We meet in a near-empty parking lot in broad daylight. She leaves the sample on the bumper of her truck and steps back. I pick it up, open it, and take a deep inhale, examining the product. It’s legit. She says it’s uncut, a preview of what’s to come. I can’t wait to get home to try it.
Did you know it’s Tuesday?Nicole Austin, General Manager and Distiller of Cascade Hollow Distillery
In the season of COVID-19, the way we interact with each other has changed drastically. Even the simple exchange of a friend’s new whiskey feels illicit and clandestine. Instead of sitting down to taste together, we settle for an exchange in a parking lot and a phone conversation later. Nicole and I catch up after I’ve had a chance to taste the new blend that will be bottled in bond that month. And, yes, it was a Tuesday.
A proper follow up to the 2019 debut, the 2020 George Dickel Bottled In Bond release is the moodier, emo ballad on the flip side of last year’s #1 dance pop hit.
Nicole generously feigns interest in my thoughts and notes. Initially, I tell her I found it to be quite different from the last blend. I explain that I tasted it, and then tasted it again next to the 2019 release. My comparison quickly devolved into an extended musical metaphor.
I ramble on about how I found this new blend to be more of a deep cut, thoughtful and moody, more complex for the advanced listener. The first blend hit all the crowd pleasing high notes- It’s got a good beat and you can dance to it. It was sweet with caramel apples and plenty of fruit, exhibited Dickel’s signature pea-nuttiness, and was balanced with the perfect amount of oak. (It was an instant classic, as it hit the top of the charts, named Whisky Advocate’s Whiskey of the Year.) This new bottle is intricate. It congers childhood memories in Grandma’s kitchen- sugar cookies baking in the oven and pecan pies cooling on the windowsill… sneaking a nip of her ‘cooking whiskey’ when she wasn’t looking, getting a wink from Grandpa.
She responds after patiently listening to my inept description of her art. “I’m so glad to hear you say that because it was kind of my goal. I felt like, with the first one, it gave me a license to push it a little further. It’s a little more … assertive.”
She later goes on, “I was excited to hear what you thought about this because I’m really encouraged that it seems to deliver on what I was trying to do. The first one was just trying to make the point that Dickel belongs in the consideration of the group of great bourbon producers and if you like good bourbon, you should also like this. This is good bourbon for a very fair price.”
The 2020 expression of George Dickle Bottled In Bond is a blend of barrels from the 2008 Fall distilling season. An age statement of 11 years old is indicated on a slight label modification, enabling her to distinguish bottles should she revisit the same season in the future. Landing on these particular barrels was no simple task. Nicole explains that, last November, she performed a large scale review of all mature casks, pulling samples of every lot of whiskey five years and older. Five individual barrels from different warehouse locations were pulled and then composited together. This was her starting point for assessing upcoming blends and projects.
“The purpose of doing that, for me, was to try and get a really broad sense of everything that we had,” she explains. A fairly large task, Nicole expects to repeat the review biannually to maintain a comprehensive understanding of inventory. “I was also trying to organize it in my own mind- how much of it is fruity, how much is spicy- see it all together. And while I was going through that, I was tagging things that I thought were special and interesting.”
With the subsequent bottled in bond in mind during the process, Nicole says, “I was trying to tag things that I thought were consistent with the last release. If you like the last one, you should like this one. You don’t want to take it in a completely different direction.” Key flavor indicators and quality along with enough consistent inventory within a season to make the blend led her to Fall 2008. Working within the tagged lots of the 2008 barrels, she began constructing the second bonded release.
Creating in the Time of COVID
“No pressure, but this better be great,” Nicole laughs. The making of a sequel would be a lot of pressure under normal circumstances, but the isolation/quarantine/lockdown of the early spring was anything but normal. Because of COVID-induced restrictions, Nicole was unable to gather the outside opinions of teammates as she went about creating this blend. “I spent a lot of time tweaking and iterating and tweaking. Normally I would go validate that with other people, but I couldn’t. I really got in my own head.”
So where did the introspection lead? “It’s not such a departure [from the first],” she explains. “It’s still got the identity of George Dickel Bottled in Bond. The top level tasting notes of vanilla, fruit, and a little bit of nuttiness … you should [be able to] apply to all of these. Where it’s going to be varied is when you get to that higher level of how are those things expressed. The last one had nutty notes of peanuts and this one is expressing more pecan.” Building on the first bonded expression, “I tried to take it a nudge further in complexity, assertiveness, and appeal to whiskey lovers.”
This release, tinged by current events, won’t have quite the PR splash one would expect for a follow up to the Whisky of the Year award. Nicole comments, “the idea that we belong in that discussion around quality American whiskeys … I hope that it [the award] is enough to sustain interest.” Nicole and her team would typically be on a tour of festivals, bars, and stores, but those events are on a hard pause for the foreseeable future. When asked how she feels about the inability to have public-facing tastings, she says, “I’m proud of this whiskey. I desperately want to share it with people and talk to them about it. I’m trying to find ways to do that.”