To Sean Foley, Austin had long needed a whiskey that paired with our eclectic, live music-loving culture. So he helped to create Nine Banded Whiskey — a steadily growing brand that kicked off the new year with a pair of brand new bourbons.
The co-founder of Nine Banded, Foley became CEO in 2018 but still takes the time to host tastings at liquor stores like Total Wine & More. He thinks "liquid to lips" is the most important way to draw in new fans. He’s also completely open about how the whiskey is made.
Namely, Nine Banded doesn’t distill its own spirits. Not yet anyway; that’s in the plans. Also a goal: a tasting room in the Dripping Springs production facility where already-aged whiskey is aged for just a little longer, proofed down with limestone-filtered spring water and put into bottles that are distributed in a dozen states.
At the end of last year, Nine Banded launched the two new whiskeys, a straight bourbon and a wheated bourbon, and also stopped producing the blended whiskey that the local brand first launched at Austin City Limits Music Festival a few years ago. It’s a sign that Nine Banded is maturing, with plans to become a nationwide offering.
Foley is particularly excited about the wheated bourbon, which he says is a more high-end option that bartenders can offer on the rocks. Wheated bourbons — like WL Weller, Maker’s Mark and the ultimate example, Pappy Van Winkle — feature wheat as the secondary grain to corn in the mash bill, versus the more commonly used rye. Wheat tends to make the whiskey softer and sweeter.
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"Wheated bourbon by design is a really easygoing bourbon, which goes along with our ethos of making whiskey that is super inclusive for all whiskey drinkers," Foley says. "It’s not just old guys drinking whiskey anymore. This is a really inviting taste profile."
You’ll be able to taste it for yourself at local bars, including Goldie’s at the new Austin Proper Hotel, or by purchasing it at your neighborhood liquor store. And about that eventual tasting room — it's still a ways off. All resources are being devoted to the whiskey itself, Foley says.
But if ever you visit Nine Banded headquarters, you’ll notice, among other decorations, art on the walls by Jim Franklin. He is perhaps best known for his poster art created decades ago for the Armadillo World Headquarters.
Recognize the name of that long-gone music venue? The Armadillo put Austin on the map in the 1970s as a place for hippies, cowboys and businesspeople alike to listen to acts ranging from Willie Nelson to up-and-coming rock star Bruce Springsteen.
And Nine Banded — the whiskey of choice at Arlyn Studios, a local commercial recording studio where the likes of Nelson, Ray Charles and Neil Young have performed — is a subtle nod to the culture the Armadillo World Headquarters inspired.
"We came up with that name because it wasn’t an on-the-nose reference to the history of music, but it was a reference nonetheless for people who understand the significance of the armadillo through the years," Foley says. "They know what it means for music and that the Texas armadillo has nine bands. People get it right away. It’s a hook for visitors to town or people moving to town."
Live music is so integral to the Nine Banded brand, in fact, that the production facility on Fitzhugh Road, near Jester King Brewery, had considered engaging in the fairly recent phenomenon of sonic aging — made famous a couple years ago by heavy metal group Metallica upon the release of its Blackened, a sound-aged whiskey. It’s not an official practice at Nine Banded, but Nelson and other Texas musicians do croon constantly on overhead speakers.
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Sonic aging is the idea that vibrations throughout the barrel, caused by sound waves from the music, disrupt the molecules in the wooden cask, causing greater interaction between the liquid and the barrel. It sounds hokey, Foley admits, but research that booze brands such as Copper Kings in Kentucky have done suggests it really works.
"These companies believe in the notion of blasting music close to the barrels and having that be a significant component to how the end product tastes. The friction, they say, speeds up the aging process," Foley says.
So does the Texas heat. The 2 1/2 months or so that Nine Banded’s sourced whiskey finishes up in barrels at its warehouse impart a lot of "Texas soul," as Foley calls it. The mercurial Texas weather that can cause rapid temperature changes, he says, influences the final flavor of Nine Banded.
Nine Banded also brings both products down from roughly 116 proof to 90 proof using pure spring water from the Hill Country, which lends the bourbon a surprising amount of flavor. (You might say it’s the secret sauce.)
But even though Nine Banded’s focus is whiskey, Foley’s employing a business strategy closer to that of Tito’s Handmade Vodka. He admires that Tito’s has never lost sight of where it came from even as it has become a globally recognized brand and the top-selling distilled spirit in the U.S. For example, Tito’s donates regularly to local nonprofits such as Emancipet through its Love, Tito’s program.
Foley wants to emulate Tito’s philanthropic practices on a smaller scale. This year, Nine Banded is focused on a partnership with the SIMS Foundation, an organization that provides mental health and substance use recovery services for musicians, music industry professionals and their families.
"There’s so much to our product that’s Texas, including, I’ll say, the kind of abstract aspects of how we’re building our company," Foley says. "It’s not something that is a specific ingredient in the whiskey itself, but we do really like to think that what we’re doing and who we’re doing it with locally is mattering to the final result."
For more information, visit ninebandedwhiskey.com.