The small distillery is so far off the main road of Highway 290 East that you’ll begin to wonder if your GPS is playing a practical joke on you. Or got itself lost.
But beyond the endless rows of rich green crops and farmland as far as the eye can see (which is, honestly, not that far from 290, but isn’t exactly the urban Austin you left behind) is a small gray building down a short road that was recently named Banner, after the distillery housed in that building.
"So people can find us more easily on Google," Logan Simpson said about giving the unpaved road a name.
The building wasn’t there a mere two years ago, but he and his business partner, Anthony Jimenez, put it together piece by piece on Jimenez’s 12-acre property so that they could start making spirits together. Banner Distilling currently produces an organic vodka, and a wheat-based whiskey — the spirit they want to focus most on — is also in the works for a release sometime this fall. It’s not a terribly big enterprise, although that’s hardly the point.
For Simpson and Jimenez, Banner Distilling is a passion project that they hope will one day allow them to quit their day jobs. Both work as engineers for the same nanotechnology company. But by night and on weekends, they’re playing around with recipes to get their whiskey just right and tinkering in a tiny lab behind the tasting room with other product ideas: a coffee liqueur, a basil concoction. (Jimenez made a face at that one, so you probably won’t see it on the market anytime soon). They’ve got a lot of ideas, in fact, about what they want Banner to become.
First, though, was the vodka.
Even though they prefer dark aged spirits, they started with vodka because it’s so accessible, an easy launching pad for many small distilleries like theirs.
"We wanted to make it so we could bring in revenue early," Jimenez said. "We don’t have to age it, do a whole lot to it, just distill it clean and create an edge for it. And our edge was having organic ingredients, having more than one grain and throwing rainwater into it."
He and Simpson, a chemist with a Ph.D, took a long time developing Banner Natural Vodka because they didn’t want it to be just like every other vodka on the liquor store shelf. They won’t disclose the precise recipe they ended up with, but will say that it was "inspired by a bourbon mash bill." In addition to the corn, they added wheat, sugar cane and Texas rainwater from a company in Smithville that has the largest rainwater collection facility in the world.
These ingredients might be a bit unusual for vodka — which is typically distilled from a single fermented food, such as grains or potatoes — but the pair wanted to create something no one else has. The result is a smooth, clean spirit with character that can be just as easily sipped straight as mixed into a cocktail (also not a common trait for vodka).
It’s already been well-received in the few weeks that it’s been out on the market, with lots of positive feedback and encouraging sales affirming their efforts.
Jimenez recalled picking up a bottle of it at a local liquor store and getting told by one of the employees that it’s "very good, very smooth" — a sales pitch he couldn’t resist. "Logan goes, ‘Why did you buy a bottle of our own vodka?!’ But I had to do it. It was full circle," Jimenez said.
Banner’s first batch of vodka also struck gold at the Denver International Spirits Competition, a double-blind contest whose judges award medals without first looking at the brand names or labels, basing their assessments strictly on taste. Getting the top prize at that competition, they said, was the best sort of validation.
Now, Simpson and Jimenez have turned their focus to whiskey. They’re in the process of creating a mash bill based around all the locally grown grains they can get their hands on, a goal that shouldn’t be too hard given that farmers in the area have already told them they’ll grow whatever they need.
"There are wheat fields all over the place here, so it just makes sense for us to do it," Jimenez said.
With all that wheat in the whiskey, this Banner product, just like the vodka, isn’t typical for the spirit. Simpson said it’ll be the first wheat whiskey in Texas and one of the only ones out there period.
He and Jimenez are easy collaborators and good friends who were just coworkers for years until, as Simpson calls it, his "really bad day" at the lab when he shouted his frustration. "‘I have to get out of this place!’" he remembered saying. "‘Let’s go make vodka.’" It was a suggestion that Jimenez — whose grandfather was a bootlegger in this area during Prohibition days — took seriously. Both got right to work on their new dream.
"My whole life I’ve been doing process engineering, which is basically ways to do things," Simpson said. "It’s something you can’t put your hand on and say, ‘Hey, I made this.’ This (vodka and whiskey) is something we can hold in our hands and say we made it."
Look for Banner Natural Vodka in almost 40 local bars and liquor stores, including Sputnik on East 6th Street, where it’s become the house vodka. At liquor stores, it retails for between $18 to $24. You can also visit the distillery itself on Saturdays, but email ahead of time for advanced notice.