In early October, when a certain music festival juggernaut sets up shop in Zilker Park, a group of entrepreneurs are debuting their new whiskey named after Texas’ nine-banded armadillo and made in the spirit of Austin during the 1970s and 1980s.
The group headed by CEO Gary Crowell formed their company, Austin Spirits, after seeing that though there are plenty of vodkas — a spirit so easy to make — there aren’t as many whiskeys in Texas, certainly none that have taken off the way Tito’s Vodka has. They wanted to change that.
The idea for 9 Banded Whiskey originated between old college roommates and friends, Sean Foley and Chris Ogden, who is now an assistant basketball coach at UT, their alma mater. They wondered how Tito’s had taken off so much (in 2012, the vodka maker produced 850,000 cases, an unheard-of amount for a Texas distillery up to that point) and how no local whiskey brands had been able to replicate that success. Their casual musings pulled in Crowell, one of the original founders of Deep Eddy Vodka, and two other partners, Whitney Kroenke and Paul Groepler, one of the original founders of Tequila Ambhar, to create what is now 9 Banded Whiskey.
Distilled in Alberta, Canada, and blended with limestone-filtered water from the Hill Country, the whiskey is aged for five years in new oak barrels. It’s designed not to be sipped neat, Crowell said, but is more of a whiskey for cocktails. Still, at 90 proof, he noted that its flavor "won’t get buried" in other ingredients.
The name doesn’t just nod to one of the state animals of Texas. Crowell and co. wanted "to evoke the genesis of cool in Austin," he said — and that, of course, is the Armadillo World Headquarters, the National Guard armory turned live music venue that put Austin on the map in the 1970s as a place for hippies, cowboys and businesspeople alike to come listen to upcoming and established acts such as Willie Nelson, Stevie Ray Vaughn and Asleep at the Wheel. Even though the Armadillo closed in 1980, the burgeoning music scene of "redneck rock" and progressive country that the Armadillo had fostered lead to KLRU’s long-running "Austin City Limits" program and then, as Crowell noted, to Austin City Limits Festival.
"The idea behind (the branding) of 9 Banded Whiskey is that it would have sat at the back bar of the Armadillo," Crowell said.
But without Austin’s old iconic music epicenter, this year’s ACL Festival will have to do. The whiskey won’t be served at the festival, running Oct. 3 through 5 and Oct. 10 through 12 this year, but during those weekends, Austin Spirits will sponsor ACL-related parties and engage in other ways of spreading the word about the whiskey and getting people to try it.
"ACL attendees are our target demographic: folks who love Austin’s vibrant scene and appreciate great music and great whiskey," Crowell said.
In late October, 9 Banded will show up on local store shelves, then around the rest of Texas and the U.S. By then, he hopes to have cocktail recipes to pair with the whiskey, as well as more live music events that Austin Spirits can support.
"(9 Banded) will be tied closely to live music," he said.