Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Hard and Un-True Story of George Dickel

Whiskey fans are always glad to see a neglected brand get some love but, as with the Old Grand-Dad reboot, doing it with made-up history dampens our enthusiasm.

George Dickel is a small brand, a mere speck in drink giant Diageo's eye. It's hard to even find on Diageo's brand lists, so buried is it by Goliaths like Smirnoff, Capt. Morgan, and Johnnie Walker.

So here comes the new Whisky Advocate with a bright, shiny, 12-page insert for Dickel inside, with the title "Handmade the Hard Way, the Hard and True Story of George Dickel American Whiskey at Its Best."

Except the story they tell is a long way from true. We're not talking about fluff here, typical advertising exaggeration, though there's plenty of that. We're talking about blatantly false history and other false claims. Some examples:

"For nearly 150 years, our distillery has been faithful to the recipe that founder George A. Dickel created and perfected." 

There were actually two distilleries, one that operated from about 1877 until 1910, and the current one that was built in 1958, so the real number is 90 years. Worse than that, George Dickel never "created and perfected" a whiskey recipe. He wouldn't have known where to begin. He was a whiskey merchant, not a distiller.

"Soon, he discovered in nearby Tullahoma, Tenn., what he considered the perfect spot to make whisky: Cascade Hollow." 

Tullahoma is about 80 miles from Nashville, where Dickel was based. In his day, that was hardly "nearby." Even today, with the interstates, it's about a 90 minute drive each way. That's a judgment call, this isn't. George Dickel had nothing, nothing, to do with the location of the Cascade Hollow Distillery. The site was chosen and the distillery was built in 1877 by John Brown and F. E. Cunningham. Dickel never did anything but buy whiskey from Cascade. It is unlikely he ever visited the place. He certainly did not build it and he never owned it. 

"So well-regarded was this place that when Dickel first bottled whisky there, in 1870, he named it for the hollow." 

Maclin Davis, who owned Cascade when it did business with Dickel, named the brand. Dickel had nothing to do with that. It is highly unlikely there was ever a bottle filled at Cascade during Dickel's lifetime or at any time before 1959. Dickel would have bottled it in Nashville. That's what he did. He bought, packaged and sold whiskey. He was what we today call a non-distiller producer (NDP). George Dickel & Co. became the exclusive sellers of Cascade Whiskey in 1888, not 1870.

"[After his death, Dickel's widow and business partner] changed the whisky's name to George Dickel Tennessee Sour Mash Whisky." 

No, they did not. The name change happened in 1964, when the first whiskey from the new Tennessee distillery was ready to sell. Schenley, the brand's owner at the time, changed the name to compete more directly with Jack Daniel's. Schenley had just tried, unsuccessfully, to buy Jack Daniel's. Rebuilding Cascade and launching George Dickel was their Plan B.

As with the Old Grand-Dad reboot, not everything about the Dickel insert is bad. Most of it is great. The photography is beautiful and appropriate, and the present day whiskey-making process is thoroughly and accurately explained. George Dickel makes excellent whiskey and because its owners neglected the place for so long, it has never been fully modernized making its "handmade" claim more legit than most.

What Diageo has done with Dickel's history isn't glossing over the real story, or spinning it. This isn't prettying it up, this is making it up. That's not 'cute' or 'fun,' it's offensive. The true story is told in my books but also here, courtesy of the Tennessee Historical Society. It is all very well documented and easy to find. Diageo knows its version is false.

In business and life, a person or company who will lie to you about something will lie to you about anything. Diageo has shown, and not for the first time, that it can't be believed. That's a problem. 


Anonymous said...


I thought of you immediately when I read through the Dickel blurb. It sure seemed like some of that stuff was made up, and I figured you would know the truth. So thanks for your blog post!

But Diageo didn't even get whiskey-making process right. They state that the setback contains live yeast. How would yeast ever survive the heat of the still?

All of this Dickel nonsense is really a shame. After all, the whiskey is very good, and it can stand on its own without made-up BS.

To add to the irony, the same issue of Malt Advocate contains an ad for Diageo's Bushmills. The ad says that the whiskey has had the same smooth taste since 1608. Really?

Tom Troland

sku said...

Jeez, you would think with all of the lawsuits these days they would be more careful about stuff like this.

Justin said...

I just read this insert yesterday. I figured it would be the subject of a rant. Thanks again for setting things straight. After reading your book I knew the historical part was inaccurate, but you always articulate a rebuttal better than I ever could. Thanks Chuck.

Anonymous said...


Excellent stuff. Thanks for calling out these non-truth tellers.

Making up a bunch of junk about a brand can only hurt and not help.

Since the distillery there is a fine operation, though I don't much care for the product, there is no reason whatever to make up stuff about Dickel or its heritage.

There are two possible purposes in doing this kind of thing and both are mistaken:
1. Filling space in an insert.
2. Keeping the corporate marketing team busy.

For me, as someone new to bourbon (two years), this kind of fraudulent marketing is more than just an annoyance - it hurts the image of bourbon. Lack of trust has destroyed many lesser brands than Dickel.

I think it would be great if the corporate owners of Dickel would publish a correction (not likely).

I think the simple approach is probably the best: (hint to corporate booze marketers)...
Let the bourbon do the talking for you.
Tell the truth.

Simple, easy.

It's good that you call these folks out, Chuck.

After reading your post they should have one major reaction: SHAME. (And some embarrassment thrown in for good measure.)


Jason said...

"Handmade the Hard Way", a little to close to the AB Inbev marketing bomb at the Superbowl... Or is it just me?

Chuck Cowdery said...

You are correct Tom, there is no live yeast in spent mash. I confess I only skimmed the rest of the insert and didn't catch that mistake.

Anonymous said...

Also, Bushmills is no longer owned by Diageo. Any lies in those ads cannot be blamed on them. They traded it to cuervo for Don Julio.

Florin said...

Chuck - you and your nit-picking.

That was hilarious!

It reminds me of one of the Radio Yerevan jokes that used to circulate during my Romanian childhood:

A listener asks “Is it true that, following comrade Gagarin's first manned space flight he was awarded a Volga car?” Radio Erevan answers:
“Yes, this is correct - with three amendments: 1.
The brand was not Volga, it was Pobeda. 2. It was not a car, it was a watch. 3. It was not awarded to him, it was stolen from him!”

That insert was the first thing to get removed from my magazine, and my 2-year old daughter found it captivating reading. I also find it fascinating that so many whisky fans paid close attention to it - does it say something about the rest of the issue?

My thoughts were that it's a good sign advertisers are going all out in the magazine; it means that the whisky doesn't sell itself anymore - you would hardly see ads a year ago - and perhaps we are closer to the whisky prices to come down to earth.

Anonymous said...

Oof. Unfortunately, I've seen first-hand this where this comes from. I'm sure there are many people who know the history at Diageo, but I'm positive that there are many more who don't, or don't even care.

I was recently at an agency, sitting near an intern who was tasked with "researching" whiskey for a strategy (or... stragedy) presentation back to Diageo. Just about everything he said was wrong, of course including the well-worn fiction about the very Diageo brand (not Dickel) they were working on. I tried to steer him gently in the right direction, but it was just too much of an uphill battle.

It's not just the customers. It's the marketers who want the romance. Every "fact" in his story did indeed have some origin on the internet, questionable as they were. He just took it all as truth and didn't look any deeper. The story was nice and romantic so the team bought it, and... so did Diageo.

So really, it's less evil intent and more ignorance and laziness. It's too bad.

Gary A. Turner said...

Thanks for highlighting some of the disparities Chuck!

Hell - next thing ya know, someone will uncover that Diageo didn't discover the Orphan Barrels "hidden away and nearly forgotten", or that they aren't "rare, small offerings".

Anonymous said...

I don't know this for a fact, but being an industry participant I do hear a few things from time to time. . One of the most interesting stories is about how the ownership of the barrels over an extended period of time is not advantageous when confronted with black mold lawsuits.

It's hard to pin down liability when there are orphans involved, but it sure makes for a great cover story.

Unknown said...

when did diago take over production of george pickle?

Chuck Cowdery said...

1987 (I assume you mean 'George Dickel.')

Unknown said...

Chuck! Thanks for the quick response and sorry about the spelling. I was in a last minute situation and I knew you would have the answer! Im a huge fan and I love you books. Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

Maybe another lie, but I met a man by the name of Don Rutledge in Tullahoma that claims he "he used to own" the George Dickel Distillery. Don is somewhat of a legend in Tullahoma and is 89 years old. Is he telling the truth?

Chuck Cowdery said...

No. Maybe he owned the land it stands on at one time but Dickel (like Jack) has only had two owners, the families that started it, and Schenley and its successor companies.

Eric Z said...

Chuck, do you mean Diageo took over production in 1997, the year they were founded?

Chuck Cowdery said...

Diageo was a roll-up, with a lot of predecessor companies. The company that bought the rights to Dickel from the family, Schenley, eventually (with many other parts added along the way) became Diageo.

Billy said...

I find the George Dickel story fasinating probably because my dad drank it when I was young. Never did see him drink Jack so I always assumed GD was a big brand; it is nor, atleast compared to JD. Both sites are very nice to visit.
Anon: maybe Don Rutledge owned the land where GD is now as Schenley bought the land in the 50's for the new distillery that was not the site of the old one. Same creek though. That I learned from Bourbon Strange which has a great chapter on GD...