Although Still Austin Whiskey Co. has been producing new make whiskey — a spirit drawing primary flavor from its base grain — as well as rye gin for the past year and a half, the urban distillery in South Austin has had a major goal in mind from the start. And it's about to be realized: A full-fledged bourbon made from all Texas-grown grain releases next year.
The bourbon featuring corn, rye and barley will be Still Austin's first aged product. Already, head distiller John Schrepel has noticed the young whiskey is maturing beautifully, in part because the hot Texas climate allows for swifter aging than Kentucky's, where the bulk of the country's bourbon is produced. From New York, Schrepel has had to adjust his thinking about the bourbon-aging process as a result, but he's excited about the finished whiskey.
"We're changing some things down here," he said. "I feel like this one-year-old bourbon is going to be comparable to a three-year-old bourbon in Kentucky or New York. At seven months, it has a nice graham cracker nose and surprising smoothness for being 110 proof."
Still Austin Whiskey Co. relies on a slow water reduction method to fine-tune the flavor of the bourbon, according to the distillery's CEO, Chris Seals. Used in France to make brandy, it's not a typical process for bourbon-making, and Still Austin might well be the only whiskey distillery in the U.S. to do it. Over the course of 10 months, water is slowly added to the barrels, lowering the proof of the whiskey and drawing out distinct flavors that might not be pulled out otherwise.
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"It adds a lot of depth and complexity to the spirit," he said, noting that as the Still Austin distilling team tastes the liquid in barrels from month to month, it appears to change continually, influenced by both wood and water.
The process is labor-intensive but has been worth it so far, Seals said. Additionally, the whiskey itself, the distillate that goes into the barrels, is important, too. Comprised of 70 percent white corn, 25 percent elbon rye — often used by Texas farmers as a cover crop — and 5 percent malted barley, the whiskey develops early flavors from these grains. In that way, Still Austin is a pioneer as well.
Relying entirely on Texas-grown grains presents advantages and certainly challenges. A major component of Still Austin's "grain-to-glass" program has been to work with farmers, encouraging them to promote biodiversity and lay down new kinds of grain that might not have previously been used in Texas spirits before.
"We're not trying to create Kentucky bourbon here," Seals said. "We use the ingredients that we have in our state and the right tools to bring the natural flavors in those grains out. It was a big gamble initially because you don't know what the grains taste like. No other distillery is really using Texas-grown grains, so starting with those simple grains and crafting them into spirits, that's been a lot of hard work."
The bourbon won't be released until the spring, but Still Austin hopes to draw interest ahead of time in the spirit that defines most what the distillery, in the heart of South Austin at 440 E. Saint Elmo Rd., aims to do.
For more information, visit stillaustin.com.