It was simply perfect timing, as all of these trips are. Finding myself rapidly approaching a dead zero burnout wherein one day melted into the next in a blur of rank obscurity, an email invitation to attend a tour of the George Dickel distillery in Nashville, Tennessee arrived in my inbox one afternoon. I had been missing the south dearly, after having spent slightly over a year and a half living in New Orleans back in 2011 and 2012, and was finding the drab truck-stop enthusiasm of New Hampshire increasingly difficult to tolerate.
Please note: This press trip was provided at no cost to me. However, I was not required to write a positive review, I did not receive any monetary compensation, and the honest opinions I have expressed are my own.
To top things off, one knows it is impossible to tour a whisky distillery without naturally drinking some whisky. Travel and drink, my two constant companions in this mutant rat race of life in our modern age. So quite naturally, I eagerly signed on for yet another public relations adventure with one of the firms whose list I had arrived on as a journalist.
Arriving in the blitzing, blinding and unfamiliar light of the early morning, I departed my flight and milled about near the baggage claim pondering what sorts of trouble I might get myself into this run of things. Snatching up my fat, green roller board I made my way down to the transport station where I met a bus driver named Matt who brought me to the Loews hotel. As we drove, I recounted the stories of my times in Orlando, Vegas and northern California to him as his laughter and interest betrayed a deeper need of his own for escape and adventure. I feel you on that Matt. I really do.
Bidding me good luck and suggesting a number of area diners with what he called “the ultimate drunk food,” he pulled off and left me to check in. The desk clerk was dressed smartly, like a lounge manager at the sorts of nightclubs I’m never allowed in. Asking me if I wanted access to my rooms minibar, I dodged the sweet trappings of artificially on demand drink, opting instead to supply my own when the time permitted. The sly bastard peered at me, knowing I had seen through his tricks and after a series of very polite sentences ending in “sir,” he issued me my keys. A handful of moments later, I was in.
A corner unit, six flights above the pavement, black and white in color and sporting classic images of Americana in slick, modernist frames. I needed a shower badly, however as seems to be my fate in whatever hotel I’m in, it was just upon the removal of my pants that a knock came at the door. Room service had arrived, bearing no doubt my complimentary gift package from the PR people who had invited me down.
Wrapping a towel around my waist, I answered, thanked the young man who handed me a small paper bag and then returned to the room. Still pantless, I dug into the package to discover a set of coasters, a coffee mug, two country CDs from a young man named Dustin Lynch, a sharpie marker, a bottle of barbeque sauce and of course, a tall bottle of George Dickel 12 year whisky. A fine haul all in all. Moving on from this however, I immediate dashed through a shower before heading off again to explore.
Following some lunch, I caught drinks at a bar called Losers. First sampling the Yazoo Pale Ale, then some random lagers, I threw back an appropriate number of shots before moving on. Now loose and limber as I ought to be in strange cities with only a marginal sense of direction, I stopped in next to a place called The Blackstone. Blackstone, as I would learn, is Nashville’s premiere craft brewer and brewpub.
Following the recreational sampling of both an IPA and award winning porter, I made a mental note to visit the brewery proper. That note however seems to have been misfiled, as it is only now upon writing this that I even recall doing such.
Then, it was time for a nap. As a man on the edge in his normal life, I typically sleep on a couch. Not my couch, as I don’t even have a couch to call my own, but a couch. And such has certainly caught up with me.
In addition to the shoulder and joint pains one might expect, another side effect to this is the narcotic affect that hotel bedding tends to have on me. Planning on sleeping for a mere forty-five minutes to an hour, it was some nearly three hours later that my eyes shot open for no perceivable reason at all. Sitting up, I looked to the clock surprised, then dashed to find the itinerary provided to me.
I had five minutes to wake up, clean up and make it down stairs to meet with my hosts. By some strange miracle, I made it down with enough time to smoke in the driveway before meeting the group for cocktails. This was a smaller group than the others. Perhaps a dozen in total between press and PR, with their numbers evenly split between.
Recognizing two of the others from the Orlando trip, series of handshakes and smiles as well as introductions which as always, failed to really sear any names into even short term memory, we were all treated to cocktails of our choice from the ritzy looking hotel bar. Opting for a Dickel neat on ice, I barely had time to sip the drink before we were underway again. Climbing onto a small black charter bus, we first went out for even more cocktails at a hip area cocktail joint.
The dinner which followed after was itself something of a delight, with a variety mix of southern style cooking meeting a sort of urban chic coming at us in the forms of tossed salads, macs and cheeses and for me, a brilliant fish steak with a side of potato salad. Thrilling as it is however to listen to the substance of my meal in articles such as this, it was later that night, after a series of drinks with the PR folks and others that I found myself wandering off in search of the city’s true nature.
One after another I dropped into and out of rock and country bars, each of which featured a live band who in most any other town would have had a record deal by now. Within each whisky joint and draft house, I took advantage of their George Dickel supply, until at last I had reached the end of the main drag of downtown Broadway. Turning then, the first place I happened upon on my return up the small hill was a karaoke bar called Wanna B’s.
With a shrug, I entered the darkened bar and found the floor already wet with the spillages of drinks that had come before me. Ordering up another whisky and beer, I sat through two sets of drunken renditions of Shania Twain and Aerosmith songs, before finally in a dash of brilliance, signed myself up to sing “Wagon Wheel,” a country string band classic, revived in our modern day by Old Crow Medicine Show. I had sang the song before at karaoke and open mic nights, usually in the bowels of the depressing mess that is Manchester, New Hampshire.
No stranger to it, I took to each lyric as though it was my first time at a mic and though by the time I had finished, I was certain it had been a bomb, the entire damn bar stood up and applauded my song. It was at that moment that I had realized I had just knocked an item off of someone else’s bucket list. I had sang to a crowded bar in Nashville, America’s music city, and been rewarded with a standing ovation. Something I had never thought to do, never intended to do, but something I nevertheless did.
I was after this and the sudden realization that I had been once again paying for my own drinks like a normal person, as well as realizing it was then 2:30 a.m., that I decided to depart for the hotel. Unsure of precisely how far away I was, it was after some forty minutes of walking that the two plus miles drunk stumble was over. Collapsing into bed as soon as I entered my room, I entered a deep and wonderful sleep that lasted clear until my wakeup came at 11 a.m.
Dashing once more into my cleanest clothing and downstairs to meet with the group, we departed on foot and traversed the handful of city blocks between ourselves and Hattie B’s, a local and well renowned chicken and wing shop. After a half hour waiting in line (it really is that good) and then another twenty minutes of waiting for a late order, I tucked into the southern style chicken plate and stuffed myself like a fat kid before a religious fast. The walk back to the hotel following this was not entirely painless, but well worth it for such delicious fowl.
Meeting up once more with the group, we soon boarded another small black charter coach and were then driven out of town. I am told the trip took an hour and fifteen minutes, however as the food settled in my stomach and the rolling countryside flew past through the dimly tinted windows, my eyes felt heavy and my head slumped back. Soon I was again sleeping deeply, this time upon a bus seat in such a way as upon waking up at our destination, the old familiar feelings of days gone by where I rode bus after bus to city after city in search of oddities, madness and things worth writing about, crept into my head and lingered up until my first cocktail.
Photo: Bust of George Dickel featuring two “Tennessee Tuxedo” cocktails, taken outside the Dickel Visitor Center
This would not come for some time however, as we, once assembled were greeted by the master of whisky and chief distiller who brought us on a guided tour of the distillery. It is a fascinating thing to see how the drink one enjoys is made. Following a brief rundown of the history to the 1800s distillery and its founder George Dickel, who we were informed also owned several other businesses including a brothel, we set off. First stopping beside a creek bed, we were educated on the raw importance of water.
Photo: George Dickel Distiller Allisa Henley posing with a bottle of the George Dickel 17 Year Aged Single Barrel Whiskey
Filtered over miles of limestone, the water used by the distillery was as refreshing and delicious as water likely gets. At dinner later, I found myself gulping glass after glass down greedily, like a man who was dying of thirst. But before then, as we entered the squat brick building, we came across the mash tubs. Boiling and steaming, the scents of grains, yeast, malts and industrial steam filled my nose. Similar to a brewery to be sure, but not quite the same, the distillery smelled and felt like something of a distant cousin to the production facilities I was otherwise used to.
Moving on to the fermenting stations, I watched as huge vats of bubbling milky brown liquid sat and slowly allowed the carnivorous relationships between yeast and sugars to occur, creating the ethanol which would later facilitate another round of karaoke. From there, it was then onto the true distilling section, wherein a three story high length of black pipe forced the then filtered and clear corn whisky through sections of slotted plates. It is apparently from this process that the true essence to this Tennessee spirit is wrought.
Following the tour of the production facility itself, we were treated to a hay ride up the hill where we were shown the warehouse. Now with a warehouse typically not being the most exciting of places, it was here that I was privileged enough to gaze upon the rows upon rows of casks, each filled with whisky which had been set to age. Realizing that many of these casks would not be tapped for bottling for possibly a decade or more, it was there which the patience and investment in craft became most apparent to me. Beyond this, my mind naturally sang hymnals of boozy praise at the sheer volume of whisky I was surrounded by.
After this, it was onto cocktails and dinner, with a Nashville bartender of high accolade whipping up batches of their three preferred mixes. Amongst these, the Tennessee Tuxedo stood out as my own personal favorite. Once drinks concluded, dinner was served, including true southern Tennessee brisket, along with the mandatory mac n’ cheese and potato salad sides.
Once the food was gone and whisky drank, country music star Dylan Lynch arrived to play for us a series of his newest songs, to which the audience in the dining hall responded to with resounding applause.
The following day, after a series of local beers, including on Sweet Potato stout enjoyed at the airport, I was headed back north to the dull, quiet and altogether backwater state of New Hampshire. My time in Nashville renewed in many senses, my love and adoration of the south. An honorary southerner according to old friends in New Orleans, I continually find upon each trek southward, which I feel for myself more at home with every trip. I hope to return to Nashville one day and hopefully, return again to the George Dickel distillery for another round of banter, drinks and phenomenal food. Until then however, I say to the people of Nashville, the Dickel distillers and of course to you, as I always do…
Nicholas Goroff is an actor, writer and craft beer reviewer at EveryJoe.com. Certified as a Cicerone beer server, he is working towards obtaining certification as a beer judge while employed at Bert’s Better Beers in Hooksett, NH. When not reviewing beer, wine and spirits, he is typically writing political essays, screenplays and short fiction. Follow him on Twitter @wizardofcause.
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