Whiskey Aged in Tabasco Barrels Is the Grown-Up Version of Fireball
Tabasco isn't just a hot sauce—it's a pepper sauce aged in whiskey barrels. So why not turn the beat around and age whiskey in Tabasco barrels? It's almost too simple a premise.
The result, which rolls out nationwide this month, is George Dickel Tabasco Barrel Finish (or, more casually, "Hot Dickel"), a Tennessee whiskey that spends 30 days aging in a barrel that previously held Tabasco pepper mash. You can think of it simply as a pinky-up alternative to Fireball, but in truth, it's a lot more interesting.
Start with the Tabasco
Tabasco itself is made on Avery Island, Louisiana, and has been for 150 years. The peppers (called Tabascos, fittingly enough) are grown both on Avery Island and in pepper-friendly climes around the world; they get mashed down with salt, and then left to age in used whiskey barrels for three years.
The peppers naturally ferment during that time, evolving from a hellishly spicy, bell pepper-meets-firewater fruity mash to a richer, more complex and only slightly less hot mash.
No alcohol actually ends up in the hot sauce itself, as the inner layer of charred barrel is stripped before the casks are filled with Tabasco mash. But the white oak of the whiskey barrel itself imparts flavor and is well suited to shelter the aging pepper mash for three years—more, in the case of some Tabasco reserve blends.
Lean over a barrel of this hot pepper, and you'll probably find yourself tearing up. Venture by the blending tanks, where the pepper mash is cut with vinegar, and your eyes will practically become waterfalls.
While a huge swirling tank of Tabasco might seem lethal, it's just a drop or two at a time that ends up on your eggs or in a Bloody Mary, and even less heat ends up in your Tabasco-finished whiskey.
Now for the Whiskey
George Dickel is one of the best-known brands of Tennessee whiskey. By definition, this category must be made from at least 51 percent corn, be aged in a charred new oak barrel and be charcoal filtered.
Distilled in scenic and proudly low-tech Cascade Hollow, an hour-plus outside of Nashville, George Dickel's history traces back to 1869. Its classic George Dickel No. 8 is made from a high-corn mash bill, a blend of whiskeys that spends approximately five to seven years in the barrel. Around a year ago, Dickel took a few of Tabasco's used barrels, with some of the pepper mash still embedded in the wood, and filled them with their already-aged whiskey—a five-to-seven-year blend similar to No. 8. They also acquired some Tabasco itself and distilled that into a powerful essence, which is added to the whiskey once it's completed its finish in the former pepper sauce barrels.
And in the Bottle
You might expect that a whiskey not only aged in Tabasco casks but with concentrated Tabasco essence actually added back in would be aggressively spicy. But the heat is only part of the story, as Tabasco sauce itself has strong notes of fruit from its peppers and a backdrop of oak from its lengthy time in the barrel. George Dickel Tabasco Barrel Finish picks up both these qualities, with fruity and oaky elements present in the whiskey as well. And while there's certainly heat to it, it's a pleasant, warming tingle on the finish and down the throat, not an overpowering heat that'll sear your face off.
Since the explosion of Fireball onto the drinking scene, a number of brands—from big guns like Jim Beam and Jack Daniel's to smaller craft distilleries—have released spice-infused whiskeys. But Hot Dickel is the first to combine a classic whiskey with an iconic bottle of hot sauce.
Though the Hot Dickel has plenty of possible applications in cocktails—and, of course, spicy cocktails are more popular than ever—it's intended to be a shot, like the Fireball of your college days. But unlike Fireball, it's a warm pepper heat rather than a cinnamon heat, and while there is a balanced sweetness to Dickel, it's not a straight sugar bomb. At 70 proof (35 percent ABV), it's a bit tamer than American whiskeys and genuinely goes down easy.
Carey Jones is a New York-based food, travel and spirits writer. She is the coauthor of Be Your Own Bartender, to be released in November 2018, and the author of Brooklyn Bartender: A Modern Guide to Cocktails and Spirits. Follow her on Twitter at @careyjones.
Please check your inbox to verify your email address.