Kentucky isn’t the only state in the U.S. that knows how to make great bourbon. An upcoming whiskey distillery in Southeast Austin aims to remind us of that with its distinctly Texas offerings.
Fierce Whiskers Distillery — so named in reference to a comment former U.S. President Rutherford B. Hayes made about Austin — plans to break ground next month in an industrial area near McKinney Falls State Park, with the goal of eventually offering locals a new urban whiskey distillery and a modern tasting room.
Construction on the distillery, comprised of two large buildings at 5333 Fleming Ct., is expected to finish early next year. But don’t expect whiskey soon afterward: Fierce Whiskers’ two founders, Tri Vo and Tim Penney, want their project to focus on whiskey that they’ve distilled and aged from start to finish, without any shortcuts or skipped steps.
As a result, their first product, Fierce Whiskers Straight Rye, is slated for release in 2020, and their flagship spirit, the four-year Fierce Whiskers Straight Bourbon, is expected in 2022.
That’s a long time to wait, given that the whiskey is the distillery’s main money maker. Oftentimes, whiskey producers needing to pay the bills will open their tasting rooms with an unaged spirit while the bourbon or other aged liquor matures in barrels. But Vo and Penney decided the rye and bourbon is what “we really want to make,” Vo said.
“We want to make a whiskey we can be proud of and that Austin can be proud of. So that means waiting on the whiskey, even though that is going to be difficult,” he said.
Fierce Whiskers is also planning to have a smaller single-malt whiskey program.
Each of the whiskeys will age in a four-story rickhouse stacked tall with barrels, an impressive sight that visitors will be able to see from outside of the building through large windows.
The name of the boozy venture was the idea of local brand studio the Butler Bros., which has formed the design and identity of beloved businesses like Tacodeli, Tequila 512, Real Ale Brewing and the Thinkery. Part of the firm’s job this time around was to come up with a name reflecting the mission of Vo and Penney: to offer well-made, distinctly Austin whiskey.
With each of its products, the distillery aims to make Austin a destination for good, locally made whiskey — something they have noticed our city, as booze-loving as it is, isn’t known for yet. (Most area whiskey distilleries are outside of the city limits, in the Texas Hill Country.)
They settled on ‘Fierce Whiskers’ after the Butler Bros. stumbled upon an 1849 quote from Hayes, the 19th president: “Austin is an inconsiderable village with large expectations ... full of discharged ‘Rangers’ ... costumes of every variety … Fierce whiskers, gaming, and drinking very abounding in all quarters.”
In other words, Austin men have always been sporting very epic beards (though the Austin Facial Hair Club was only founded in 2007). The quote from Hayes, from a journal entry republished in a book about his life, is strikingly relevant to today’s hipster city.
Both Vo and Penney loved the phrase so much that those words and the era during which Hayes lived became a key element of the brand. Fierce Whiskers’ proposed whiskey bottles sport subdued, stately-looking labels that wouldn’t be so out of place on the shelves of a nineteenth-century apothecary.
The labels also have the words ‘Texas Tight Cut’ displayed prominently just above the name of the whiskey. That’s going to be an important aspect of Fierce Whiskers’ whiskey program, which Vo and Penny have formed with the help of Randy Allender, a 24-year Jim Beam veteran and industry expert. He’s managing the production side of the business until a full-time head distiller joins the team late this year.
The term ‘Texas Tight Cut’ refers to the liquid that Fierce Whiskers will use after the distillation process. Distillers control how much of the heart of the distillate they keep — discarding the heads and tails (or beginning and end) of the distillate’s run through a still. At Fierce Whiskers, Vo said, only the cleanest cut of alcohol will go into barrels for aging.
“We know the flavor profile that we like, so we’re trying to hone in on that right now and build our process to make the best whiskey we can,” he said. “We’ve been doing a lot of research and talking to people and vetting the processes (we come across) to see whether they’ll work.”
Currently, he and Penney hold full-time jobs in the energy industry. They became best friends in high school, went to college at two different Texas universities (Vo at UT) and found their paths crossing continually in their careers. They decided to start a distillery a few years ago, Vo said, “when we were trying to figure out what to do next.” The thought of a whiskey distillery excited them.
Though neither of them is quitting their jobs for Fierce Whiskers, Vo doesn’t discount how much this project matters to them.
“We have our other jobs, but I wouldn’t call this a side project,” he said. “It’s been a huge part of our lives over the past couple years. As the distillery gets going, we’ll be much more involved. It’ll be a multiple full-time job situation because it’s one of our biggest priorities, and we want it to do really well.”