By Richard Thomas
As the editor of The Whiskey Reviewer, I regularly field questions about this whiskey versus that whiskey, and periodically these revolve around whether the private barrel version of a whiskey is really that much better than the core expression. For example, I’ve been asked about Blanton’s Gold Label and Green Label a couple of times, and even about the private edition furnished to the Kentucky-based chain The Liquor Barn. Even in the case of private bottlings, the answer is sometimes yes and sometimes no, depending on the distillery and the whiskey.
A “yes” example is George Dickel. Their standard premium whiskey is the George Dickel Barrel Select, a fine, yet still very reasonably priced example of Tennessee whiskey. The George Dickel Hand Selected Barrel Whiskey, coming from their private barrel program, illustrates just both how a little tweaking can change a whiskey, and how two barrels of the same juice of the same age can come to differ greatly.
Comparing Dickel’s Barrel Select with the private Hand Selected, the two are exactly the same up to the moment maturation comes to an end. They come from the same sour mash, undergo the same Dickel version of the Lincoln County Process, and are aged in much the same place. Yet Barrel Select is a no aging statement whiskey, blended in small batches of roughly 10 barrels from 10 to 12 year old whiskeys. The private Hand Selected is a single barrel whiskey, plucked at either 9 or 12 years. Barrel Select is cut and bottled at 86 proof (43% abv), while Hand Selected is bottled at 103 proof (51.5% abv) for the 9 year old, or 106 proof (53% abv) for the older 14 year old.
Furthermore, all of the private barrel program whiskey consists of single barrel bottlings. A liquor store, hotel or other similar party buys the whole barrel, and the whiskey within goes only to them.
To return to the original question, does all of that really make the Dickel Hand Selected that much better than their Barrel Select? Of course it does.
The presentation for the George Dickel Hand Selected is similar to that of the Dickel Barrel Select, with a few differences. The label is different, a faux copper medallion adorns the neck, and my bottle came in a barnwood-style box. Yet the squat bottle is the same, as is the hefty wood and cork stopper. It’s a lovely package, made better if you get the box to go with it. My bottle was of the 9 year old variety, coming from barrel #140.
Out of the bottle and into the glass, the Dickel Hand Select lightens greatly, taking on a bright coppered, middle amber tone. It’s the kind of coloring where the copper doesn’t catch the light like a polished cook pot, but instead filters it like stained glass.
The scent is floral with sweet citrus and honey, with a powerful stream of vanilla and caramel and notes of cookie spice and toasty wood. Compared to the Barrel Select, this whiskey has a bigger, richer and more complex nose.
Taken neat, the 103 proof makes this a bold whiskey. The silky texture oozes with vanilla, while the fruity sweetness balances off the dry, toasty wood and the spicy kick. While not nearly as mellow as other Dickel whiskeys, it’s still a very mellow sipper for a whiskey with an abv in the lower 50s. The kick is a light one, and comes straight from the spicy and woody flavors rather than from alcohol heat.
Following on that last part, the finish is mild. A little toasty wood and sweetness lingers on the tongue, and while warm at first, the warmth quickly fades. That last characteristic makes me think this might be the perfect thing for someone looking for a stronger Tennessee whiskey to drink during the summer months.
All that adds up to Dickel Hand Select being a full step better than its cousin, Barrel Select. The two clearly share not just the same roots, but come from the same branch of the Dickel family tree. That said, the private barrel Hand Select is a much riper, fuller fruit.
I’ve seen examples of the George Dickel Hand Selected whiskey on sale for between $45 and $50.