For the Taking the Lead series, we asked leaders in various fields to share insights on what they’ve learned and what lies ahead.
It’s been quite a decade for American whiskey — just ask Andrea Wilson and Nicole Austin. Ten years ago, Ms. Wilson was working for Diageo, the spirits giant, overseeing its North American distillation program. And Ms. Austin had just jumped from a consulting job in waste management to Kings County Distillery, a tiny start-up working out of the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
Both of them loved whiskey, but at the time, the industry was still getting on its feet. Kings County, which opened just months before Ms. Austin arrived, was initially funded “with credit card debt, because you couldn’t get investment, you couldn’t get a business loan,” she said.
Ms. Austin’s career, like the whiskey industry, soon took off. While working in 2018 at the Tullamore Distillery in Ireland, she was offered the role of distillery manager at Cascade Hollow — a sprawling distillery south of Nashville that’s owned by Diageo and is best known for producing George Dickel Tennessee Whisky. By then Ms. Wilson was long gone from Diageo, having moved in 2014 to help run Michter’s, another start-up distillery that is now among the best-known new whiskey makers in America. Ms. Wilson is its chief operating officer and “master of maturation.”
Today Ms. Wilson, 56, and Ms. Austin, 38, are leaders in a booming industry: American whiskey sales have almost doubled in the last 10 years, up to 356 million bottles a year, according to the trade group Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. Even more impressive is the growth in superpremium whiskeys (at prices generally above $50), up 139 percent in just five years.
Numbers like that mean immense change for Ms. Wilson and Ms. Austin: opportunities to expand into new styles and markets, but also the challenges of building bigger teams while keeping their culture intact.
“The growth of the industry is outpacing our talent,” Ms. Wilson said. “It’s more than just distillers. We need people in finance, we need people in graphic design, marketing, manufacturing. Think of a position and it’s probably available in the American whiskey industry.”
The two recently discussed the bourbon boom and how it has affected them, not just as leaders, but as women in an industry that is only now beginning to open up to them.
This conversation has been edited and condensed.
Was the future unclear when you started?
NICOLE AUSTIN I think it’s so easy to forget how tiny and nascent the craft spirits industry was at that time.
ANDREA WILSON I can actually remember being in college and having friends leave this state and come and call me and say, “There’s no Kentucky bourbon here.” It just wasn’t a thing outside of Kentucky. I can remember when you went to a fine steakhouse, and you might find one bottle of a bourbon on a back bar. Now you go into bars and restaurants and there might be 500.
AUSTIN It went from being a passion project to, almost overnight, having graduated to playing with the big boys. At Kings County, we really tried hard to shoot for the stars. And even with that view, we underestimated what this industry could do, and the interest that would come from it.
CLAY RISEN I guess it’s a good problem to have, but it’s still a problem — especially at a rapidly growing operation like Michter’s.
WILSON A large corporation like Diageo and a small family-owned business like Michter’s are two very different experiences. When I was at Diageo, I had the opportunity to work with so many amazing people across so many great brands, huge brands, millions-of-cases brands. While at Michter’s, the owners, the Maglioccos, are a really wonderful family who are passionate about American whiskey. And at a small company, passion is important. It ensures that you’re on fire. I mean, you also chose to be there, right?
Are things easier now?
WILSON I remember when I first started here, I was in a leadership meeting with a bunch of people I didn’t know. And they were talking about what was great about the company and they’re like, “Oh, we make decisions so fast.” And I was looking around thinking, “Am I in the right meeting?”
AUSTIN I would say I had a similar trajectory as you, Andrea, but I just came at it from the opposite direction. It wasn’t until I got to Diageo that I really felt respected and treated as a professional, and I valued that. When I was 26, I wasn’t exactly making supereducated choices, and I didn’t really understand and appreciate how important that piece was.
RISEN And now, in 2022, both of you are in positions to shape those cultures, even as the companies grow rapidly.
WILSON As our organization gets bigger, you have the family at the center, you have their vision, you have their passion, what they’re trying to achieve. And then as you get more and more people, the priority is keeping everyone connected to and feeling like they’re a part of building the legacy. Even if you’re on our bottling line, or you’re in our distillery, or you’re in our visitor center, your role means something to us.
How do you model dealing with failure?
AUSTIN First of all, we’re all going to have a job tomorrow. None of this is that serious as long as we’re being legal and ethical. Just because an idea didn’t pan out doesn’t mean that it’s a failure. If a product didn’t sell a million cases, it didn’t mean it was a failure. To me failure is making something that you’re not proud of.
WILSON I always try to remember that just because it didn’t turn out the way that you desired it to be, that doesn’t mean you didn’t learn something. You learned, the organization learned. Everyone learned. The learning may be, “Don’t do that again.” But you learn. And I think that’s one of the greatest values that you can have in your career: to learn, even if you have to learn the hard way.
Is gender still an issue?
AUSTIN I don’t think one industry in particular is rising above, or immune. And I think it comes back to what Andrea said earlier, that it’s really down to the individual people, and the leadership and the culture of a particular company that makes all the difference. It’s not a particular industry that’s going to change your experience as a woman, it’s a company culture.
WILSON Sometimes it’s not always super comfortable for me to be as visible as I am, as a woman in this industry. But it’s something I think is important to do, because that visibility creates sort of an implicit invitation for other women. I know seeing women early on in my career made a real difference.
RISEN One thing that unites the two of you is that you’re both chemical engineers by training, as are more and more people coming into the industry.
AUSTIN It’s an emotional question, it really is. It is very foundational to who I am. I build things, I grow things, even as a child I wanted to make things. I was thinking about a particular professor that I had. She used to talk to all the incoming chem-e’s [chemical engineers] and say: “We’re not just teaching you how to solve a differential equation. We’re teaching you a way of thinking. We’ll know we’ve been successful when you find yourself incorporating it into your daily life, when you’ve just sort of casually planned the most efficient path through the grocery store.”
What advice would you give to newcomers?
AUSTIN I guess the first thing I’d say is, this is a growing industry, and that creates opportunity. The industry is outpacing the pipeline of people that we have to supply it, and that makes opportunities. You can go from knowing nothing to being an expert in the industry in 10 years. That’s pretty exciting. That’s pretty cool. It’s an opportunity that a lot of industries don’t have.
WILSON When I’m guiding people, one thing I always tell them is, this can be a career industry for you. The passion, the desire, the artistry, all of these things engage you and suddenly 20, 30, 40 years have passed by, and you’re still doing it, because you love it.