Barrels are normally integral to the aging process of a whiskey like bourbon — they mellow out the spirit and impart notes like baked fruit, toffee, cinnamon and caramel into the flavor.
What if it were possible to recreate those effects of the barrel without actually using it at all? That’s what local entrepreneur Lawrence Sasso set out to discover. The result is Austonian Whiskey, an amber-hued spirit that tastes a lot like a bourbon without having spent any time in the new American white oak barrels that U.S. distillers rely on to mature their whiskey.
Sasso had only been a casual whiskey drinker when he heard about a barrel shortage that was making it harder for bourbon makers to age their liquid (and it doesn’t help that bourbon barrels can only be used once). Taking advantage of his engineer’s background, he successfully found a way to use significantly less wood in his corn whiskey.
"I tried a bunch of different things to figure out if I could recreate or mimic the barrel-aging process — the things that happen in a barrel that makes bourbon what it is," Sasso said. "Eventually, I realized not only could I do that, but I was saving the vast majority of the wood that is used. We use about 5 percent of the oak that (bourbon distillers) use for barrel-aging."
He can only talk about part of his revolutionary new process; the rest is a trade secret he’s keeping to himself for now.
"What I can say is that we put the oak into the distillate rather than putting the distillate into the oak barrel," he said. "But if you just use oak on its own, you just get this strong woody flavor. So we have additional equipment that I designed that mimics the barrel-aging process, the chemistry that happens in the barrel, to get a flavor that’s sort of along the lines of a bourbon."
The resulting Austonian Whiskey can’t be called bourbon, of course, without the barrel-aging. But the mash bill of mostly corn and some rye, coupled with Sasso’s maturation process, gives the whiskey a similar taste to bourbon — a good one. It recently won a best-in-class award at the Whiskies of the World event in Austin, and it has been well-received by customers.
Sasso’s ultimate hope is that he and the Austonian Whiskey team eventually gain enough capital to build their own distillery, rather than bringing in already made distillate to their headquarters in North Austin as they do now. For now, he is content to do the oak finishing and bottling there, as well as spreading the eco-friendly message about Austonian.
Although the barrel-making process is sustainable for now — at least in the U.S., where white oak tree growth exceeds the harvest — relying on far less wood to make aged whiskey certainly doesn’t hurt. Sasso said he sees it as his way to have less of an impact on the environment, even if it doesn’t exactly follow the bourbon tradition.
"There are maybe three other companies that I know of that are doing alternative aging," he said. "I don’t believe there’s anyone doing completely barrel-free aging. I think they’re either making the barrel quicker or more efficient or following up the barrel-aging with something else. I kind of dove in and went completely without the barrel. I think it’s just the right thing."
Austonian Whiskey, 90 proof, is available in 750 ml bottles in Austin and San Antonio, at liquor stores like Twin Liquors and Total Wine and More and bars including the Gatsby and the Blackheart. For more information, including the specific stores, visit austonianspirits.com.
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