I was never really a fan of whiskey. My father is, but then we are from Texas, and he also has a handlebar mustache and wears black snakeskin cowboy boots. The spirit has always been to me a good ol' boy's drink of choice, and as a gay man coming of age in Los Angeles, I was weaned on a strict vodka diet. Ever since Sarah Jessica Parker sparked the cosmo rage, whiskey never stood a chance.
Of course, I never really knew anything about whiskey, so with trepidation, I decided to accept an invite to learn all about it — and I mean all — on a five-day tour of the American Whiskey Trail. The journey would take me through the South but also to our nation's capital, and while I assumed a gay man in rural Kentucky would probably be a dangerous thing to be, l learned that whiskey is not only an American tradition but a spirit that bears a second look.
The oldest distillery in America is actually near Washington, D.C., at Mount Vernon, where George Washington himself distilled some of the finest whiskey for a then rum-soaked country. If you are really committed to the history of whiskey, then you must go all the way to our nation's capital to see the still-functional distillery and hear the history as told to you by men in period dress or peruse the small but informative museum. Mount Vernon is currently applying for a license to offer samples of whiskey on site, so for now you won't get to taste any of the handful of batches it has put out. But the heart of whiskey country is definitely the South, so after my stopover in D.C., I boarded a plane for Nashville.
The American Whiskey Trail can be viewed as a sort of wine-tasting of the South. Tourists come to Nashville, from which nearly a dozen distilleries are with in two hours' driving distance. After arriving in Tennessee, I headed an hour outside out of Nashville to Normandy, a small town nestled in the rolling hills of the countryside and the home of the George Dickel distillery. Any trepidation I had about leaving the safe confines of urban Nashville was calmed by the beautiful meadows and lakes lining the highway — that is until we broke off from the main road to a smaller, winding country road to seemingly nowhere and I saw a KKK flag flying proudly.
Dickel is very small distillery founded in 1870, and it has a sort of homespun vibe. The sweet master distiller, who is missing a few, greeted us and walked us through my first fully operational plant. It was at this point I started to truly grasp what whiskey even is. All whiskey is made from a ratio of corn to rye to malt barley that is fermented and then distilled — boiled basically, until the alcohol steam comes off and is captured. What distinguishes Tennessee whiskey, I learned, is something called charcoal mellowing. I remember the slogan from bottles of Jack Daniel's on drunken nights in high school, but I always thought of it as a gimmick, like saying Lemon Pledge, now with new pine scent. Turns out this little addition, which involves letting the whiskey trickle through layers of charcoal, not only drastically affects the flavor but is also a laborious accomplishment. To make Dickel's charcoal, for instance, the distillery uses sugar maple harvested in winter when the sap is lower, and it is then burned. But every brand has its own special technique.
As for the whiskey, the ingredients are first mixed in giant mash tubs two stories high. The concoction looks like an enormous bowl of creamed corn and is bubbling, not from a heat source, but from the enzymes in the barley actually breaking down the starches in the corn and rye. One of my guides told me to lean over and take a big whiff of it. When I did — and then nearly fell down and threw up — he laughed uncontrollably. “It's like smelling a thousand corn farts,” he said of the fact that I had basically ingested a massive nose full of CO2 coming up from the fermentation. I was told I had now been initiated into whiskey culture, which made me feel good, as we were still in the heart of what I assumed to be a territory hostile to gays.