As the year winds down, rye whiskey has proven itself the most interesting category of American whiskey in 2021. New expressions are taking mash bills, distillation methods, maturation, and even barrel finishing to new heights. One of the best examples of how great, unique, and inspired rye whiskey can be just dropped. The new rye is a collaboration between two soon-to-be icons of American whiskey, Nicole Austin of George Dickel and Todd Leopold of Leopold Bros.
George Dickel x Leopold Bros. Collaboration Blend marries new Tennessee rye with hardcore craft rye from Colorado. That alone should pique your interest in this whiskey, but there’s so much more going on here. This whiskey is about what’s in the bottle, sure. It’s also about a friendship between two of the most interesting distillers working in the industry. Nicole Austin, General Manager and Distiller at Cascade Hollow Distilling Co. in Tennessee, and Todd Leopold, co-founder and Master Distiller at Leopold Bros. Distillery in Colorado, created this blended rye based on a long-time friendship and mutual respect for what the other is doing.
Leopold is renowned for creating some of the most sought-after craft spirits in the game (his absinthe is arguably the best American version on the market). He also runs one of the more interesting craft distilleries in America. The heart of the facility is the malting house, where Leopold’s crew sources unique and standard beer grains and malts them in-house — which is rare in the whiskey game. But the bespoke aspects of Leopold’s distillery go beyond the massive amount of grains being malted on-site. There are propagated and wild yeasts at play. The fermenting tanks aren’t just some stainless steel vats you see at every distillery from Osaka to Orlando. Instead, Leopold has wooden tanks made from Oregon pine for his fermenters, which allows the bacterias and yeasts a place to hide and grow, adding depth to the mash.
That’s before you get to Leopold’s hand-crafted “Three Chamber Still” that Todd Leopold himself re-engineered from hundred-year-old manuscripts and plans. The old-school still works not only as a method to extract ethanol (alcohol) from the mash but it also extracts oils and deeply hidden aromatic esters at the same time, adding a serious depth to the spirit as it comes off the still. That spirit is Leopold’s much-sought-after Three Chamber Rye Whiskey, which is technically referred to as a “heavy whiskey.” This type of rye whiskey was largely lost to American whiskey shortly after World War II and has been given new life by Leopold as “a revival of a lost American tradition.”
This is all before we even get into the four years of maturation or the fact that Leopold found someone to grow Abruzzi Rye (the preferred rye of pre-Prohibition America) for his Three Chamber Rye mash bill. Taken all together, it’s a whole lot of technique. And that’s only 1/2 of the collaboration.
As cool as Leopold’s Three Chamber Rye is, “heavy” rye whiskeys made using this method back in the day were usually blended with a lighter column still rye to render out some of the heavier aspects of the whiskey. That’s where Nicole Austin comes in.
Cascade Hollow, home of the Dickel distillery, feels like the biggest little distillery in the whiskey game. It’s nestled in a small hollow on a creek and framed by hillsides covered in deciduous forests (best enjoyed in fall, of course). It feels well-seasoned and worn in. The mash tanks, grist mills, stills, and filtration tanks have real character from being refitted and updated over the decades. You can see the hammer marks on the outside of the grain feeder where generations of whiskey makers had to tap the vessel to keep that grain moving. And yet… Austin’s column still rye is a completely new product in the whiskey industry. That’s a stark contrast to Leopold’s sparkling new Denver facility with hand-crafted everything, which is, ironically, focused on old-school spirits from a bygone era.
That retro feeling at Cascade Hollow is what endears me (and others) to it. It’s kind of like Nicole Austin moved into one of the world’s most respected kitchens with all the seasoned pans, ovens, and appliances you could ever want offering that x-factor you just can’t quite get otherwise. Now she’s playing with all the toys in that kitchen and literally reinventing what’s on the menu from top to bottom — while still respecting the generations that came before her. The equipment at Cascade Hollow is older but it’s seasoned. It’s worth spot welding here and there to keep it functioning because that character is what makes it special.
I’d argue that it’s in the “old distillery making new expressions and new distillery making old expressions” dichotomy where this collaboration really shines. Neither Austin nor Leopold are afraid to try and fail and try again; they’re experimenters and tinkerers. They’re also deeply geeky about the infinite minutiae of not only making whiskey now but how folks made whiskey 25, 50, 100, 200 years ago. That shared interest has bonded the two whiskey makers in the pursuit of making something, anything new and interesting for us to drink.
All of which leads us to the George Dickel x Leopold Bros Collaboration Blend. Let’s take a look at what’s actually in this new bottle of rye whiskey.
George Dickel x Leopold Bros Collaboration Blend
Average Price: $110 (MSRP)
The blend is built from four-year-old rye made in Denver at Leopold’s distillery. The rye is their Three Chamber Rye. The mash bill is 80 percent Abruzzi Rye and 20 percent Leopold Floor Malt. That’s blended with George Dickel’s un-released new column still rye, which is a 95 percent rye cut with five percent malted barley.
The nose on this rings like crafty rye with clear notes of bright florals (think lavender and orange blossom) next to an almost woody touch of maple syrup straight from the treetap with a very mild dusting of dark cacao powder and soft leather that really draws you in. The palate delivers on the promise of the nose, with touches of holiday-spiced orange oils and rosewater leading towards light marzipan next to a prickly bramble of berry bushes hanging heavy with dark, sweet, and slightly tart fruit. The florals come in again — with lavender leading the way but this time — but the note is tied to salted caramel-covered dates with little specks of the dried flowers decorating the sweet confection. The mid-palate holds onto the sweet and meaty date while bitter yet floral Earl Grey tea with a healthy dollop of fresh honey leads towards a finish full of more of that powdery dark cacao just touched by dry chili flakes, adding a slight embrace of warmth to the very backend.
The bottle is a classic Dickel long-neck. The wrapper around the stopper is signed by both Austin and Leopold. The actual label is a double-label with Dickel’s green rye label up top and Leopold Bros.’s clean white label below.
This feels and drinks like a solid workhorse whiskey. The rye is very sippable on its own and really benefits from a few drops of water (or a single rock) to let it bloom in the glass. Those floral and dried chili notes will really pop with a deeper orange and chocolate vibe in the glass.
That being said, this also works beautifully, perhaps most ideally, as a cocktail rye. The floral and dark fruity notes really shine through in an elevated Manhattan or even something citrus-forward like a smash or sour.
In the end, you’re getting a $250 bottle of whiskey (that’s how much Leopold Bros. Three Chamber Rye Whiskey costs) cut with a brand new, very unique rye for around $100. That’s a steal for the quality of the juice in this bottle.
93/100 — This is a very unique and delicious rye. However, there wasn’t a big “wow” factor that I would need to bump that number even higher. That being said, this is an excellent collab whiskey that makes me really excited and hopeful that there’ll be more like this from both Nicole Austin and Todd Leopold in the near future.