There’s a certain understandable anger among purists at the idea of whiskey flavored in any way, and George Dickel Tabasco Barrel Finish is situated perfectly at the grayest of areas on the sliding scale. Tennessee whiskey Frankenstein abomination that it may be, though, it’s upsettingly good, for a flavored whiskey.
Flavored whiskey gets a lot of bad press, but there are levels of what constitutes flavoring. Anyone who’s had Lagavulin or Macallan has arguably enjoyed flavored whiskey. The question then is where we draw the line on what’s bad flavoring, and that can get complicated. Let’s define flavor, first: For our purposes, it might best be described as a taste or scent modification to a whiskey that did not come from the four main ingredients of whiskey making: grain, yeast, wood, and water.
On one end, which we might call the most appalling, you have the chemically flavored garbage—artificial in every aspect, from color to taste. Think flavors like cotton candy, and colors that glow in the dark. On the other end, you have the most generally accepted ways to flavor whiskey: using an ex-bourbon barrel to age scotch, or an ex-sherry cask to finish it. These are both “flavoring” systems under the broadest definition of flavor, and yet they are praised, even coveted, by a majority of whiskey drinkers.
Tabasco finish exists somewhere in between these two extremes. The whiskey isn’t actually mixed with Tabasco, but rather it’s aged in the barrels that were originally used to age peppers that eventually go into the Tabasco recipe. So while this whiskey may taste emphatically of Tabasco, it never touches a drop of the spicy sauce.
The peppers are potent; Dickel only needs about 30 days in one of the barrels to absorb an intense amount of flavor, and in a polarizing way.
So you’re probably wondering what it’s like. Here’s what it tastes like to us: While the nose would indicate someone mixed a few drops of Tabasco into a glass of whiskey, on the palate, it’s much more impressive. The whiskey’s sweetness and the barrel’s vanilla go full bore for a few moments, until suddenly, where a rye whiskey might start to create a spicy burn, you instead have a tingle on the front of your tongue from the peppers. As the pepper flavor begins to take center stage, though, the whiskey comes forward with a little dark chocolate, cacao nib flavor that deepens the flavor, rather than letting the whole experience end bright and hot.
Honestly, it’s nice, and though we don’t see ourselves rushing home to pour this after a long day, it would go nicely with pickle juice as others have suggested, and we’re excited to mess around with an Old Fashioned sometime soon.
If you’re still on the fence, know you have plenty of allies. While Dickel Tabasco won a Gold Medal at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition last month, it does seem a bit gimmicky. Even Cascade Hollow Distilling Co. Master Distiller Nicole Austin commented on the project, which began before she was hired.
Still, if someone had made this at home, or a bartender had tinkered away and added it to their menu, we’d be impressed by the ingenuity. For about $25 and at 70 proof, it’s fun to try, and we’re quite sure that, worst case scenario, what you don’t drink will spice up some frozen bourbon balls for a cookout.