Whiskey price

Don’t sleep on this revolutionary rye whiskey blend

“It was the best phone call ever,” says Nicole Austin, general manager and distiller of Cascade Hollow in Tennessee, which makes George Dickel Whisky.

On the other end of the line was Todd Leopold, half of Leopold Bros., a Denver craft distillery. During their conversation, Leopold had asked, in a neutral tone: “You don’t make rye, do you?” He suspected not. He knew that Dickel was selling a rye whiskey, but that it was from a big whiskey distillery in Indiana. His question was met with a second or two of silence. Then Austin said, “I’ll call you tomorrow.”

Turns out Dickel made rye. They had been quietly distilling their own rye for a few years, attempting to duplicate Indiana rye with experiments beginning long before Austin arrived in 2018. This test rye had never been released – the team felt that they had failed to clone the Indiana flavor profile – and so Austin had in its warehouses a number of casks, unloved and of uncertain fate.

“Wow, that’s a beautiful whiskey,” she thought when she first tasted it. “But I didn’t know what I wanted to do with it. Then Todd called me. And I was like, this!

Thisturned out to be a collaboration between the two distillers to make a unique rye. This act alone is close to unprecedented. Dickel is owned by Diageo, a $100 billion company that owns 10 million barrels of aging Scotch whisky. Leopold Bros was founded in 1999 as a subsidiary of a Michigan brewery before moving to Denver. He owns “several thousand” barrels of aging whisky.

In this case, Leopold was looking for a lighter style of rye made on a column still for a very specific reason: he wanted to mix it with his rye, which is made on a historic three-chamber still. His whiskey was released last spring after aging for four years. (Read the saga of Leopold’s three bedrooms still here.)

The jury of alcohol historians remains unclear whether the whiskey produced in the Three Chambers still in pre-Prohibition days was widely bottled and sold on its own or was primarily used for blending.

Léopold pleads for the mixture. He says it wouldn’t make much sense to sell the pure three-chamber rye on its own, because the stills are incredibly inefficient. Operating from early in the day until late, Leopold can only produce two barrels a day. “The three chambers are 20 feet high and five feet in diameter, and if you took the same amount of copper and put it in a column, you could get 100 barrels a day,” he says.

But this unique still produces a robust and intensely flavorful whisky, which could be blended to give more body and depth to a lighter whisky. (Similarly, blended Scotch, as well as rums from Jamaica, Barbados and elsewhere, are usually a blend of pot still and column still distillates.)

Leopold cited a 1936 book describing the Hiram Walker factory facility in Peoria, Illinois, in which a three-chamber still was located alongside column stills, all of which produced rye whiskey. Why would they do that? “It’s not an accident. We look at historical precedent – the Scottish and Irish way of dealing with whiskey – to be able to work with these different flavors to create your own flavor.

Leopold shipped some of his rye to Austin, which proceeded to blend different ratios of the two whiskeys. She finally settled on a mix that seemed to work, and Leopold was very happy with it. In the three-chamber pure rye, “some of the flavors were too concentrated to pick out,” says Leopold. But when mixed with the column, the flavors became more evident. “It was very, very revealing.”

The result? George Dickel x Leopold Bros. Collaboration Mix More than 5,000 cases will be released nationwide this month.

The new whiskey marks several firsts: Apparently, this is the first time a major liquor conglomerate has teamed up with a craft producer as a co-equal. Both brands have equal surface area on the label and each retain their own brand identity on the bottle. (For legal reasons, Dickel purchased the rye from Leopold Bros., who will also receive a percentage of the overall proceeds.)

This is also the first time anyone outside of Cascade Hollow will have the chance to taste the rye made there. And for those who weren’t able to get a bottle of Leopold’s Three-Chamber Rye when it was released earlier this year (or during the recently announced second limited release), this will be the first time they’ve been able to taste this once extinct style of whisky.

Austin, who has a background in craft distilling, hopes to form collaborations with other small distillers in the future. It’s the lions of alcohol who go to bed with the lambs, and the time seems to have come. Craft spirits are being taken increasingly seriously by aficionados, and historic distillers are looking for ways to stay relevant in a rapidly changing whiskey environment. (See: microbreweries are eating away at macrobrewery margins.) Large distillers have acquired smaller competitors as a way to manage evolution; collaborations between the two could mark another road.

Look for this new offspring of whiskey at a store near you. The George Dickel x Leopold Bros. Collaboration Blend will have a suggested retail price of $109. That’s a lot for a bottle of whisky. But you could consider this a deal for a couple of two elusive rarities.