A view through fresh eyes

A view through fresh eyes

Nicole Austin is putting her stamp on heritage distilling

People | 06 Nov 2020 | Issue 171 | By Phoebe Calver

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Perception is such an interesting part of life, made even more complex by the whole ‘pandemic thing’. I think it’s fair to say that a large proportion of our days are spent on Zoom calls, Facetiming grandparents or emailing work contacts/co-workers. The latter has certainly caused me to think that everyone hates me and I hate everyone because, as we all know, perception of written tone very much depends on the mood of the person reading it (just to confirm, I only hate everyone on Tuesdays).

Ignoring my slight tangent there, the wonderful thing about perception is its ability to be altered by our interactions. Maybe it’s the perception of what constitutes good taste, or what makes something a stereotype, or even what your career should look like; an excellent example of this comes in the form of George Dickel’s general manager and distiller, Nicole Austin.

After realising that she was getting increasingly too tall to live out the dream of becoming a jockey, Nicole set off down the path of earning a chemical engineering degree. Despite not knowing the exact direction she went full steam ahead into the environmental engineering industry.

While working on New York City’s waste water treatment system, which she assures me “is actually pretty cool”, a chance encounter changed Nicole’s outlook on her future. “It was purely a moment in a bar with a great bartender, who I am actually still friends with, who was telling me about how whiskey was made. I just had this light bulb moment of ‘oh, obviously that is what I should be doing with my life.’”

She joked about a mock rage that ensued, following on from this discovery, wondering, “Why didn’t anyone tell me? So many more people would become chemical engineers!” and to be honest I’m inclined to agree.

Following on from this moment of clarity came a U-turn in the direction of her energy, focusing on creating quirky and thoughtfully worded emails to distilleries; however, that didn’t get her far. She laughed while explaining, “In 2011 I literally ended up turning up on the doorstep of Kings County Distillery, which was the first distillery to be licensed in New York City post-Prohibition. Right after they got their licence and I was like ‘hey, I work here now’. I was frustrated at that point, you know. I wanted to work in this industry.”

Finding herself in the world of craft distilling was, in part, due to the fact that it was where the opportunity was. Nicole saw that she didn’t have the right last name for certain states, so instead looked for the open doors. It is clear to see that craft became her love, “What a great opportunity to be involved in the inception of an industry. I am so grateful for that fortunate timing and I’ll always get to have been there at the birth of craft spirits in America.”

Through her work at Kings County Distillery, Nicole not only came on leaps and bounds in her distilling, but also as a voice for the craft industry in New York by becoming president of the New York State Distillers Guild.

Nicole’s next step in the world of craft distilling involved working with the legendary Dave Pickerell as a consultant, before picking up her life in 2016 and moving it across the world to Tullamore, Ireland. There she worked for William Grant & Sons as the commissioning engineer at Tullamore D.E.W, where she took on her first role in an industrial-scale distillery.

Dickel is a heritage distillery that didn’t really have an established identity in modern times

2018 brought with it another life-changing move, as Nicole moved back to the US, but this time to Tullahoma, Tennessee, to begin her work at George Dickel Tennessee Whiskey.

On the move back to America, Nicole noted, “I’ve spent some time overseas and I loved it, but my heart was really with American whiskey. There are not a lot of true legacy producers and distilleries that really have a direct and authentic connection to that 1800s heritage and heyday of American whiskey production, but also a place that hasn’t already been defined by the modern era.

“Dickel is a heritage distillery that didn’t really have an established identity in modern times, I mean what an opportunity. It felt like a unicorn because it’s so unique, and when you find that you can’t let it go.”

She emphatically went on to explain, “I knew so little about it actually and that’s one of the reasons that it intrigued me. I had been part of a group in New York who formed Empire Rye, which is like a regional whiskey designation and when we were thinking about that, Tennessee whiskey was really the only existing and historic legacy regional identity of spirit in the US. It was really creating Empire Rye that got me interested in Tennessee whiskey, because it was this existing regional identity.”

Entering into the world of Tennessee whiskey with knowledge of the rough concept, Nicole was able to bring a fresh pair of eyes to the table and a desire to know the regional whiskey designation inside and out. “So many people make I guess a reasonable assumption that filtered whiskey is mellow and Tennessee whiskey is mellow, but when you taste George Dickel you really don’t get that. I was intrigued and that’s part of what made me take this role.”

When stepping into the role, it became clear that Dickel had been quietly making great whiskey long before Nicole began her work there, but with fresh eyes came an opportunity to work out how to best use the liquid. Nicole began to consider, “What can we do with this distillery, all this whiskey in the warehouses and these incredibly skilled operatives working in the distillery? And how can we take all of this quality and talent and put it in a glass in the best way?”

During her early days at the distillery, Nicole knew that she needed to be educated and as a result set out to work a shift on all of the different roles. She added, “It was really important to me that it was not a brand new distillery and not mine. I knew its heritage, it was the 150th anniversary of the brand, and most people had been working there long before I was even in the industry.”

Between her refreshingly frank attitude and willingness to learn, Nicole has been creating work that intrigues and excites whiskey lovers and newcomers to the industry alike. As she explains, “It’s conversational, you make a whiskey and you don’t know if anyone is going to like it or even care. It involves trial, error and patience.”

Nicole has been working on her first non-George Dickel branded release: Cascade Moon. This new whiskey has provided an opportunity to talk more about the Cascade Hollow Distillery, which used to produce Cascade Pure Whiskey, made famous by the tagline ‘mellow as moonlight’. Nicole explained the process behind creating this new expression, “We’ve tapped into that history in order to create a future-thinking whiskey.

“The first is a very small release with flavours inspired by the gose style of beer, where there’s a savoury frothy character in the base whiskey, which is a 16-year-old Bourbon mash bill put into refill casks. It has some interesting fruit characters, so I blended some 11-year-old new cask on top of that with bright fruit notes. It’s not too challenging, it’s sippable, soft and lovely so should be fun.”

Nicole is certainly not afraid of creating something bold and evolved, which is personified in her Cascade Moon creation. There’s a lot of fun planned out on the horizon.
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