As sales of American whiskey have exploded — soaring to more than $3 billion last year, according to the Distilled Spirits Council — one Austin restaurant seeks to foster love for the aged spirit with a growing collection of single-barrel and small-batch whiskeys.
In late summer, Jack Allen's Kitchen rolled out a new barrel program focused on whiskey not available anywhere else. Each of the four locations has six whiskeys from well-known distilleries, including George Dickel and Texas' own Garrison Brothers, that beverage director David Toby and others on the Jack Allen's staff created or sourced using wood staves, a blending of barrels or, in most cases, a choice of one barrel out of many. Their development required the Jack Allen's team to visit each distillery.
As a result of the barrel program, the family-friendly restaurant has become an unexpected local destination for good whiskey, a fact Toby is proud of.
"Austin has some great bars that highlight whiskey, but it was important to do that at a place where people are grabbing a bite to eat," he said. "They know that we have some of the best hand-selected barrels of whiskey that you can get your hands on that are equivalent to what the popular boutique bourbon places are carrying. There aren't many restaurants around town doing that."
Previously, the local eatery had cultivated a single barrel program featuring both whiskey and tequila, but the tequila line was discontinued in favor of expanding the whiskey selection this year. (Typically, restaurants sourcing single-barrel spirits have only one or two in their name; whiskey-focused bars like East Austin's Nickel City might have a couple more.)
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Most notable about Jack Allen's program, in addition to its size, is that it highlights one-of-a-kind whiskeys such as the Maker's Mark Private Select — while also keeping the cost to drink them down. The prices range, but a 2-ounce pour either neat or on the rocks is between $10 and $18, with $2 extra to get the chosen whiskey in an Old Fashioned or Manhattan cocktail. For Toby, that accessible price is the point.
"This would probably cost $4-to-$6 more anywhere else just because we want people to enjoy it," Toby said in reference to the $14 Maker's Mark option, the whiskey that started it all. "I can put a really cool, dusty old Pappy Van Winkle on the shelf and charge $100 a shot and make it look awesome, or I could sell pours for $30 or $20 and let everyone enjoy it. Really, that's all that matters."
No, the sought-after Van Winkle line of bourbons is not among the single-barrel whiskeys you can find at Jack Allen's. In addition to the Maker's Mark, the restaurant also has Garrison Brothers Small Batch, Russell's Reserve Single Barrel, George Dickel Sour Mash, Elijah Craig Small Batch and WhistlePig Rye. Toby has taken care to source a variety of American whiskeys, although Kentucky bourbon — a benchmark in the industry — makes up half of the selection.
The aroma and flavor of each varies widely, too. An overwhelming crowd-pleaser is the Russell's Reserve, with a nose that might remind you of the toffee-and-chocolate Skor candy bar and a palate of rich creamy oak, "like a Chardonnay almost. Big, rich, creamy, with vanilla, caramel and oak. Like a Rollo. We're back to candy," Toby said with a laugh. The barrel — labeled 18-040 — from which the bourbon was bottled was one of six the Jack Allen's team could choose from.
Another favorite is the WhistlePig Rye, selected at the picturesque Vermont distillery and farm where the rye is grown. The whiskey bursting with notes of dried cherry and anise was supposed to be a single barrel, like the Russell's Reserve and the George Dickel, but the Jack Allen's team were split between two options. Ultimately, the distiller suggested combining them, a solution the group was initially unsure of.
"He blended them together, and it was just breathtaking," Toby said. "Automatically, there was no more debate, no more talk. 'We'll take two barrels.'"
One thing that unites each of the whiskeys is their easy ability to be paired with food, of course. Among the group of people who accompany Toby to the various distilleries are chefs, including owner Jack Gilmore, to make sure the chosen liquid will be harmonious with Jack Allen's cuisine. It's a favorite project of the staff.
"When you're kind of building (the whiskey) yourself, it becomes even more personal because it's a collaboration of what the master distiller has been working on for years, and then we come in and take their babies away from them and make them our own," Toby said.