When Nicole Austin began tasting whiskies to create this year’s George Dickel Bottled-in-Bond release, she found the process a bit more daunting than usual.
Her team pulled samples from every barrel in the warehouse with enough age, and after months of tasting, she landed on a group of whiskies that were all distilled in the fall of 2008.
But the challenge was not the sheer variety of whiskies she had to taste through or that she needed to find multiple exceptional barrels from a single distillation season for it to qualify for the federal designation of bottled-in-bond.
What made the process particularly fraught was that this whiskey had to follow last year’s bottled-in-bond release, which was a massive hit and was named Whisky of the Year by Whiskey Advocate magazine.
“Repeatability is really hard in whiskey and that was an added challenge,” says Austin, general manager and distiller for Cascade Hollow Distilling Co., in Tullahoma, Tennessee, which makes George Dickel. “It’s important to me that this year’s release be very similar. I want George Dickel Bottled-in-Bond to have one coherent set of tasting notes and a continuity about it.”
Given the particular constraints of producing a bottled-in-bond whiskey—it must be at least four years old, 100-proof, and made at the same distillery in a single distilling season—Austin also embraced “the idea of slight variation,” allowing for minor flavor deviations.
Whereas last year’s 13-year-old vintage showed oxidized fruit and peanut notes, Austin says this year’s blend tastes of dried and baked apples and pecans and is “a little bit more assertive, structured and complex.”
“There are commonalities—vanilla, fruit, nuttiness, a certain waxy character,” she says. “All of those things should be present in all of the bottled-in-bonds, but they might express slightly differently. The distinctions are subtle and that was important.”
This new vintage, which has a suggested retail price of $40 and launches today, once again goes beyond the requirements for a bottled-in- bond whiskey. It’s a blend of 11-year-old whiskies with a mash bill of 84 percent corn, 8 percent rye and 8 percent malted barley, distilled at Cascade Hollow within the six-month fall distillation season of 2008.
She most enjoys drinking it neat or, if the weather requires, in a Highball. Though this release is two years younger than the first, Austin finds that it tastes markedly more mature.
It reminds her of a quote from author Arthur C. Clarke: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” She notes that the array of factors that go into distillation make predicting how it ages nearly impossible. “This year, when I went looking, fall 2008 was the magical season.”
Austin hopes this vintage will not only resonate with fans as much as the first iteration did, but that it will also continue to dissolve any remaining notions among “whiskey passionate people” that Tennessee whiskey is somehow inferior to bourbon.
“I really would love for people to understand that Tennessee whiskey is bourbon,” says Austin. “It’s a regional identity of bourbon.”
The only additional requirements it has outside of the regulations for bourbon is that it (obviously) must be made in Tennessee and that it undergoes a maple charcoal mellowing process prior to barrel aging.
“I was really looking for whiskies that I thought would be competitive with some of the most well-regarded American whiskey producers—I absolutely wanted to show off the distillery and the quality of the whiskey that we’re producing,” she says. “It succeeded beyond my wildest dreams.”
Since Austin began her career as a distiller at Kings County in Brooklyn, New York, in 2010, she’s endeavored to make great whiskey and impact the industry in a lasting way.
While at the craft distillery, she served as the founding president of the New York State Distillers Guild, was on the founding board of directors of the American Craft Spirits Association, and helped to pass the Craft Beverage Modernization and Tax Reform in 2017.
Feeling constrained by Kings County’s size, she left in 2016 for a job as a commissioning engineer at Irish whiskey distillery Tullamore Dew, where she made “just as much whiskey in a 12-hour shift as we had made [at Kings County] in all of 2015.” That only lasted a couple of years before she began craving a middle ground.
“Cascade Hollow is big enough to accomplish something, but small enough that I can be creative and I can try different things,” says Austin. “You can share it with a lot of people and start to move the needle on the industry as a whole.”
Currently, she’s helping fellow industry leaders draft edits to the code of federal regulations that defines what you can put on a spirits bottle label, including age statements—all while working on even more exciting releases from Dickel, which is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year.
“The whole idea of making me the distiller of not just George Dickel, but the general manager and distiller of Cascade Hollow Distilling Co. was to allow a little more exploration,” says Austin, who’s already left a lasting mark on the company. “There are some other whiskies I found [during the bottled-in-bond tastings] that I think are really interesting and lovely. You can expect some more of those to go into a bottle in the near future.”
Until then, she’s eager to see how this year’s bottled-in-bond is received—especially since the Covid-19 stay-at-home orders have prevented her from recruiting friends to taste the whiskey ahead of its release, as she normally would.
“That was feeding my paranoia about whether or not it was good enough,” says Austin. “It makes me particularly interested to hear what people think about it. I’m really excited.”