A bourbon distillery that's just starting out has a couple of crucial decisions to make.
That's because of the whiskey's aging requirement. Is the whiskey producer going to source previously aged bourbon to batch and bottle while its own liquid rests in barrels, maturing slowly? Or is it going to offer spirits like vodka or gin that take far less time to make in the meantime? For Still Austin Whiskey Co., which opened in the fall of 2017 as Austin's only urban whiskey distillery, there was only one right answer.
From the start, the distillery off South Congress Avenue has been making what is called "new make whiskey," or whiskey that draws its primary flavor from the base grain. A gin featuring rye and a coffee liqueur using yellow corn have also been bottled. But Still Austin's production team, which includes head distiller John Schrepel, assistant distiller Ali Bloch and managing director Samira Seiller, wasn't going to compromise on the bourbon.
After about a year in barrels, the bourbon, they say, is now ready. Visitors to the distillery can try Still Austin's first aged product at an afternoon launch event Saturday that will have everything from bourbon ice cream by Lick to a build-your-own-cocktail station.
One thing you might notice about the bourbon is that it tastes remarkably complex and well-developed for having been in barrels for only a year. Generally, prized Kentucky bourbons are aged between four to 12 years (a notably shorter time span than other whiskeys like Scotch, to be sure), but there's a reason why Still Austin's has already reached peak flavor.
Texas has everything to do with it, Seiller says.
She elaborates: "If you try to age whiskey in the desert, it also ages slowly" as whiskey produced near and along the East Coast, where Schrepel is from. "It's the changing temperature that makes all the difference. The whiskey contracts in the wood when it's cold, so it's not aging anymore, but then it expands when it's hot. So if it was just hot all the time, it would age more quickly, though nowhere near what happens in Texas. You're getting the equivalent of four seasons in a week here."
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We're talking while standing among the barrels stacked tall in Still Austin's back warehouse in late February. The bourbon that was bottled this month was, at that point, about 10 months old — and going through wild temperature shifts. About a week before our visit, Austin temperatures soared from a freezing low of 32 degrees Feb. 13 to a daytime high of 75 degrees Feb. 14.
All that change is essentially forcing the barrels to pump the whiskey, Seiller says. As a result, in just a few months, the liquid within the barrels will begin to turn the same shade of dark amber you might see in whiskey that's been aged for a year anywhere else. (Whiskey, if you didn't know, is as clear as vodka when it's first distilled and turns darker under barrel influence.)
Schrepel, who previously worked at a distillery in New York, wasn't prepared for how quickly whiskey would age in Texas. But the fairly fast aging process has become as fundamental to the identity of Still Austin's bourbon as the rest of the ingredients, all of which have helped to create a product with a distinct sense of place.
The bourbon is considered high rye, as a mixture of 70 percent non-GMO white corn, 25 percent elbon rye and 5 percent malted barley. (To be bourbon, the spirit must be made up of majority corn.)
All of that grain, as well as the grain used for the several other Still Austin products, was grown in the state and is high-quality thanks to the farmers who produced it, distillery co-founder Chris Seals says. That's ideal for the new make options in particular, which must taste good without any barrel time to influence the flavor. But the bourbon needs a little something extra to combine the essence of those grains with Texas' particular climate.
For that, Still Austin's production team turned to a country that knows a thing or two about fine spirits.
The bourbon is created through a labor-intensive philosophy called élevage. It's "an overarching theory that comes from France and is used in the process of making cognac and brandy," Bloch says. "It's about doing everything by hand, treating your barrels as children, and really being super crazy and neurotic about every step of the process. Slow water reduction is one of those techniques."
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That's the key, the Still Austin production team will tell you — aging the whiskey via slow water reduction. At first, Schrepel and the other distillers on staff didn't know what to make of the process when master blender Nancy Fraley recommended it. It seemed like way too much work, until the payoff was evident.
"Literally once or twice a month, we unstack every single barrel, open every single barrel, test the proof of each one, proof it down (with water), retest the proof," Schrepel says. "It's a very labor-intensive process, but the difference in the product is there. If you do a test of just a 10-month-old barrel versus a 10-month-old barrel that has had slow water reduction, I mean, it's a complete night and day difference."
The result is a whiskey that, according to Fraley and her incredible, savantlike sense of smell, has waves of aroma, notes "of browned butter with baking spices such as cinnamon, allspice and clove. The alcohol is soft and round on the palate, with a surprisingly long finish, depth and finesse."
Fraley helped Schrepel create the bourbon using the initial 24 barrels that Still Austin devoted to the first run. For consistency's sake, the bourbon is divided into three batches, or what the distillers call "coops," blending eight barrels at a time. (Blended whiskey is a term that describes bourbon combined with other types of whiskey, even neutral grain spirit. That's why Still Austin is careful to say "coops" instead of "blends.")
"By blending eight barrels at a time, we're definitely getting unique flavor profiles from them, but not so dramatically different at all that if you buy one bottle, you're not going to be worried about a difference from the next bottle. It's all done very consistently," Seiller says.
Schrepel says he knew they were onto something when Fraley took a flask of the bourbon, then eight or nine months old, to a judging panel featuring professionals who, like her, taste whiskey for a living. They guessed the bourbon was three to six years; five to eight years; and 12 years. They were shocked at how young it actually was.
"I swear it's because of the slow water reduction, the grains that we use and the Texas climate," Schrepel says. "Without the program, without taking all those extra steps, it would make a huge, huge difference."