The whiskey industry is often thought of as men’s business; but in truth, women are often at the forefront of the spirits industry.
For example, 34-year-old Nicole Austin, dubbed “Bourbon’s Master of the Craft” by The New York Times, is at the helm of Cascade Hollow Distilling Company, the home George Dickel Tennessee Whisky.
Austin has served as general manager and distiller at Cascade Hollow for a year.
Before she joined the local company, Austin had a leadership position in Ireland.
“In 2016, I got the opportunity to go to Ireland,” Austin said. “I was hired to be the commissioning engineer for William Grant & Sons at the Tullamore Distillery in Ireland.”
Previously, she worked for The Oak View Spirits consulting firm and as master blender for Kings County Distillery.
Austin was instrumental in founding the New York State Distillers Guild. She was also a founding member of the American Craft Spirit Association board of directors.
The American Craft Spirits Association is the only registered national non-profit trade group representing the U.S. craft spirits industry.
“I did a lot of legislative and organizing work in the industry,” Austin said. “And I also did consulting work. I consulted for a lot of craft distilleries.”
Austin graduated from Manhattan College, majoring in chemical engineering in 2006.
At the helm
When Austin joined Cascade Hollow, the company created a new position.
“This is a brand new role, a new title,” Austin said. “No one has ever had this position before in this company.”
As a general manager and distiller, Austin has responsibilities across the business.
“We are owned by a company called Diageo,” she said. “Diageo is a really big, international spirits company, but we are a very, very small brand inside of their portfolio. So what they wanted to create was an entrepreneurial model reflecting the fact that we are small, unique, handcrafted brand.”
In her position, Austin has more independence, reporting to a board of directors.
“I report to a board of directors inside of the company that have responsibilities across all different kind of aspects,” she said. “I meet with them regularly and tell them about my plans for Cascade Hollow business.”
Her duties include production, barrel management, managing the supply side and distiller and engineer type of responsibilities, said Austin.
She is also supervising sale operations.
“I have a group of apprentices who are out in our focus markets and report directly to the national apprentice manager who reports to me,” Austin said.
“I lot of what I have done over the last year wouldn’t be visible to the consumer,” Austin said. “I spent a lot of time learning how this distillery works and about the team here – what their strengths are.”
She also focused on learning about the organization’s functions and markets.
“I am really just now starting to make some changes myself,” Austin said. “We have a new still section. Just after I started in July, we installed a new still section, and that gives us more versatility inside the distillery and that’s been really fun for me. I have taken that for a test drive to see what other kind of whiskey we might be able to produce.”
She hopes to release new whiskeys in the future.
“So I am really excited about that, and the nature of whiskey is that I am going to get you all excited and you are actually going to see the whiskey in four or five years; so get pumped for that,” Austin said.
“I also have been doing a lot of reviewing of our mature stocks. We already have a lot of really excellent whiskey in the warehouses. I’ve been spending a lot of time learning about those whiskeys and nosing them. In the process of doing that, I found a couple of whiskeys that are really exceptional, and I will be releasing them this spring as a brand new George Dickel bottle.”
Austin’s vision for the company is that Cascade Hollow Distilling Company becomes the most trusted spirits company, meaning consumers and people in the industry can buy the product and know that they are getting good quality and good value, said Austin.
She is excited to be a part of the distillery, which she said is really “special and unique.”
Women at the forefront
It is a misconception that the spirits industry is led primarily by men, said Austin.
“I think it was such a tiny blip in history when that was true – the last 40 or 50 years – but for most of us, that’s our reference point,” she said. “But historically, in the broad history of distilling, women were always a big part of that, in terms of driving the operation, when it was agricultural and distilleries were on farms.”
“Women are credited with originating of some of the biggest innovations in the history of American whiskey,” Austin said.
For example, the first person to come up with the idea of sour mash was a woman, said Austin.
“Women have always been a big part of distilling, and then for this brief period in the last 50 years, women have still been there but fallen out of visibility,” she said.
Today, women are at the helm of the industry.
“Women are definitely there and, right now, I would actually say they are dominating,” she said. “They are doing some of the most interesting and the most innovative things in whiskey. I don’t feel I stand out, I feel I am part of a cohort of a lot of women doing really exciting things.”
Elena Cawley may be reached via email at email@example.com.