When I asked Nicole what whiskey she was drinking, she said, “My own.”
I ordered the same – it’s not often I get to have a glass of whiskey with the person who made it.
Nicole Austin, 27, has the enviable title of “whiskey maker” at Kings County Distillery, in East Williamsburg, which she runs with Colin Spoelman and David Haskell.
By day, she works in environmental engineering. But on nights and weekends, she can be found sampling the barrels at Kings County Distillery and bottling the bourbon or corn whiskey when ready.
Nicole was an early whiskey-lover. She won’t say exactly how young she started drinking it, but said “I always felt baddass drinking it in high school.”
She also enjoyed making alcohol – she used to make her own beer and in college was a teaching assistant where she taught “beer lab.” She thought about making whiskey as a profession, but wrote it off as impractical.
“I didn’t want to move to Scotland; I didn’t want to move to Kentucky,” she said. “So, I gave up on the idea.”
Then laws changed to allow for craft distillers in New York. In April 2010, Colin and David opened Kings County Distillery as the first licensed distillery in New York City since Prohibition, a small, one-room operation.
Nicole wanted to break into the industry and saw them as a way in, even though she didn’t know them.
“I totally stalked them,” she said.
Finally they asked if she would work for free. When she said “yes,” they said “great” and she was on board, joining them in August of 2010.
Nicole said making whiskey is more about looking for particular qualities than a definite taste. No two casks are going to taste the same, so she decides which barrels need to age longer and which barrels when mixed will create the complex, comprehensive bourbon flavor they are looking for.
Which involved a lot of practice. She attended blind tastings, whiskey classes, and recently took a tour of 12 Scottish distilleries in nine days.
As to being a woman in an industry of mostly men, she just shrugs. She said the whiskey community is a welcoming one, drawing “whiskey geeks” willing to engage in conversation with anyone who is passionate about the topic.
And her enthusiasm for whiskey is obvious. She concedes that some people may actually not like whiskey, but said many just had an unfortunate early experience – bad whiskey and too much of it. She encourages them to give it another try.
“When people tell me they don’t like whiskey, I tell them, I bet that’s not true,” she said. “I had my mother drinking a Manhattan. If she can drink whiskey and like it, anyone can.”
As more craft distilleries pop up across the US, Nicole envisions different regions for American whiskey, so that in 10 years, they aren’t just talking about Kentucky and Tennessee, but also about Brooklyn, NY, and Portland, Oregon, and other up and coming regions.
Kings County Distillery has outgrown the one-room distillery and they are in the process of getting a space ready at the Navy Yard in Brooklyn, where, Nicole said, they will keep the smaller 5-gallon barrels in addition to the new, larger barrels they will have room for. She is already curious about how the whiskey will taste after aging in the larger barrels.
She plans to stick around to find out, although she isn't quitting her day job for now.
When I asked if she ever gets tired of whiskey, she gave me a look of incredulity.
“I can’t imagine that happening,” she said.