It’s easy to forget, from the vantage point of 2023, just how unexciting a a brand George Dickel was back in 2018, before Nicole Austin took the reins as general manager and distiller. It was always a good whisky — in fact, whiskey expert/writer/celeb Fred Minnick called Dickel “the nation’s most underrated distillery” a few years ago. But it was generally regarded as the “other” Tennessee whisky, after the ubiquitous Jack Daniel’s, and its parent company, Diageo, could never figure out how to market it effectively. As far as new and noteworthy bottlings… well, the expression that was slated to debut when Austin came aboard was a Tabasco barrel-finished whisky (the brand uses the Scotch-style spelling).
Nicole Austin joined Dickel with a strong reputation among whiskey fans for her work at Kings County Distillery in Brooklyn and then with Irish perennial Tullamore D.E.W. She also had a noted dislike for gimmicky booze. Even so, her semi-repudiation of the Tabasco-finished Dickel expression (her remarkably poised and diplomatic open letter declared it was “not 100% in line with my vision”) was a hell of an opening salvo, and a roadmap for where she wanted to take the brand.
Five years later, she’s taken it there. Dickel is now one of the most highly regarded American whiskies, and Austin’s regular trawls through the considerable aged holdings at what’s now known as the Cascade Hollow Distilling Co. have produced their share of liquid gold and then some. My favorites are their annual bottled-in-bond releases, spectacular whiskeys that are actually reasonably priced (less than $50) — because, Austin says, she wants people to drink them rather than hoard them. The latest find, George Dickel 17 Year Old Reserve, is a more prosaic $250, but that’s still a fraction of what similarly aged whiskeys from other pedigreed distilleries generally go for (of course there’s no accounting for retailers who jack up the prices in stores to several multiples of what the brands suggest, but that’s another story).
This is the second 17-year-old Dickel release — the first came out in the pre-Austin era, back in 2016. I’d forgotten I tasted it until I found my tasting notes, which mention that it’s on the tannic side, no surprise with a whiskey of such an advanced age. You won’t find that with this new bottling, however. There are lots of fruitcake notes — dried fruit, cinnamon, clove, brown sugar — that were found in the original, along with black tea and a fair amount of oak. The finish is a winter wonderland, with long and lingering notes of pine and eucalyptus. But the peppery tannins that signify a long time aged in wood, perhaps too long, are noticeably absent. It’s also one of the most gentle cask-strength whiskies you’ll ever drink, thanks in part to its low 92 proof (46% ABV). The comparatively cool climes of Cascade Hollow, which cause whiskey to lose strength as it ages, clearly worked their magic here.
I don’t know how many bottles were made of this gem, but I suspect there are fewer in the wild than there are people who want them. The handsome package — the fanciest I remember seeing for a Dickel bottling — seems tailor made for hoarders, investors and flippers. But this is one bottle you’ll definitely want to open and drink. And if the past five years are any indication, there’s little doubt that Austin & Co. have more rare and delicious whisky coming down the pike in short order, so drink up.