Catching Up with George Dickel's Master Distiller, Allisa Henley
Don’t let Allisa Henley’s sweet-as-pie Southern twang fool you — she’s a force to be reckoned with in the whiskey world.
After a 10-year stint at George Dickel Tennessee Whisky Distillery, where she soaked up all she could about the process, mechanics and sensory skills that go into crafting a premium batch under the tutelage of then-master distiller John Lunn, the 38-year-old Tullahoma, Tenn., native was named the brand’s distiller — not exactly the norm in an industry traditionally dominated by men, but a title that was more than well-earned. “There’s a very strong sense of pride and a lot of passion that comes with this job,” says Henley. “More than the distillery being in my hometown, many of the people I work with everyday grew up around me as well.”
For Henley, that growing up took place in Coffee County, just down the road from the distillery. She left her hometown to spend formative years at school. She attended the University of Tennessee for undergrad, then earned her MBA from Lipscomb University before the road rose to meet her at Cascade Hollow.
Originally hired to design the distillery’s visitor tour experience, Henley took the opportunity to absorb all she could about the process at George Dickel. “They hired me to come in and show people how we hand-make everything,” she explains. “I essentially had to write a tour script from scratch, and you can’t write about it unless you know what you’re talking about.” Thus, Henley thrust herself into learning the ins and outs of whiskey distilling — from why the grains are important, to what makes Tennessee whiskey unique (for the record, the product has to be filtered through sugar maple charcoal, and Dickel is the only distillery that does this process cold, resulting in a smoother sip). “I firmly believe you can learn more on the job than you ever can in a classroom,” she adds.
Many say it’s the dedication to the more-than-a-century old, tried and true technique that’s kept Dickel successful since its inception in 1870 (then later, its post-Prohibition reopening in the late 1950s). And when Henley took the helm, she followed the same “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mantra. “I’ve met and worked with three of our past distillers,” she says. “Within a few months of working here, I met the distiller Ralph Dupps, who reopened the distillery in 1958 and has since passed away. He looked at me and said, ‘Whatever you do, just don’t change anything.’ That really stuck with me — this is a great brand, and it has a lot of history and heritage. There’s a reason we do things the way we do.”
Though she’s experienced a decade of success with the company (which includes leading the rollout of George Dickel’s Barrel Program in 2013), Henley has no plans to rest on her laurels. Her schedule remains thick with trips booked across the globe to educate others about whiskey — and to see how other distilleries are crafting their products. When Henley is in town, you can usually find her on the distillery floor conducting tastings (twice daily) from the un-aged distillate to the maturate iterations — which are aged anywhere from about 5 to 14 years — while monitoring batches of grains, the fermentation process and everything in between.
She is proud to carry on a tradition that’s more than a century old, and that inspires her to pay close attention to the details. “... As long as that quality liquid is still coming out the same way it always has, then everything’s good.”
Henley studied hard to master her craft, and that foundation of knowledge makes her a force to be reckoned with. “As a woman, or really for anybody, you’ve got to know what you’re doing. Study, be consistent, stick to your guns because, ultimately, when you can show you know the product and the process, everybody’s going to value you and see your worth in that.”