George Dickel Head Distiller Nicole Austin Talks Whisky Innovation

Nicole Autsin, general manager of Cascade Hollow Distilling Co.

How to use whisky barrels that do not fit your distillery’s traditional profile?

This question faced Nicole Austin after she was named general manager and distiller of Cascade Hollow Distilling Co., maker of George Dickel Tennessee Whisky. Austin ordered samples of everything more than four years old from the Dickel rickhouses, to see what she had in stock. During this review she came across unusual barrels. Whiskies that would not make a consumer think they were drinking Dickel.

The result is a new line, Cascade Moon Whisky. Limited in release, these expressions showcase unique picks from the Dickel collection. We recently caught up with Austin to talk about this line and its first launch, Cascade Moon Edition No. 1.

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Beverage Dynamics: What stood out about this whisky to launch the new line?

Nicole Austin: One of the liquids that went into this whisky aged in used barrels. And this liquid aged for 16 years. Despite the age, there was this lightness to it, because it had aged in used barrels. Most whiskies that age in used barrels are malt-based. But this one had a bourbon base, a corn base, with rye. So there were interesting light fruit notes.

I knew this whisky was something of value and I needed to make it into something. The light fruit notes reminded me of a beer. I thought, ‘How would these work in a beer?’ and that’s what brought me to the beer style, gose.

There’s a balance of flavors in a gose. There’s light fresh fruit and also salt. Despite the salt it’s still light, approachable, crushable and friendly.

To make a whisky like that I knew I needed a younger whisky with bright fruitiness to help emphasize those flavors. I needed an 11-year-old to mix with the 16-year-old to help punch up the bright, fruity notes.

Cascade Moon Whisky Edition No. 1.

BD: It’s definitely different than most Dickels. What do you expect as the consumer response?

NA: I think people will find it pretty odd. But this whisky is about being able to experiment, to be expressive about the future of whisky.

Whisky has been made by Dickel for 150 years, so of course I always remain conscious of the heritage of this distillery. But I also wanted to think about the next 150 years. There’s a place in our portfolio for our future.

And I was inspired by our past with the name, Cascade Moon. This is a brand from the early 1900s. Obviously I don’t know what that whisky tasted like but I used it as a jumping-off point of motivation.

I was also thinking, ‘What’s relevant to now?’ There are so many collaborations with beer. People have a hunger for new things and exploring the limits of categories. I think when they drink this whisky, they will think, ‘Huh? I didn’t expect that, but I still find it lovely, approachable and sophisticated’.”

You can’t please everyone all the time, and that’s okay.

BD: Would it be wrong to suggest that the branding appears feminine by design?

NA: I’m not a creative person, but I had a clear concept in my head, and relied on our creative agency to make it work. I told them that this whisky was not about heritage or tradition. I wanted it to be a disruptor. I didn’t want it to look like anything else on the shelf. I was inspired by beer branding. Bright colors, lots of art. I felt this whisky had to be art-driven, eye-catching.

When I first looked at what the agency came up with, my response was, ‘It’s too pink’.” It’s really different. Though at no point did I mention that I wanted the bottle to be attractive to women. But when you think of whisky signifiers, they tend to be masculine. So when you don’t want to look like everything else on the shelf, it stands to reason that you would look feminine by definition.

BD: When will we see more releases in this line?

NA: There’s no set schedule. When we have the liquid and I like it. We’ve got another getting ready to release on the heels of this one, which will celebrate the 150th anniversary of George Dickel. After that, who’s to say?

BD: Different topic: Is your distillery open for single-barrel picks?

NA: Our business is open. People can come into the business center and taste samples. We also have samples out on the market. We also offer a distiller’s choice option, where I pick out their single barrel.

“When I first took this role, I wanted my first release to represent my values.” — Nicole Austin, general manager and distiller of Cascade Hollow Distilling Co.

BD: We thought single-barrel picks might suffer during the pandemic, but it’s been the opposite. Why?

NA: I think a lot of people are doing a lot of shopping at retail. These people are eyeing what’s unique and different, what they have never tried. Single barrels are perfect for that. They are literally one single moment in the entire world, never to be repeated. It’s very exciting.

BD: Your bottled-in-bond releases have been huge hits. Thoughts?

NA: When I first took this role, I wanted my first release to represent my values. And I was aware that George Dickel existed 150 years before me, so I wanted the release also to pay respect to that.

I wanted whisky that represented my values of quality, authenticity and good value for the price. At the same time, I felt that Dickel was underappreciated as a brand — that some people saw it as their grandfather’s fishing whisky. From what I had seen, the quality of our whisky was top-tier, and had been for a long time. Part of it was also the whiskey nerds — myself definitely included — passing over Tennessee whisky for bourbon. But Tennessee whisky is bourbon, and I think we absolutely belong in that subset of top whisky producers.

All that said, I did not imagine the amount of success I would have with that first bottled-in-bond. So I had a lot of paranoia and psych-out with bottling the second one. But I ended up very excited with how it turned out, and I think both whiskies were exactly what I was hoping for.

This interview was edited and condensed for publication.

Kyle Swartz is editor of Beverage Dynamics magazine. Reach him at kswartz@epgmediallc.com or on Twitter @kswartzz. Read his recent piece Why Single Barrel Store Pick Whiskeys are Gaining Popularity.

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