While American whiskeys can be a lot of things, each style does have its own legal definition (and restrictions). One of the big ones is that in order to be called a “whiskey” (bourbon, rye, blended whiskey, etc.), it has to go in the bottle at 80 proof (40% ABV) or above.
That’s the low limit of alcohol by volume that a distiller/blender can adjust to with water (or flavoring) before it’s no longer considered a “whiskey.” Add more water, and you don’t have whiskey anymore. Sounds pretty easy, right? Well, what happens when a whiskey comes out of the barrel below that legal limit?
Head Distiller and General Manager of Cascade Hollow Distilling Co. in Tennessee, Nicole Austin, is asking us all to think about just that. Austin just released her fifth edition of Cascade Moon — a series of one-off and very unique whiskeys from the vast rickhouses of George Dickel — to test the waters of what whiskey can and can’t be.
The latest Cascade Moon is a barrel-proof 15-year-old “spirits distilled from grain.” Legally, Austin cannot call it a “whiskey” because this barrel-proof expression is only 39.9% ABV, or 79.8 proof. Otherwise, this is a Tennessee whiskey just like any other made at Cascade Hollow. It’s a conundrum, in that rules are important for continuity but not calling this a whiskey — especially since it is barrel proof, as in, it came out of a barrel at that proof, rather than coming out of a barrel higher and being cut down with water or “natural flavors” afterward to achieve that low ABV — feels absurd.
Okay, let’s get into what’s actually in the bottle.
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Cascade Moon Aged 15 Years Barrel Proof Spirits Distilled From Grain
Average Price: $125 (Limited)
This whiskey, er, spirit, was made with George Dickel’s high-corn mash bill with about 8% each of rye and malted barley as support. It was barreled in new oak and left to rest in Cascade Hollow’s single-story rickhouse. After 15 years, Austin decided to bottle these spirits at barrel proof (with no fussing) instead of blending them out into other expressions (which is what usually happens with barrels that dip below the legal ABV standard to be called “whiskey”).
The bottles from Cascade Moon are always cool. This edition is like an oversized Johnny Walker bottle with an artful label that feels like a Tennessee hollow abstraction in pastels. It’s a great centerpiece bottle with an eye-catching label. The tones are faint, like the thin juice, and altogether it feels like a photo torn from a sun-faded 70s magazine.
Soft orchard fruits and dry grains draw you in on the nose initially before turning toward a fresh cherry Necco Wafer with a cut of old leather, sour currant, and damp white moss. There’s a faint hint of pine resin buried deep in that nose too. The palate is supple with a silky vanilla base supporting hints of cinnamon apple sauce, a flourish of buttery honey, and whole wheat biscuits with a twinge of buckwheat and maybe some sweetgrass. The mid-palate hits a light marzipan note before fading toward more vanilla, a touch of nutmeg, and almond shells on the very soft finish.
It’s kind of inexplicable how soft and inviting this whiskey is without a watery/washed-out base. I’ve tasted 90-proof whiskeys that are completely washed out by proofing water. Here, each of the flavor notes is distinct and deeply hewn. It feels a little old, a little bespoke, and a little Tennessee (that graininess and Necco Wafer are two cornerstones).
This is great neat. It’s very accessible while still delivering a well-rounded flavor profile. I can’t really see using it in a cocktail, thanks to that low ABV, but that’s fine. This is just good as it is.
95/100 — This gets extra points for being 100% fresh and new and pushing the boundaries of what we know of whiskey, especially at barrel proof. It helps that it tastes great — in fact, it’s one of the better Dickel expressions I’ve ever had.