I've always had an odd relationship with the South... Always longed to be a part of it, to call it my home, but my claims to it are shoddy at best. I grew up in Minnesota and moved to Jacksonville, Florida, when I was 11 years old. Most people don't think of Florida as one of the southern states, and I'm willing to agree that most of the state qualifies as its very own U.S. Region, but Jacksonville is the South. Some call it "Southern Georgia," men wear John Deere hats and drive obscenely large trucks. The best eating is at fish camps or at seafood restaurants where you sit at picnic tables and eat oysters by the bucket, shucking them yourself and dropping the shells into the hole in the middle of the table. Sweet tea is available everywhere. It might not be the Deep South, or the Old South, but it is the South.
For college I chose a small school in the mountains
of North Carolina. That was a different kind of South. The kind where you
honestly can't understand what some people are saying because their accents
are so thick, the kind where you drive on windy roads through the valleys
and actually see old women sitting on their front porches with shotguns lying
across their laps. This was the South of legends. Appalachia, The New River,
Doc Watson, The Blue Ridge. Most of my mother's relatives live in another
part North Carolina nearer to the coast, Lagrange. This is the chicken n'
dumplings, creamed corn and bundt cake with Cool Whip South. The Bojangles,
Piggly Wiggly, one main street in the whole town with only one shop open because
a Walmart opened up 30 miles away, South.
At the moment, I find myself in Chattanooga, Tennessee. A South, I am constantly reminded by my hosts, like no other. With culinary traditions and customs that it would take months to cover. The place where Coca Cola, Moon Pies and Krystals were born. A place where old money lives on Lookout Mountain and new money lives on Signal Mountain. A place where women gossip around the dinner table about people they've literally known for their entire lives. It does feel different here. A place of tradition, of dynasty. A place to bring people who claim that America has no culture of its own. A place that makes you feel like you're deep inside America, witnessing its past together with its present.
My hosts here are amazing and they've done their best to show me all of the sights, sounds and tastes Chattanooga has to offer. I've been to the Mountain Opry, The Incline, The Chattanoogan, etc. I'm constantly treated as if I am a foreign visitor, made to taste dishes "I couldn't possibly have ever tasted," though I've assured them many times that I have actually spent a lot of time in the South. "Not in Chattanooga," they say, "not in Tennessee." They seem to have the strange assumption that their South is the real South. That Tennessee is the birthplace of all that is good and wonderful and tasty in this country. After being here for a few weeks, I'm inclined to agree.
As I've said, I love the South. I love the food, though I can't handle too much of it at a time, and tend to not appreciate the southern tendency to turn any healthy vegetable into a casserole. I LOVE bluegrass and have since the first time I heard it. There is something so ancient and magical about it, even when heard on the subway platforms of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. I love the country: the Smokies, the Appalachians, the beaches of North Carolina, the marshlands of Florida. And, I love Whiskey. Long before I knew what Scotch was, whiskey to me meant the stuff people used to drink out of brown and white clay jugs marked XXX. It was the stuff hobos slugged as they jumped on trains to move on to the next adventure America had to offer. The beverage of cowboys, gamblers and outlaws. America's own tradition of copper stills hidden in wooden shacks in forest hollows. Of bootleggers smuggling barrels strung over donkeys that wound through mountain passes.
George Dickel is a centuries old distillery in the Cumberland Plateau of Tennessee. Because it resides there and not in Kentucky, it cannot be called bourbon. It is made from a mixture of barley, corn and rye, double distilled and bottled with no preservatives or dyes. One of the main differences between Tennessee whiskey and bourbon whiskey is the charcoal mellowing process wherein the whiskey is filtered through sugar maple charcoal before being aged in American oak barrels. This complicated process takes several days but results in an incredibly smooth whiskey.
I'm somewhat of a whiskey snob, though I don't pretend to know anything about it. I just tend to like the pricier stuff, so when Derek poured me a glass of George Dickel No. 12, running at around $20 a bottle, I was skeptical. I was immediately pleasantly surprised by the luscious aromas that leaped from the glass. Vanilla, candied orange, maple and a sweet forest smell commingled with meringue, nutmeg, quince and walnut. The burn is surprisingly smooth yet spicy followed by a strong woodsy aftertaste that's reminiscent of the smell of sitting on a wooden porch on a hot summer's day. All in all an impressively quaffable yet affordable whiskey with a great looking, old timey bottle. Maybe Tennessee does make the tastiest stuff in America.