still on the tour I took today. As a graduate student researching Nashville's alcohol history, I wonder why the brand couldn't revise their narrative by talking about its historical popularity with soldiers and Nashville's high end saloons.