The modern whiskey market is absolutely inundated with special releases and limited edition series, with no shortage of bottles in the $100 or $200 range you can throw your money at, provided you’re able to find them. There’s such a constant flow of special releases, in fact, that the concept of the limited edition release itself begins to seem rather blasé over time, and few of the series really feel as if they’ve achieved a stylistic or philosophical niche. Only a few genuinely stand out for their commitment to offering interesting or unusual bottles, and believe it or not, George Dickel is right there at the top of the heap. Their Cascade Moon series of limited edition whiskeys are universally fascinating, no matter what genre, niche or gimmick they’re exploring. To me, this is limited edition whiskey done right, in the sense that they’re putting out bottles that are totally different from anything else on the market.
Hell, even their organization and naming conventions for the series have a chaotic ring to them. The first two Cascade Moon releases bore “edition” numbers being “Edition No. 1” and “Edition No. 2,” while the subsequent two releases have ignored the pattern they established. They don’t typically bear the Dickel name, meanwhile, as the company seems to use the Cascade Moon name to keep these bottles ideologically and symbolically separate from the George Dickel brand in the eyes of the consumer, with Dickel retaining more of a reputation for value. Cascade Moon, on the other hand, is a special project allowing General Manager and Distiller/industry superstar Nicole Austin the freedom to seemingly bottle whatever she wants from the company’s vast reserves, and folks, she finds really interesting stuff on a regular basis. So good, in fact, that previous Cascade Moon releases made our list of the best whiskeys of 2021 last year, and I’m pretty sure another edition (the 13-year-old rye) will make the 2022 list when I write it six months from now.
Just consider how varied releases in the series have been to date:
— Edition No. 1, the only one in the series that I haven’t had a chance to sample, was somehow inspired by the tart wheat ale gose style of beer, and was described by the company as having a certain “brothy salinity.” When’s the last time you heard that as a descriptor?
— Edition No. 2 was more of a center cut, bourbon-style fastball, featuring “some of our best whiskies aged at least 17 years.” This one provided a more accessible bottling for core fans of the brand.
— The third release 13-Year-Old Rye Whiskey, was distilled by MGP of Indiana as so many sourced ryes are, but it was then matured in Cascade Hollow’s single story rickhouses rather than MGP’s multi-story ones, helping to subtly transform MGP’s famed rye into a more uniquely Dickel product.
So where does one go from here, for the fourth Cascade Moon release? Answer: In the completely opposite direction from any previous release. This Cascade Moon is arguably the most unique and odd release in the series yet, and it requires a little explanation.
What we have here is a bourbon-style mash, although Dickel of course refers to its product almost exclusively as Tennessee whisky. However, due to the company’s relatively low barrel entry proof of 115—a production choice that many distilleries believe yields better flavor than the legal maximum of 125—and some unusual conditions experienced by a handful of 15-year-old barrels, the final strength of this collection of barrels actually dipped below 80 proof by the time they had finished aging. Barrels losing some strength is a natural part of the aging process if they’re being kept at relatively cool temperatures, something we’ve written about in detail before, but a “barrel proof” under 80 proof is still something very unusual and strange.
Likewise, it means that legally, this bottle can’t be labeled as “whiskey” or “whisky” in the U.S.—instead, it simply reads “spirits distilled from grain.” This is all to say, that the fourth Cascade Moon edition is a 15-year-old small batch of barrels that somehow managed to lose enough strength during the aging process to ring in at just under 80 proof. It’s easily the weakest “barrel proof” release I’ve ever seen.
Now, we should acknowledge that given the final strength of 39.9% ABV (79.8 proof), it’s clear that the “below 80 proof” decision is something of a gimmick in and of itself—the folks at Dickel could easily have included another barrel or two with a higher strength in order to get it to the legal minimum. Instead, they’ve purposely chosen not to do that, keeping it under the legal “whiskey” hurdle in order to use this opportunity to invite contemplation of what the term “whiskey” really entails. It’s a rather clever way to spark conversation. The $125 MSRP likewise begs a question of how much a consumer is willing to pay for such a low proof, and whether age statement/flavor is more important.
Despite the low proof, the company promises this 15-Year Barrel Proof contains “a complex and sophisticated spirit with a surprising depth of character,” and that it “provides access to whisky that would rarely be tasted on its own.” So let’s get to tasting and see how this well-matured spirit comes off.
On the nose, Cascade Moon 15-Year Barrel Proof is actually not hurting for character, with an attractive bouquet of caramel, old oak, juicy cherry, vanilla bean and hints of chocolate. There also seems to be a bit more ethanol here than I would have expected for the very modest proof point, but there’s a good sense of the maturity of the spirit regardless—you wouldn’t smell this from a Glencairn and ever think that it was a younger spirit.
On the palate, this quasi-whiskey leads off with sweet, buttery toffee and sweet oak, with hints of caramel and loads of vanilla pudding or frosting. I’m getting fruit impressions of Luxardo cherries, along with toasted marshmallow and licorice. The palate then turns much drier after the initial sweet burst, with sturdy oakiness and moderate tannin. Ethanol is quite mild on the palate, thankfully, making me think that my impression of it on the nose might be overstated. The whiskey is as easy to drink as you would no doubt expect it to be with its alcoholic strength, but it turns a nice trick by completing the transition from “quite sweet” to “pretty dry” over the course of about 20 seconds on the palate. All in all, a very pleasant dram to drink.
With that said, how does one even begin to approach the question of “value” with this particular kind of limited edition release? This Cascade Moon 15-Year Barrel Proof is certainly more competitively priced than the $300 MSRP of the 13-Year Rye, that’s for certain, but will whiskey geeks be able to bring themselves to ever pay $125 for a liquid under 80 proof? Where does proof ultimately fall in terms of importance, when it comes to a liquid’s specs, as opposed to an age statement or flavor profile? The Cascade Moon series seems to exist to provoke these kinds of questions, which all drinkers will need to answer for themselves. I simply remain glad that the series exists, and I can’t wait to see where Nicole Austin will take it next.
Distillery: Cascade Hollowing Distilling Co.
City: Tullahoma, TN
Style: “Spirits distilled from grain”
ABV: 39.9% (79.8 proof)
Availability: Limited, 750 ml bottles, $125 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.