Dickel’s Nicole Austin Continually Strives Towards Building A Better Bottled in Bond Whiskey

George Dickel master distiller Nicole Austin, since being handed the keys to the distillery kingdom a little over two years ago, has strived to create her own footprint at this legacy Tennessee whiskey maker owned by spirits giant Diageo. One of the hallmarks of her brief time there to date has been her initial, well priced Bottled in Bond release, a well received whiskey last year that showcased the fact one could create a quality expression without needing to break the consumer piggy bank.

Given the success of the 2019 whiskey, it was no surprise when a 2020 release was announced a few months back. The question around it, of course, is could Austin repeat her magic a second time? Time will tell, but we are betting, particularly given her skill sets, that it will.

To learn more about the most recent Dickel Bottled in Bond release, and also to find out how she’s settling into life at the distillery, we recently conducted an interview with her. Note, as always, it is edited for clarity and brevity.

Nicole Austin nosing

George Dickel master distiller Nicole Austin nosing a whiskey (image via Diageo)

The Whiskey Wash (TWW): We are chatting once again with Nicole Austin of George Dickel. We spoke a while ago when we had visited the distillery about the original Dickel Bottled in Bond offering. We thought maybe we would just pick up from there and talk about what’s been going on since then. So, tell us how you feel about how it went with the first Dickel Bottled in Bond release, and the market reception to it.

Nicole Austin: It succeeded beyond my wildest dreams, I think, would be the best way to sum up my feelings about the first release. That’s fall 2005 vintage. The whole point for me was to try and show people that Cascade Distillery and George Dickel absolutely is one of the greats in American whiskey production, and being named Whiskey of the Year certainly makes that point beyond anything I would have expected. I was hugely happy with the reception from the first release.

TWW: What do you think were factors that led to its success?

Austin: I think there are a couple of things. You never really know, but certainly the liquid itself. Both Whiskey Advocate and Wine Enthusiast start with a blind tasting, which is the most fair way that you can assess a whiskey. Both of them rated it very highly, but the Whiskey of the Year title is, obviously, about more than just the sheer rating.

I think there were a couple of things, having spoken with some of the people there, that led to their decision to give it that amazing award. One of them is the fact that it’s Bottled in Bond. I think that trend has really been gaining some momentum for a while. The consumer desire for authenticity, and transparency in packaging, I think, is a tide that’s been growing for quite some time. I think it was really relevant in the moment for whiskey consumers.

Then, I think the combination of the age and the price was really impactful and kind of surprising to them. The idea that we would offer such a high quality bourbon at 13 years old for less than $40 was something that’s just really unique.

TWW: Now you have a new Bottled in Bond. Talk a little bit about that one.

Austin: Yes, my second first vintage. So, this vintage of Bottled in Bond is fall of 2008, and just to kind of step back for a second and remind people about Bottled in Bond. Most folks know that Bottled in Bond whiskeys have to be a hundred proof, at least four years of age, but some more kind of little known requirements of this particular category is it has to be the product of one distillery. It would spend its whole lifetime at D.S.P. TN–2, in Tennessee, being exactly where the whiskey was from, and it has to be the product of one distilling season, which is quite, I think, interesting and not known by a lot of folks.

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So, the distilling seasons are defined as a fall and a spring. It goes January to June and then July to December. What that means as a producer is you can’t blend multiple ages of whiskey to create your final product. You get one six-month period, that’s it, and you can’t blend across it. 

I chose with the first release to disclose and talk about the distilling season, and I’m talking about it again now with this 2020 release. So, this season is fall of 2008, which makes this whiskey 11 years old when it was bottled. It’s quite interesting – I approached the selection fully agnostic, so, I didn’t target a particular age, or target a particular season.

I didn’t go back to the original. I did a blind tasting, or nosing, really, of a lot of our aged whiskeys and just tagged the ones that I thought were of a quality where they were similar enough to the last release that it would make sense as a lineup. If you liked the first one, you should like the second one, that was really important to me that they be really close to one another in flavor profile. Obviously given that their vintages still allow for a little bit of shift. 

So, I made that assessment, and the particular distilling season that had the most whiskey that I thought were of that quality just happened to be from fall of 2008. That was how that one was selected. It was something that I spent a lot of time on. I really was nervous to produce the follow up to show well-regarded and highly-awarded whiskey. It’s something I thought a lot about. So, I’m very pleased with how it turned out.

TWW: In your mind what goes into picking a good Bottled in Bond whiskey from the vast amount of barrels you have available to you at a place like Dickel?

Austin: For this particular release, like I said, one of my most important considerations was it would be close to the first one. I think the fall 2005 release got a lot of notoriety, and a lot of people heard about it, but it was very allocated. I didn’t produce that much of it, so I think for a lot of people this release is probably going to be the first time they get to taste George Dickel Bottled in Bond.

It was really important to me that the whiskey be similar, very close in terms of flavor profile and the way that the flavors are expressed, and certainly of the same quality, if not better, than the first one. That was really kind of the first thing I was thinking about. 

Then, beyond that it’s sort of being mindful of the fact that it’s being sold at a hundred proof. So, a hundred proof is a little higher than is typical for whiskey. If you’re selecting spirits for Bottled in Bond you have to be thoughtful for how hot they are on the palate and how much they express the alcohol on the palate. That’s another thing that I thought a lot about for this one.

TWW: Guide us through a little bit the tasting process of what you’re looking for in a whiskey profile.

Austin: When I do my kind of nosing, the first nosing, it’s all done at a low proof and it’s blind. So completely blind someone else poured the samples and I’m coming in doing the assessment. Typically, you do it with more than one person. So, for the initial assessment I had another member of our blending team that was assisting me, and that’s really important, I think, to kind of validate that more than one person smells what you smell. Your nose can get really exhausted after a certain period of time and things can kind of blend together.

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So, just for weeks on end we did nose samples, nose samples, nose samples, rated them and recorded tasting notes. We’d start the day by nosing the original 2005 release and would sort of just tag things if I thought that they were similar to that. 

That was the kind of first step. Then, once I looked at which distilling season had the most of those I had tagged as being similar, I then took all of the different lots from that season – 2008 – that I had tagged as being of sufficient quality, and then started to work on the blend. I would put together what proportion of each of those lots would be included in this whiskey. 

TWW: When you think about Bottled in Bond, why do you think consumers are interested in that as a category, and what kind of quality does that standard offer?

Austin: I think it’s so important to people because I think a lot of folks have had the experience of maybe getting really excited about a particular whiskey and then realizing that the story about it didn’t quite hold up to inspection, that the whiskey was actually from somewhere else.

A lot of folks are doing an amazing job as blenders, and being really honest and really upfront about where their bottlings are from, but also a lot of folks aren’t. I think people are becoming a little bit more cautious, a little bit more conscientious, about how they’re spending their money, to make sure they’re getting what they think they are.

Bottled in Bond is the best, easiest, clearest, and most regulated, designation that we have that tells you exactly where your whiskey’s from, and certifies an age, certifies approved, certifies that there’s no flavorings in it, it’s just whiskey from this place that it says on the label. We don’t have a lot else that really does that in American whiskey, so Bottled in Bond is something that if you really care a lot about it is the best proxy that we have.

TWW: Talk about your experience in the industry and how you think that’s helped you in picking this newest Bottled in Bond Dickel release.

Austin: I wasn’t distilling at Cascade Distillery back in fall of 2008, so for me the most important, and relevant, experiences to create this particular whiskey was really around the time that I spent blending. Most of that was done at Kings County, and I feel really grateful.

We used a lot of small barrels, and the years I spent assessing those it kind of really gives you a crash course. It lets you see a lot, good and bad, and see the changes. It’s just they’re very dramatic. It’s very dramatic expressions of what happens in whiskey, because everything is accelerated. I think that really helped me learn a lot about blending, and nosing, and kind of how to put things together in a way that would produce a balanced final product in a short time. So, I think that was the most relevant experience when it came to helping me create this whiskey.

TWW: Last time we did an interview with you we chatted a fair amount about your distilling history, and career history. You’ve been at Dickel now around two years or so. Talk about what it’s been like settling in there, particularly in the last year or so.

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You, we assume, got a stronger feel for the inventory there now and the process of how things are done. What’s been going on with you in that regard?

Austin: I’ve learned a lot. It definitely takes a while, as you said, to get familiar with the mature stock inventory. I mean, I wouldn’t say I’m an expert in it at all. I think that’s just, it takes years, and especially given the pace at which barrels change when you’re dealing with all 53-gallon barrels, there’s really no way to short circuit that.

I really think of it as I’m only just beginning my kind of journey to really understanding our inventory in depth, but certainly I’m farther along than I was. We’ve also had, now, more than one year in distillation, with multiple attempts at some of the new spirits that I’m working on creating.

I would say really just starting to feel settled in and able to stretch a little bit. It’s just really nice.

TWW: With the release that’s just come out, what are your expectations for it?

Austin: That’s such a good question. I just don’t know. It’s so hard to follow up a whiskey that was so big, to do the sequel, and it’s something that I’m cautiously optimistic about, I guess I would say. I’ve had the chance to share this fall 2008 release with a couple of people. So far everyone’s response has been really positive, which I find very encouraging.

Everyone so far, even unprompted, has said to me that they think it’s just as good, if not better, than the first release, which was a huge relief for me and exactly what I was going for, and hoping for. 

So, I would say I’m cautiously optimistic that it will be well received. I tried to increase the production so we can make it a little bit more widely available. Of course, it’s still allocated, and I’m already kind of hearing some feedback from the markets that they would like more, so that’s positive, and it certainly is encouraging, but like anything right now you don’t really know what’s coming, so I would say I am optimistic, but cautious.

TWW: You have a choice of one of these two bottlings at the bar, which one do you pick and why?

Austin: Ooh, that’s hard. I’m really in love with the new one right now. I’m really in love with the fall 2008. I kind of felt that the awards, and all the good notoriety of the first one, gave me a little bit of license to stretch maybe a little bit farther and create an even bolder whiskey, which is really where my personal flavor preferences lie.

So, I think I would probably go with the ’08 if I had to pick. It’s like choosing your favorite kid, like how you do that?

TWW: Very true. We assume you’re probably working on another Bottled in Bond already, at least in your mind. Anything you want to say about that at this point?

Austin: We haven’t pulled the samples yet, so I don’t know. I’m going to take the same approach with the next one that I did with this one, which is totally age agnostic. I’m going to just do blind tasting through samples and picking the ones that I think have the best quality. So, I have no idea. I’m not being cagey, I literally don’t know how old it’s going to be, or which season I might look at because it’s going to be a totally blind process.