The rapid rise of Fireball cinnamon whisky has sparked a spicy-spirits craze in recent years. Jack Daniel’s released its Tennessee Fire in 2014, a cinnamon liqueur blended with the brand’s signature whiskey. Jim Beam was quick to follow with Kentucky Fire. Some argue that these products aren’t intended to appeal to the “serious” whiskey drinker. But with its latest release, George Dickel looks to lift the stature of this subcategory, righting the wrongs of peppery liqueurs past.
It’s no surprise that Tabasco has worked its way into whiskey, given that whiskey has worked its way into the Louisiana-born pepper sauce for the last 150 years. Every drop of the popular condiment, now shipped to more than 180 countries, spends at least three years aging in barrels. This oak, which formerly rested some of America’s finest brown spirits, is stacked six and seven casks high in humid warehouses alongside alligator-infested bayous.
The Louisiana climate encourages the peppery mash to interact with the timber, fermenting slightly as it sits, extracting from the stave the unctuous complexities of wood sugars, not unlike what happens when whiskey slumbers in the rickhouse.
Bringing the process full circle, Dickel is now reclaiming some of these barrels, reuniting them with the liquor they once held years ago. Freshly dumped casks still clinging to the spicy residue of the hot sauce are shipped up to Cascade Hollow in rural Tennessee, where they’re filled with a blend of five- to seven-year-old whiskey and left to sit for no longer than a month.
It’s not really long enough to take in much more than a slight hint of pepperiness. And so the brands worked together to distill a proprietary additive for the bottling, labeled “the essence of Tabasco Brand pepper sauce.” It accentuates familiar notes of the hot sauce, while proofing the resulting liqueur down to an industry standard of 70 proof.
Expecting a heightened derivative of Fireball, I was pleasantly surprised by something altogether different—namely, wood. Because Dickel remains tightlipped about what precisely is added after distillation, it’s difficult to tell whether these barrel notes are allowed to cooperage or instead receive some nifty lab-concocted concentrate. At any rate, it’s a flavor any serious whisky drinker will immediately recognize and appreciate.
Another welcome departure from its fiery counterparts comes by way of mouthfeel. Tabasco Barrel doesn’t overplay the syrupy sweetness, and instead what you get is an unexpectedly dry drinking experience, which doesn’t leave any film or coating in the finish. I was setting up for the shot but ended up finishing the whiskey in slow, successive sips.
Dialed down is the capsaicin, the active compound responsible for sweat-inducing spice. This was likely a conscious marketing decision, to ensure broader appeal. True heat seekers, who’ll swoon over the bottle’s design—meant to echo the traditional packaging of their beloved hot sauce, with its red label and green circled neck—might be disappointed in a product that doesn’t leave their tongue a-tingle.
On novel presentation alone, its virtually guaranteed status as soon-to-be staple at many a weekend Bloody Mary bar. Still, enough of the underlying tones of Tabasco remain to mark this offering as more than a gimmick. Over the years, it has taken a lot of good whiskey to make Tabasco great. Now it takes Tabasco to finally make a peppery whiskey worth sipping.