On Monday, March 5, 2018, Nicole Austin begins work as the new general manager and distiller at Cascade Hollow Distilling Company, formerly known as the George Dickel Distillery, in Tullahoma, Tennessee.
“If you had asked me five years ago, this would not have been on my radar,” says Austin, just days after returning from Ireland after a two-year stint as the commissioning engineer for Tullamore D.E.W.’s new grain distillery in Offaly, an hour outside of Dublin. “But in some ways it’s so perfect. Tullamore was the culmination of my corporate engineering work. I loved it because it was really just purely being an engineer.” But she concedes that her work at D.E.W. also left her disconnected from the broader spirits industry. Austin says the new position at Dickel will enable her to be an engineer, get involved with industry leadership, and talk about safety and regulation as well as other topics she cares about. “It’s not sexy,” she says. “But it’s so important.”
The Diageo-owned George Dickel Distillery, founded in the 1870s by George A. Dickel, a German merchant turned distillery owner, has been quietly producing its five flagship products (except for its rye, which is made at MGP in Lawrenceburg, Indiana—something that may well change in the future under Austin’s management) since 2015, when master distiller, John Lunn, (followed in 2016 by master blender, Allisa Henley), left for Popcorn Sutton Distilling in Newport, Tennessee. Austin’s hiring signals a new era at the company.
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It’s a smart move on the part of present-day Dickel, as it’s looking to Austin to help define not just her position but the way the distillery will move into the future in the once two-distillery state, where recent changes to laws have opened up the playing field for new producers.
“It’s an entrepreneurial role—that’s what was most appealing to me,” says Austin. “They want me to have responsibility across all aspects: production, strategic planning, how we spend our budget, and also marketing and the broad strategy of the brand.” Austin will be launching the Cascade Hollow Distilling Company, which she describes as “a company inside the company,” saying it’ll be “almost like running a little craft distillery.”
Armed with a degree in chemical engineering, Austin—who counts Willett master distiller Drew Kulsveen, Compass Box’s founder and master blender John Glaser, and master distiller Dave Pickerell as her industry mentors—came onto the scene 10 years ago as the master blender at Kings County Distillery in Red Hook, Brooklyn. From there, she quickly became a powerful voice in the rapidly changing New York craft spirits arena, where she had a successful run as the first president of the New York State Distillers Guild in 2012.
In addition to increasing the number of products at Dickel, Austin will be focusing on ways to take a more modern approach to the distillery’s existing production methods. “I’ll be spending a lot of time thinking about sustainability and how we’re running our operations,” she says, “like putting in a new heat exchanger to capture waste off one processor and use it for another. I find [all of] that to be interesting work—thinking about suppliers and supply chains, and just the ethical, sustainable operations.”
Austin underscores the importance of sustainability and transparency and says she’s looking forward to being the shaper of solutions to those types of bigger concerns at Dickel. “It’s exciting to have the opportunity to be a leader,” she says, adding that she wants to be part of what people think about when they think about good whiskey. After all, she asks, “What makes whiskey good? Is it just the liquid, or is it bigger than that? You don’t sit in a lab and cleanse your palate and sip it in a sterile environment—it’s a social drink. It’s something you put in your body. You’re definitely imbibing more than just a liquid when you’re doing that.”
Amy Zavatto is the author of Prosecco Made Me Do It: 60 Seriously Sparkling Cocktails, Forager’s Cocktails, and The Architecture of the Cocktail. Her stories appear in Liquor.com, Imbibe, Beverage Media, and many others. She judges at the American Craft Spirits Association annual competition and the New York Wine & Food Classic, and she earned her Level III Certificate from the Wine & Spirits Education Trust, but her favorite way to learn is through taste and travel. She’s a big fan of underdogs and talking with her hands.