Food Karma’s Communications Director, Dylan Heuer, spoke with Nicole Austin about her decade long journey in the craft spirits industry – which has taken her around the country and abroad, led her to overcome legislative hurdles, and shaped a strong vision for the future of whiskey.
“The complexity of what makes a good whiskey…means that there is no perfect formula. Whiskey will always be a bit of a science and a bit of an art. And that’s where so much of the interest comes.”
Dylan Heuer: Tell me about your introduction to the craft spirits industry.
Nicole Austin: I didn’t think I was going to get into this industry. It wasn’t a long term plan of mine. I went to school for chemical engineering thinking I was going to go into the environmental field and I did. I went and worked for a big environmental engineering firm out of college and the biggest thing they did was wastewater treatment; very glamorous, right? I was standing in a wastewater treatment plant in Queens, thinking ‘is this what I went to school for?’ I knew I wanted to do something different and was looking around, trying to figure out what that was. I was living in Brooklyn at the time and really building up this passion for food and for whiskey. A bartender happened to mention a particular whiskey and how it was distilled. I just had this really simple, ‘oh shit’ moment. I literally went to school to study how to distill things and it hadn’t really occurred to me that was a job I could do with whiskey.
This was more than 10 years ago now. And at that time, I didn’t have the right last name to work in Kentucky and I didn’t have the right degree to work in Scotland. The industry was feeling very closed. The craft whiskey industry was only just getting off the ground and I had been getting a bit frustrated trying to figure out where an opportunity might be. I read that Kings County had just become the first distillery to be licensed to produce whiskey in New York since prohibition. So I basically showed up at their door like, ‘I’m a chemical engineer. You’re welcome, I will work here now.’ They were sort of like, ‘great ’cause we have no idea what we’re doing; we don’t even know if this is a viable business or if this is just going to be a hobby.’ Honestly we didn’t even know, would anybody buy bourbon that wasn’t made in Kentucky? At that time it was a very small operation, 5 five-gallon stills – basically a glorified closet in Bushwick. But that’s what got me into the industry. Them taking me on – they didn’t have any money, but to make me a partner cut me in with sweat equity.
We all kept our day jobs at the beginning when we were trying to figure out, was this a viable career? What really made the difference for us was proving, yes, people were interested. I remember the first time we opened our doors to sales. We had expected maybe 100 people and we had lines out the door. I had my entire family visiting me for the holidays and rather than being out on the town in Manhattan, I had my mom and two of my aunts working furiously to bottle more so that we could sell it. That was the big turning point of asking ourselves, ‘can I quit my day job and make this a full time career?’
“At that time it was a very small operation, 5 five-gallon stills – basically a glorified closet in Bushwick. But that’s what got me into the industry. ”
Dylan Heuer: And in the past decade, how have you witnessed this industry change and grow?
Nicole Austin: I got lucky on timing. Between 2009 and now, 10 years later, it’s quite obvious that craft whiskey is something, that there’s a lot of value there. Having had the good fortune to be coming into it right when the industry was getting going and have the opportunity to get to know all those people and kind of learn simultaneously with all of them – that’s really opened up all the opportunity for me now.
A lot of what kind of fed into that was the boring but critical work of changing laws to allow the creativity and passion that people have to become commercially viable. You know, part of building a sustainable business, is there has to be opportunity for it to grow. And alcohol is such a historically heavily regulated industry. It made it so hard to make anything get off the ground. The states that start to modernize their laws you know, and allow small distilleries to do things like sell to consumers at their visitor centers or sell directly to retailers – as soon as they start to modernize those laws, you can see the industry start to grow right away.
There’s this curiosity about spirits that we didn’t have a long time ago, that’s really helped fuel the fire of this industry. All those things were there and they just needed the opportunity to come out. To make that happen is a lot of just boring, grinding, legislative work. There’s a lot of unsung heroes behind this industry that no one will ever know about.
Dylan Heuer: During the last decade you have worked at distilleries in New York, Ireland, and now Tennessee. For most people, only a couple of places – and only a couple styles – come to mind when they think of whiskey. What is something you’ve learned about the diversity of this spirit?
Nicole Austin: There have been hundreds and hundreds of dissertations written on the whiskey industry. We have this great and sophisticated understanding. But still, the complexity of what makes a good whiskey – the fact that our ingredients come out of the ground and not out of a lab; this sort of esoteric element of time and seasons; and the complexity of people’s sensory experiences, how they put different smells together and interpret them – means that there is no perfect formula. Whiskey will always be a bit of a science and a bit of an art. And that’s where so much of the interest comes. You know, we’re not making widgets. And I think what’s so exciting about this industry.
“You can’t just stay in a lab and make a beautiful liquid and never go and talk to people about it. That’s something I’ve really come to understand – that the experience of whiskey is so much more than just the good liquid.”
Dylan Heuer: Tell me more about your current role and what it exactly it means to be a master blender.
Nicole Austin: My title now is General Manager and Distiller, which means that I am the blender, but I also have many other jobs. And I really wouldn’t have it any other way. It means that the buck stops with me for decisions about everything, from how this whiskey is produced to how it’s sold. I’m a bit of a control freak, but I think to truly be impactful in the industry, every aspect of the consumer experience is a part of that. You can’t just stay in a lab and make a beautiful liquid and never go and talk to people about it. That’s something I’ve really come to understand – that the experience of whiskey is so much more than just the good liquid.
So I appreciate the opportunity to kind of touch every part of the business. But of course, my passion is still in the blending and the whiskeys themselves. And that job is about a thousand times more boring than people expect. So many people are constantly offering to me, like ‘if you be ever need another nose, I’ll come work with you.’ And then they realize what that entails is sitting in the lab for like six hours and not actually drinking a single drop of whiskey, but just smelling all of them, and also not talking. Actually that’s pretty grueling, teasing out the minutiae of, ‘is that a pineapple or is it more of a mango smell?’ There’s not a lot of folks in the world that really want to dig into the minutiae of that. But that’s where you go from good to great.
Dylan Heuer: How can we all become better consumers and tasters by honing our skills of smell and taste?
Nicole Austin: Again, my answer is going to be so much more boring than people would want it to be. But I think the best way to get better is to read, having an expanded vocabulary about how to talk about whiskey. All of our noses work, you know. There’s a certain amount of sensory training and sheer practice that makes you good. But realistically, if I told you what to look for, most people could smell the difference between mango and pineapple. It’s just a matter of giving your brain an expanded list of what it can look for. So reading tasting notes I think is actually the best way to become a more educated whiskey taster.
“From the outset, we always knew the intent was to create a whiskey category that would hopefully outlast us by hundreds of years.”
Dylan Heuer: Turning to NY Rye Week, what was your role in founding Empire Rye?
Nicole Austin: I was definitely a part of the group that founded it, but the real credit for getting all of us together and pushing this idea forward came from Christopher Williams from Coppersea. But six of us got together and I think we all really thought a lot about the gravity of what we were creating. From the outset, we always knew the intent was to create a whiskey category that would hopefully outlast us by hundreds of years. And we took that quite seriously, to think about how should we do that responsibly? What might that look like? What are the key elements of making something that allows for creativity, but also the kind of quality control that would help the whole category be distinguished in the market? It was an incredible thought exercise. And I feel really proud of what we came up with, and also that we were all willing to be flexible in service of those goals.
Dylan Heuer: And how did you work to craft Kings County Empire Rye?
Nicole Austin: The more important thing that we did was use a pretty high percentage of rye, higher than was required. And then also we launched it with small barrels. Using small barrels was a way to take this broader category of Empire Rye and then put Kings County’s style onto it. I always believed, especially for a smaller distillery, that the best way for us to make something that was very high quality was using the small barrels to give you – from the same relatively small volume of liquid – more things to blend with. Take the same 50 gallons of whiskey, and if you put it in one barrel, that’s only one kind of sensory note you get out of it. If you take 50 gallons of whiskey and you put it in 10 different five-gallon barrels, well now you have 10 different notes to write your song with.
“This was really the first time in history that the federal excise tax on distilled spirits has been reduced…Overnight, basically it took thousands of distilleries from being not profitable to being profitable.”
Dylan Heuer: Since leaving New York, you have continued to advocate on behalf of the craft spirits industry as a founding board member of the American Craft Spirits Association. How are you working to support growth in this industry?
Nicole Austin: I’m no longer a voting member of that organization because my distillery is not independent. But I remain an affiliate member and I continue to serve as co-chair of the legislative committee with Mark Shilling. The two of us and the entire legislative committee have been really working hard on passing an extension for the federal excise tax reduction. This biggest thing that I’ve accomplished, in maybe in my entire career in this industry, was in 2017 we passed the Craft Beverage Modernization and Tax Reform Act, which was a joint effort across all six industry groups of beer, wine and spirits. This was really the first time in history that the federal excise tax on distilled spirits has been reduced, and it created an 80% reduction in that federal excise tax for small producers. Overnight, basically it took thousands of distilleries from being not profitable to being profitable.
And that was just a massive, massive impact. Mark and I actually got a tattoo together to celebrate that accomplishment. So both of us have a tattoo on her arm that says 2017, then the initials of the Craft Beverage Modernization and Tax Reform Act. If that doesn’t tell you how committed we were, I don’t know what would. But when that was passed it had a two year sunset. That means that by the end of 2019, if we didn’t get an extension pass, it is going to go away. And it has the potential to put a lot of distilleries out of business or force them to seriously scale back their operations. So we’re working really hard to try and get that extended and hopefully, eventually made permanent.
Dylan Heuer: Is New York Rye Week a good model that other places may use to support craft distillers and local farmers?
Nicole Austin: The thing that’s so exciting about New York Rye Week, and also about just Empire Rye as an idea, is that it really returns to this idea that the whole industry is what matters. The group is bigger than any of the individuals, the sum of the whole is larger than its individual parts. That collaboration of New York producers and that understanding that the more people they get interested in New York rye style will help us all grow – that the rising tide really does raise all boats – is what made New York rye successful. You look around the world at places like Scotland and Scotch whiskey – any one of them on their own wouldn’t have been able to accomplish nearly what’s been accomplished for Scotch whiskey as an entire category. And we really looked to that and learn from that and I think that’s the strength of New York Rye Week.