From Tennessee gold to Straight Kentucky Bourbon; sometimes neat in a glass, and sometimes shaken into a bourbon bloody Mary; we’ve mapped out everything from the best cheap whiskies to even the best whiskey sour recipes out there. We take our whiskey any way we can get it.
But one fad we’ve never really endorsed is the whole flavored whiskey thing. Why would we want a shot that tastes like Big Red chewing gum? Why would we ruin perfectly fine whiskey by adding artificial cinnamon flavoring to it? Who though it was a good idea to dump cherry syrup into good bourbon? It just never made sense to us.
The first time we’ve ever been tempted by a flavored whisky was when George Dickel announced a little while back that they’d teamed up with legendary hot sauce company Tabasco to create their own spicy whisky. We really like Dickel, and we know they, like us, aren’t into fad whiskies. On top of being fans of whisky, we like our hot sauce too. Naturally, when they invited us down to their Cascade Hollow Distilling Co., in Tullahoma, Tennessee a couple weeks back to taste the Tabasco Barrel Finish whisky, which they’ve affectionately called “Hot Dickel,” for a spin, we took them up on the offer.
What stood out to us about the Tabasco Barrel Finish—aside from the obvious—is that none of the flavors are artificial. We’ve seen what happens when good whiskies do bad things, but that’s not the case here.
We went on a guided tour of the Dickel distillery, and in the process learned that the Tabasco Barrel Finish starts with George Dickel’s standard 8-year whisky. That whisky gets tossed into a finishing cask for 30 days, which was previously home to Tabasco peppers for no less than three years. The whiskey becomes infused with the spices and aromas leftover from the residual pepper sauce in the wood of the barrel, but it doesn’t end there.
While this is going on, Tabasco Brand Pepper Sauce is taken and distilled into an “essence.” That essence is then blended with the barrel-finished whisky and bottled as the final product.
We think it’s important to note that the standard 8-year Dickel is a mild 80 proof—the bare minimum required for Tennessee whiskies. But astute drinkers will notice the Tabasco barrel dips down to 70 proof. While that might deter a lot of standard whiskey drinkers, it’s standard practice for these flavored whiskies and sets Dickel up to compete with them directly. Jack Daniel’s Fire is 70 proof, and Fireball comes in at the even lower 66 proof. Making Dickel’s Tabasco Finished whisky around the same proofs means people who normally drink that other, objectively inferior whisky won’t get blindsided by alcohol content. They can drink a better product at the same rate and intensity that they do the cheap stuff.
In a nutshell, we think of it as a direct competitor for the artificially flavored whiskeys out there, but without the corner-cutting.
We can respect Dickel’s old school approach to this interesting whisky, but at the end of the day, the only thing we really care about is how the stuff tastes. We don’t care if each cask is blessed by the Pope. If the drink sucks, it sucks.
The Tabasco Barrel Finish has a sharp, almost vinegary smell right in the nose that’s reminiscent of Tabasco hot sauce. There’re also contradictory notes of fruit and citrus in there, as well as a fair bit of peppery spice. Even before you have a drop of the stuff, our nose is telling us this might not be the best idea.
Upon first tasting, we were actually surprised it wasn’t hotter. It starts off surprisingly sweet, in what we first suspected was due—at least in part—to the Dickel 8-year’s high corn mash. However, what we learned is that a large part of that sweetness is because of the “essence” made from distilling the Tabasco. Tabasco gives some surprisingly sweet notes because of the time the peppers spent soaking up the oaky, vanilla flavors of the barrels it ages in. We were pretty shocked to learn that there are no artificial sweeteners added to the mix.
Once the liquid makes its way down the throat, the temperature is kicked up a little bit—enough to let you know it’s there, but not enough to be uncomfortable. It starts cool, but builds.
All in all, it’s an interesting whisky. We can drink it straight, but we definitely preferred to shoot it—either by its lonesome, or in tandem with pickle juice. Not because it needs it (there’s no real bite here), but because the two go very well together. The brand recommends shooting it from a glass rimmed with celery salt. We also think it’d go excellently as part of a whiskey bloody Mary. If you’re a habitual Fireball person, you should definitely see about giving the Dickel’s Tabasco Barrel Finish a try, especially if you’re trying to get away from the artificial flavors and sugary hangover we all know too well. But if you’re a serious whisky drinker, this might prove more of a novelty than anything.