Whiskey Arrives in Central Texas
When it comes to whiskey, local bartenders have a variety of options to offer, from high-end sippers to cocktail-friendly pours.
Central Texas produces many styles of award-winning, world class spirits, and the local micro-distillery boom shows no signs of slowing down. When it comes to whiskey, local bartenders have a variety of options to offer, from high-end sippers to cocktail-friendly pours.
Among the notable pioneers are the luxury-priced Garrison Brothers from Hye, and Waco’s Balcones Distilling, makers of the bar staples Brimstone and Baby Blue (made from blue corn) as well as the unique Rumble. San Antonio’s Ranger Creek Brewery launched their bourbon in 2010, while nearby Rebecca Creek Distilling released their whiskey in September 2011.
In July 2017, Chip Tate (founder of Balcones distillery) obtained the federal permits for his new endeavor, Tate & Co., and will soon start distilling brandies as well as the whiskies that gained him cult status amongst his followers. And in Dripping Springs, Treaty Oak’s Daniel Barnes and team have been busy releasing a limited availability Experimental Whiskey series, aged 3-4 years in hand-selected, first-use American Oak barrels, with most being single barrel selects.
The husband-and-wife team of Nick and Amanda Swift co-founded Swift Distillery in Dripping Springs in October 2012, releasing their first batch of Swift Single Malt in late October 2014. Swift Single Malt is twice-distilled from 100% Scottish malted barley, modeled after a traditional Speyside Scotch. The Swifts control the water down to the molecular level to match the composition of Scotland’s water, and age each batch in Kentucky bourbon barrels, finishing them in Oloroso sherry casks sourced from Spain.
While the Swifts go to extremes to produce a spirit with foreign qualities, others are striving for the opposite.
Founded in August 2017, Still Austin Whiskey Co. is the newest kid on the block, billing itself as the first grain-to-glass distillery in Texas. Still Austin uses a hardy indigenous white, Aztec Black, and “Butcher Blood” red corn grown in small acreage plots in Hondo; white Tomahawk wheat from Tomahawk; barley from Brady, and a red winter wheat from Prinz Farms in Travis County. All are grown and sourced within 100 miles of the state-of-the-art distillery.
“The search for local grain changed who we are as a company,” says CEO Chris Seals. “In 1919, the USDA conducted the first national grain survey providing data on Texas wheat varieties, revealing lots of different grains were growing in Texas. That year, Congress passed the 18th Amendment enshrining Prohibition the following year. By 1929, a commodity grain system had taken over, and farms failed. $1.2 Billion in farmer seeds were wiped out overnight.”
Now, thanks to a growing demand from local bread makers and chefs, heirloom grain varieties are becoming available again. The driving force at Still is to craft a clear spirit that respects the flavor and terroir of these Texas grains. “Now, we are able to work directly with farmers, taste different grains, grow ideas, and experiment in collaboration,” says Seals.
The distillery, which took three years to build, is in the heart of a growing business district in South Austin. It was designed by Still Austin’s Master Distiller Michael Delevante, one of the most respected master distillers in North America, with over 54 years’ experience at stalwarts like Appleton and Campari. His background as a chemical engineer was invaluable to the Still Austin team, especially his 50-foot traditional bourbon still, which features 12 distillation trays for extra quality control and to better express the unique flavors of the local grains used.
The whole distillery was designed and built with sustainability in mind, yielding a thoughtful system that lowers costs and increases efficiency while conserving and reusing resources. It also fosters a growing community collaboration between local small grain farmers and producers who can use their crops, from bakers like Miche Bread’s Sandeep Gyawali and Easy Tiger’s David Norman to breweries like Jester King.
Distilling only since September 2017, Still Austin currently offers three whiskeys from their inaugural series, available in local liquor stores and at their modern tasting room and “cocktail lab.” The New Make Whiskey is made from white corn, red winter wheat, and malted barley, and bottled straight from the still without any aging process. It’s a young spirit with fresh fruity tones that work well in a number of cocktails. The Daydreamer, infused with Valencia, Tangelo and Bergamot, has a light natural sweetness and intense citrus notes in the nose and palate, while the bold and smoky Mother Pepper, infused with smoked Serranos, dried Aji Amarillo, and local chile piquin, has a warming effect and pleasant after-kick.
“We are making whiskey that is straight forward, not too embellished,” says Seals. “We continue experimenting and improving every day. It’s an adventure, a process of discovery. We are not sure where it’s going to take us, but we are excited to find out.” Still Austin also offers a Distill Your Own Barrel (DYOB) program available for groups and special occasions. “Austin should have a say in the future of craft whiskey,” says Seals. “We need to open up the craft to everyone.”
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