Wednesday, July 2, 2014

George Dickel: The Name, the Fame, and the Fable

 “George Dickel” is a familiar name to anyone who has ever bought a bottle of whiskey.  As shown above, his brand appears on the labels of a variety of Tennessee whiskeys that are displayed on store shelves from coast to coast.  Moreover, Dickel has been hailed as a pioneer and innovator of American whiskey-making.  Truth to tell, it is highly possible that he never made a drop of whiskey in his life.

Shown here from the Dickel whiskey website is a likeness of George in maturity.   He was born in  Darmstadt, Germany,  in 1818.  When he was 26 years old he emigrated to the United States eventually settling in Nashville, Tennessee.  For a time Dickel owned a shoe and boot manufacturing shop.  Subsequently he opened a store in the city sometime in the 1850s where he sold a general line of goods including clothing, housewares, groceries and, as many merchants did, wine and liquor.  The 1870 census listed him as “Merchant,”  following with the cryptic initials “Wh.S.,”  which could be interpreted as “whiskey sales,” or “whole sale..”

Although the Dickel website cites him opening a retail liquor store in 1866 his company does not appear in Nashville business directories until 1874 when they began to list Geo. A. Dickel &  Co. as a liquor dealer, located on North Market Avenue.   Dickel featured his own proprietary brands, buying the whiskey from a range of Tennessee and Kentucky distilleries.    Eventually he narrowed his source down to a single distillery  located near Tullahoma in Coffee County, Tennessee, at a place called Cascade Hollow known for its pristine spring water.  Called the Cascade Distillery, the facility was owned by Matthew Sims and McLin Davis, the latter a distiller.  Dickel is said to have visited Cascade in 1867 and been impressed by its methods of whiskey-making.  Probably through a purchase agreement,  Dickel took all or most of the production of this plant.

With his name embazoned on every label, Dickel sold a Tennessee style sour mash he called Cascade, packaging it for wholesale sales in large ceramic jugs with Bristol glaze and a characteristic blue line at top and bottom.  Retail sales were made in colorfully labeled quart and flask sized glass bottles.  Dickel is credited with coining Cascade’s slogan, “Mellow as Moonlight.”

An early employee of Dickel’s was a man named Victor E. Shwab, who showed such an aptitude for the liquor business that he ultimately was made a partner.  Shwab introduced George, a longtime bachelor, to his sister-in-law, Augusta, and romance bloomed.  Born in Tennessee, Augusta was 22 years younger than George when they wed.  But unlike many May to September marriages,  Dickel had made a wise choice.  Augusta was a canny business woman and skilled at finance.  They would have no children.

As the reputation of Dickel’s Cascade whiskey spread well beyond Tennessee,  the company moved several times to larger quarters on North Market Street.  Then in 1888, the entire picture changed. Dickel was severely injured in a fall from a horse and invalided. He was forced to withdraw from the management of the liquor house he had founded.  Augusta took over and never missed a beat,  working closely with her brother-in-law, V.E. Shwab,  who in 1888 bought a half interest in the Cascade Distillery from Matthew Sims and later purchased the entire facility.

After suffering for six years with his injuries, George Dickel died, age 76, in 1894.  In his will, and likely orally as well, he instructed Augusta to sell the business upon his death at the “first favorable opportunity.”  Her own woman, she paid no heed to that admonition and maintained her interest and Dickel’s shares in the liquor enterprise.  While Shwab took care of the day to day operations, that now included the Cascade Distillery,  Augusta had the money and time to travel abroad and used the opportunity to tout Dickel whiskey to foreign audiences.  Contemporary accounts have her lavishly entertaining friends and acquaintances in France and Germany.   “All the women folks were spoiled like the Devil...They were good feeders and always had lots of parties,” opined one observer.

Under Shwab’s leadership, the company kept Dickel’s name and continued to grow. The company advertised widely as shown here in an ad for Cascade Pure Whisky that featured a baseball, a ballpark and, most interesting, an early flying machine.  Another mode of transportation that frequently graced Dickel ads was a Mississippi steamboat.  The image here is from top of a wood crate carrying George Dickel Tennessee Whisky.  Like other liquor merchants,  the company issued shot glasses to favored customers.  Augusta and Victor also were dabbling in real estate, purchasing prime property in downtown Nashville.

When Tennessee voted early statewide prohibition in 1909, the pair were forced to shut down both the Nashville liquor business and their Tullahoma distillery.  Operations were moved into Kentucky, first to Hopkinsville and subsequently to Louisville.  In Kentucky Shwab contracted with the Jacob Stilzel Distillery in Jefferson County.  It was a relatively new plant built in 1906 by Fred and Phil Stilzel, sons of Jacob, and provided the product for Cascade “Tennessee” brand whiskey for many years.

In 1916, Augusta Dickel, age 76, died. Having no children of her own, she left the ownership of the liquor business to Shwab.  According to court records, she died very rich, leaving stocks, bonds and securities worth $1 million ($25 million today) to Shwab and upon his death to his six children,  her nephews and nieces.   In his book on women in whiskey, author Fred Minnick paid her this tribute:  “Although Augusta was only an owner on paper, she could have sold her shares to a competing whiskey company, or interfered with operations.  She may not have changed the whiskey world, but Augusta certainly made an impact by not listening to her husband.”

The advent of National Prohibition forced Shwab to shut down all operations related to Geo. A. Dickel & Co.  He died in 1924 and never saw Repeal.  Dickel’s name and the Cascade brand both survived.  In 1937 the Shwab family sold the trademarks to the Schenley Distilling Company that produced a whiskey marketed as Geo. A. Dickel’s Cascade Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey.  The product was now “Kentucky” and not “Tennessee,”;  bourbon, not charcoal filtered sour mash.

In 1958 Schenley decided to take Dickel whiskey back to its roots, perhaps to provide competition for Jack Daniels whiskey in Tennessee.  With the guidance of a master distiller,  the liquor giant rebuilt a distillery at Tullahoma, very near the site of the original Cascade Distillery, as seen above.  Now owned by Diago,  the George Dickel Distillery is the source of the bottles seen at the opening of this article, now long out of exile in Kentucky and back to being a Tennessee product. The distillery features a bust of Dickel at the entrance.

All subsequent Dickel trademark owners have engaged in puffery where George is concerned.  He has been hailed as a pioneer and innovator of American whiskey. The claim is made that he was the first to chill-filter his whiskey, the first to use sugar maple charcoal to eliminate unwanted byproducts, and the inventor of a “virgin wool blanket” as a filter.  While a pleasant fiction, the truth seems to be that Dickel never owned or operated a distillery. Only after Dickel’s fall from a horse and withdrawal from his firm did  his brother-in-law acquire a half interest in the Cascade Distillery.  No matter, liquor store shelves nationwide display his name in large letters on striking labels and George Dickel’s fame goes forward decade after decade.

Note:  Dickel spelled his product, "whisky," without the "e," in contrast to the usual American spelling and similar to the English version.  Various reasons have been given, the most likely that he thought it added prestige to his Tennessee sour mash.


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