Two Distilleries Come Together for Unlikely Whiskey Collaboration

Leopold Bros and George Dickel release remarkable rye whiskey.

Todd Leopold and Nicole Austin
Distillers Todd Leopold, left, and Nicole Austin. | Courtesy of Diageo
Distillers Todd Leopold, left, and Nicole Austin. | Courtesy of Diageo

Craft breweries often team up to collaborate on special beer products, but you rarely see whiskey distilleries doing the same thing. The time, energy, and risk factors for collaborating on a distilled spirit is much higher.

That’s why the partnership between Tennessee-based Cascade Hollow Distillery (of George Dickel fame) and Leopold Bros. Distillery in Denver is so unique. The duo created Collaboration Blend Rye, a 100-proof homage to the antique style of rye whiskey that was dominant in the traditional hotspots of Pennsylvania and Maryland more than a century ago.

At first glance, Cascade Hollow’s Nicole Austin and Leopold Bros.’ Todd Leopold might seem like a distilling odd couple. Austin brought her experience as master blender at Brooklyn’s Kings County Distillery and a stint as an engineer at an Irish distillery. Still relatively new at the job at Cascade Hollow, Austin knew it would be a few years before her own distillate would be mature enough to release, so she bided her time searching through the 150-year-old distillery’s stores of aged spirits to catalog the inventory and began to blend new products.

One of the first ones she created from aging barrels was George Dickel Bottled-in-Bond Tennessee Whiskey, a remarkable 13-year-old spirit that was named “Whiskey of the Year” by Whisky Advocate. Another stash she discovered were barrels from some experimental runs of rye whiskey at the Tullahoma distillery. Rather than try to replicate that recipe, Austin instead set out to create the best rye she could by blending the barrels she had in stock and starting to think of collaborators.

“I hadn’t found the right project yet,” Austin says. “I’m not above calling some friends and doing something fun, but I don’t think that’s a resonant story with other people.”

Then serendipity came calling. Leopold and Austin had met at several distilling conferences and quickly developed a mutual admiration. Leopold and his brother, Scott, started out as brewers in Michigan and learned distillation experimenting with fruit liqueurs before moving their operation to Colorado to build a modern zero-waste facility, exploring historical fermentation and modern technology.

“I’m not above calling some friends and doing something fun, but I don’t think that’s a resonant story with other people.”

Then serendipity came calling. Leopold and Austin had met at several distilling conferences and quickly developed a mutual admiration. Leopold and his brother, Scott, started out as brewers in Michigan and learned distillation experimenting with fruit liqueurs before moving their operation to Colorado to build a modern zero-waste facility, exploring historical fermentation and modern technology.

“Something that really struck me about this project is that it started with our friendship and mutual respect for each other as producers,” Austin says. “But this whiskey has a reason to exist in a historical context that’s much bigger than either of us. That made me feel like it was really a worthwhile project for me to get behind.”

Leopold Bros.’ most acclaimed product is its extraordinary Three Chamber Rye Whiskey using heritage Abruzzi rye grains and a still design based on the early 20th-century equipment supposedly responsible for legendary rye brands like Old Overholt. Leopold employs other traditional practices like germinating grains in the largest floor-malting operation in America and a slower cold fermentation protocol in open wooden vats. Leopold sent samples to Austin just as she was contemplating what to do with her own stores of rye. “I told her, ‘I hope you don’t hate it,’” he recalls, “and then I got the greatest phone call ever.”

While a few bottles of those ancient ryes still exist and have been sampled by spirits historians, no one can quite agree on exactly what the style might have tasted like back then. Notable whiskey writers believe that Leopold has definitely been on the right track in its attempts to recreate history, and the addition of a talented distiller like Austin represents a major step forward in reviving the style.

Leopold Bros x George Dickel Collaboration Rye
Prairie Trail cocktail with Leopold Bros x George Dickel Collaboration Rye. | Courtesy of Diageo

The three-chamber still at Cascade draws more of the oils and esters from the grain through its slower, gentler distillation, creating the biggest and most complete extraction of the spectrum of flavors. But it doesn’t showcase the typical light fruity and spice aspects that most people expect from a rye whiskey. Austin knew that combining it with her own more traditional rye could create a unique offering that still harkened back to history.

“I was wondering what to do with these barrels, and then I tasted Todd’s rye and thought—this!” she says. Austin immediately started blending her own barrels to create a base, looking for clean flavors that she could build on with a percentage of Three Chamber Rye added to the blend. “I messed with the percentages and discovered that just 1% either way could be a massively different whiskey.”

After shipping samples back and forth, the duo settled on a final blend and scheduled visits to each other’s facilities to see their operations for the first time. During their exchange visits, the pair pored over historical schematic drawings of stills and asked each other deep philosophical and detailed scientific questions about the art of distilling.

“I told her, ‘I hope you don’t hate it, and then I got the greatest phone call ever.”

There was also playful jealousy as Leopold marveled at the scale of Cascade Hollow’s operations and Austin reminisced wistfully of her time working at her first craft distillery. “Fun things are what other people get to do,” she commented. “After that, it’s all conference calls and budgets. That’s why I need to do projects like this, so that I feel like a distiller again.”

The result of their efforts is George Dickel x Leopold Bros. Collaboration Blend, made to drink neat or as a base for cocktails like the Prairie Trail. Austin’s rye contribution provides base flavors of stone fruit, cherry, and must that complement the more distinct characteristics drawn from the grain in the three chamber still. Flavor notes include hints of Mexican chocolate and chiles, delicate lavender and rose petal, leading to a long earthy green finish reminiscent of oolong tea.

The collaboration should be available in major U.S. markets beginning in December at $110 a bottle, which may seem steep until you realize that the product contains Leopold’s whiskey that sells for twice the cost and Austin’s rye that is unavailable to the public at any price.

“It wasn’t easy,” Austin says. “This is pretty unique, for a major whiskey brand to co-brand on equal footing with an independent producer without taking ownership or anything like that, just working together to create something unique.”

Prairie Trail Cocktail Recipe

To develop recipes for their new collaboration, George Dickel and Leopold Bros. turned to prominent spirits historian Dave Wondrich to create modern riffs on classic cocktails that use high-quality ingredients and old school techniques like creating a simple syrup in the glass from lemon juice and granulated sugar as a throwback to the era where Pennsylvania and Maryland ryes were popular.

Ingredients:

  • 2 ounces George Dickel x Leopold Bros Collaboration Blend Rye
  • 1 ounce Italian bianco vermouth
  • ¼ ounce good-quality brown crème de cacao
  • 3 dashes Gentian-based bitters

Directions:
Strain into a chilled cocktail glass and twist lemon peel over the top.

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Chris Chamberlain is a food, drink, and travel writer based out of his hometown of Nashville. Find him on Twitter @CeeElCee