This story originally ran in the Winter issue of Austin Man Magazine. It looks way better in print than it does here, so go pick up a copy at your closest newsstand. Story and photos by Matt McGinnis, hand-lettering by Chelsea Patitillo.
Whiskey’s caramel-colored glory is just as at home in the coarsely calloused mitt of the rancher as it is in the well-manicured grip of a technology tycoon. Its appeal spans not only socio-economic status, but also nationality and age. It is the drink of the everyman for every man. Whiskey is an elixir that stirs the soul. Under its spell, we speak more eloquently, love more ferociously and fight more passionately. Its allure is as deeply rooted in its traditions as it is in its magical character-enhancing powers. Whiskey’s broad appeal, its adherence to tradition and its ability to transform moods and moments make it the perfect gift for the holiday season and the perfect drink at your holiday parties.
WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN WHISKEY, WHISKY AND BOURBON?
Not all whiskey is bourbon, but all bourbon is whiskey. Bourbon is not whisky. Got it? Whether its spelled “whiskey” or “whisky,” we are talking about many types of alcoholic spirits with the commonality that they are made from fermented mash of grain, distilled at less than 190 proof, aged in oak barrels. The spelling boils down to geographic preference. The Scots, Canadians and Japanese are adamant about spelling it “whisky,” while the Americans and Irish refer to it as “whiskey.”
Whisk(e)y from Ireland and Scotland is made with grains that have been dried with smoke, giving it that characteristic peatiness and smokiness. Canadian and American whiskeys can be categorized as bourbon, Tennessee, rye, corn, wheat and blended varieties. Unlike Scottish or Irish whisk(e)y, American whiskey is made using grain, so it typically has a rounder taste. So what is bourbon? Bourbon is a variety of whiskey made to meet exact regulations stipulating that it is made from fermented mash of grain including at least 51 percent corn. The rest of the bill of grains can include wheat for a more mellow flavor, rye for
Bourbon must be distilled to no more than 160 proof and bottled at no less than 80 proof. It is unthinkable and illegal to add any colors, flavors or anything other than water to bourbon before it is bottled. Bourbon must be aged in brand new, charred oak barrels. The selection of the oak barrel, how it is toasted or charred and where it is stored has a huge impact on flavor. Storage of whiskey barrels in a rick house (a warehouse where whiskey barrels are stored) exposes it to temperature swings, which draws whiskey in and out of the wood, gives the whiskey its caramel color and adds oak, vanilla and spice flavors.spice and bite, and malted barley for chocolate and fermented sugars.
Another big regulation for bourbon is that it must be distilled in the U.S. In fact, in 1964, the U.S. Congress recognized bourbon as a distinct American product and passed an Act of Congress that declared bourbon “America’s native spirit.” While the majority of bourbon is made by 13 big distillers in Kentucky, it can be made anywhere in the U.S. Some say there are more bourbon barrels than people in Kentucky. Whether its whisky or whiskey, rye or bourbon, it has been a beloved elixir for hundreds of years because of its enchanting ability to paint a moment of clarity across our minds like a streak of sunset blazing across a glass skyscraper before the fog rolls in and blurs it all in to obscurity.
There are two terms to look for to find high-quality whiskey.
Bottled-in-Bond: The Bottled in Bond act of 1897 may well have been the first food regulation in the U.S., and was established by Colonel E.H. Taylor Jr. to create a set of regulations that dictate the highest standards for whiskey. Bonded whiskey must be produced by one distiller during one distillation “season.” These whiskeys are federally regulated to be 100 proof and aged four years. There are fewer than 20 labels, like EH Taylor and Evan Williams BIB, carrying this designation.
Barrel Proof: Whiskey that is bottled at the same level of alcohol-by-volume (abv) as it is during aging in the barrel is called “barrel proof” or “cask strength.” Many whiskeys are diluted with water before bottling to bring the alcohol level down to about 40 percent abv to take the edge off. Barrelproof whiskeys typically weigh in at about 60 percent abv. These straight-strength whiskeys often come from barrels stored in the center of the rick house, where they aren’t subject to quite as great fluctuations in temperatures. The result is the barrels in the sweet spot of the rick house don’t lose as much water from evaporation. Less “angel’s share” is a good thing.
THE RIGHT WHISKEY FOR HOLIDAY GIFTS
A distinctive bottle of whiskey makes an excellent holiday gift no matter how deep your pockets.
- For your Boss — Black Maple Hill Small Batch, this bourbon is lesser known, but has huge street cred with whiskey lovers. It says you recognize he is cooler than most people at your company without kissing too much ass. $40
- For your Best Man — Old Forester Birthday Bourbon 2013, the 12th limited edition, small batch and highly sought after whiskey is a perfect gift for your best friend. It says you recognize his discerning taste in whiskey and in friends. $55
- For your Dad — Elijah Craig 21-Year-Old Single Barrel Bourbon, named for the father of bourbon, this well aged and refined collectors bottle is worthy of the man who gave you life. It says you value the finer qualities that come with time. $140
- For your DIY Bookworm Friend — Guide to Urban Moonshining; How to Make and Drink Whiskey, an informative book on the history of whiskey, and an insightful guide to making and enjoying it. $25
THE RIGHT WHISKEY GLASSWARE
The Standard-bearer. The Glencairn whisky glass bills itself as “The Official Whisky Glass,” and many an aficionado agrees that its size and shape make it the only glass for properly smelling and tasting whisky.
The Contemporary Style-hound. The hand-blown, lead-free crystal Sempli Cupa rocks glass created by designer Daniele “Danne” Semeraro spins when you set it down, aerating your whiskey while looking stylish as hell.
The Practical. Use an ordinary white wine glass for a handy way to get the most out of tasting whiskey straight.
The Traditionalist. The rocks glass, aka the Old Fashioned glass, aka the lowball glass, is as at home in a whiskey bar as it is in your hand cuddled with a cigar.
Chip Tate is a mad scientist. His feverish work in the distillery and his amazing beard helps to enhance that persona.
The founder and head distiller of Balcones Distillery, based in Waco, constantly checks the quality of the white dog straight from the still. He also tastes dozens of barrel samples in his lab every day to ensure his whisky is just right. (He spells it without the “e” because he makes a Scottish style). Tate doesn’t just fixate on the whisky itself, but he also obsesses about every aspect of how it is made. He demands the absolute best quality in his barrels because of their essential role in building the flavor.
Barrels matter so much that Tate is even drying his own Live Oak staves to have custom barrels made with Texas wood. That
kind of attention to detail has produced award-winning whiskys. In late 2012, the Balcones Texas Single Malt won the prestigious Best in Glass competition held at the Scotch Malt Whisky Society in London. It is the first American whisky to win the prize and beat out storied whiskys like Balvenie, Glenmorangie and Macallan to take home first prize.“Barrels add wood profile during aging as the whisky evaporates and adds oxidative effects as the barrel breathes in and out,” Tate says. “We use barrels made with slow growth, yard-aged wood, with extra-fine grain and a custom toast profile charred to my specifications.”
Adding to its awards collection, the fifth anniversary Texas Straight Bourbon won the Sweepstakes Best in Show at the 2013 New York World Wine & Spirits Competition. Balcones was the first Texas-made whisky on the market in 2009, and it now makes seven styles of whisky: Rumble, Rumble Cask Reserve, Baby Blue Corn Whisky, True Blue, True Blue 100 Proof, Texas Single Malt and Bimstone, a smoked whisky. It has also produced special edition bottling like the fifth anniversary Texas Straight Bourbon.
We make an original style Texas whisky made with Hopi blue corn,” Tate says. “Our whiskys have a lot of similarities to Scottish malt, but a taste all their own.”
The Baby Blue and True Blue are readily available in stores, restaurants and bars. Tate calls Baby Blue the “Reposado of whisky” because it is a youthful whisky that is lighter in color. It’s slightly lower in alcohol at 46 percent and is made to be drunk straight. True Blue is hearty, spicy, vigorous and assertive at 61 percent alcohol with caramel and pear flavors.
Balcones Texas Single Malt Whisky is hard to find, but worth the hunt and worth the $80. It is made with 100 percent malt, fermented for seven days and is double distilled. After aging in various sized oak barrels, it has rich flavors of caramel, brown sugar, nutmeg and vanilla with ripe pear, a hint of citrus and roasted chestnuts. This is a fantastic whisky to enjoy while burrowed in to a cozy lounge chair. After a couple glasses of this, I imagine myself sounding like Tom Waits speaking intently to a burro that nonchalantly acknowledges my presence.
Balcones was set up to make about 6,000 cases a year, but is retrofitting the distillery, which is housed in a cramped 1880s welding shop, to keep up with demand. Installing new stills in the
existing distillery will triple the capacity. Balcones has also purchased an enormous former manufacturing facility that will house a new distillery, which Tate hopes to have online by the beginning of 2015.
Did I mention that Tate obsesses about every aspect of his whisky production? The mad scientist handmade his copper stills right on site at the distillery. In fact, everything in the distillery is custom built to fit exactly in the tight space. Balcones whiskys are sold in 20 states, the U.K., Australia, Sweden, Norway and Japan. Balcones whiskys are available in Austin at liquor stores and bars like The Four Seasons, The Tigress Pub and Fino.
Texans are awfully proud people. We like to buy products made in our state. Flying in the face of that, one Austin distiller, Treaty Oak Distilling, is brazenly buying bourbon distilled in Indiana, Kentucky and Tennessee and selling it under its own label with a picture of Texas right on it. The gall! Red Handed Bourbon was released in November and is the first whiskey from Treaty Oak.
The name is a wink and a nod to acknowledge that they’ve “stolen” their whiskey. The distillery buys the bourbon and then blends it and re-barrels it to age for 12 to 15 months onsite in Austin. It’s actually a common practice and producers who do so, like Jefferson’s, Bulleit and Willet, are known as NDPs (nondistiller producers) in the industry. Think about it: There are dozens of brands of Kentucky bourbon on the shelf, but only a handful of distilleries.
“This is bourbon worth stealing,” says Daniel R. Barnes, owner and distiller of Treaty Oak Distilling. “We got lucky with buying really good bourbon to use for Red Handed. It was a rare opportunity for a distillery of our size to acquire the quantity and variety that we did. The oldest batches are from 2006 and the newest bourbon in our blend is from 2010. It’s fun to play with other people’s whiskeys. It tastes so different after we’ve blended and aged it.”
Treaty Oak started the distillery making rum, then gin to showcase craft spirits, before moving in to whiskey. Barnes, an avid whiskey collector with more than 300 bottles of bourbon and several antique bourbons, has been interested in making whiskey since the start of the distillery. He has been making whiskey behind the scenes for seven years, trying out different flavor profiles, but hasn’t released any yet. In preparation for making his whiskey, Barnes worked at a few distilleries in Kentucky to learn bourbon distilling. The relationships with distillers and his experience in Kentucky led to the decision to go the NPD route.
“We wanted to know how to blend whiskey before we put ours on the market,” Barnes says. “It’s an education to work with other distillers’ whiskey to make it our own. We are grateful to the guys in Kentucky who welcomed us with open arms to learn, distill and sell to us. There is great camaraderie among those distillers.”
So if it’s just purchased liquid, what makes this a Treaty Oak product? Barnes says it’s the selection of the blend and re-barreling and aging in Texas heat that makes it pop. Treaty Oak specified the bill of grains for each batch of whiskey and then assembled the exact blend desired. In addition, Barnes hand-selected the new American oak barrels with a three-level char. Treaty Oak ages the whiskey in a warehouse where the temperature doesn’t exceed 95 degrees.
Red Handed is a bold, spicy bourbon made with 60 percent corn and a heavy hand on the rye, with more than 30 percent. Barnes likes it both as a sipping whiskey and also thinks it’s well suited for cocktails like the Old Fashioned. The oaky whiskey has plenty of sweetness with vanilla, caramel and toasted pecan flavors, accentuated by black pepper and ginger. This whiskey should be enjoyed while listening to old Dinosaur Jr. albums on vinyl in a dimly lit room. Its early introduction has been well received. Red Handed has already won a gold medal at the 2013 Great American Distillers Festival. It sells for $34 a bottle at local shops like Spec’s and Twin Liquors, and it’s featured in a cocktail at the W Hotel.
Treaty Oak has enough stock of Red Handed for three years of allocated small seasonal releases of about 300 to 500 cases. That will be enough to get them through until they release their own in-house-created whiskey. Barnes intends to introduce a four-grain whiskey with an equal mixture of wheat, rye, corn and barley in about one year. It will be aged four years to get the desired complexity. Treaty Oak is opening a tasting room where visitors can sample Red Handed and its other spirits in its North Austin distillery. Barnes is in the process of building a new distillery in Southwest Austin off Highway 290 near Argus Cidery and Jester King Brewery.
Tucked in to the rolling hills about 10 miles west of Johnson City, the Garrison Brothers Distillery is making bourbon in Texas wine country. Former ad man Dan Garrison fired up his whiskey distillery in Hye, Texas, to make its first batch in 2008. It’s one of the first whiskeys legally made in the state after prohibition.
The flagship Garrison Brothers Texas Straight Bourbon is made with 64 percent Texas-grown corn, giving it a sweet profile. The remainder of the all-organic grains in the mash bill is winter wheat grown on the ranch in Hye and barley from the Pacific Northwest. The distillery’s location makes a difference. The water used is filtered through the limestone beneath its ranch, much like the water used in Kentucky bourbon is filtered through limestone. The Texas heat speeds up the aging process by accelerating oxidation and evaporation for the whiskey in the barrel. It’s made in Texas for Texans.
The Texas corn, heat and water give Garrison Brothers bourbon sweet flavors of caramel, molasses and maple syrup, along with spices like black tea, vanilla and nutmeg. It has a little kick at 94 proof, but is silky smooth on the way down. This is a sipping whiskey best enjoyed with a lump or two of ice while sitting on the back porch with your favorite dog. Garrison Brothers bottles its bourbon twice a year in fall and spring, and vintage dates each batch. Each bottle is hand numbered and hand sealed in black wax. The distillery filled about 1,300 barrels this year. The fall 2013 vintage will be available after it has been aged about three years.
In addition to its flagship bourbon, the company released the special edition Garrison Brothers Cowboy Bourbon Whiskey in May this year. This barrel-proof bourbon was uncut, unfiltered and bottled straight from the barrel, weighing in at 136 proof. You can still find it in some bars, but the small batch of 600 small 375-millileter-sized bottles of Cowboy sold out quickly, even at the steep price of $169. That’s a lot of cash for a small bottle. Why so expensive?
“In Kentucky, they lose three to four percent of the whiskey to evaporation,” Garrison explains. “We lose 12 to 13 percent annually. That’s a lot of ‘angel’s share.’ Our Cowboy Bourbon is expensive because after five years of aging, the barrel is only half full. A lot of the water is gone, leaving the whiskey more concentrated.”
If you didn’t get your share, never fear. Garrison has already selected the barrels he will use in the 2015 bottling. He plans to produce 5,000 of the larger 750-millileter bottles, and make it a little less expensive. The distillery is a great day-trip destination. Garrison Brothers provides informative tours of the facilities, which conclude in the tasting room. Garrison Brothers has done a good job of getting bars and restaurants to carry its whiskey, so it’s readily available throughout the state. It retails for about $75 a bottle and you can find it at major steakhouses like Vince Young Steak House, bars like TenOak, and the W Austin sells it by the bottle.
It is a good sign that a bar might be a good whiskey bar when you walk in and see a wide selection of whiskey labels that are out of the mainstream. The second important element is a bar staff that knows their stuff. That’s what you get at Drink.Well. on North Loop. Not only does the bar have more than 75 kinds of American whiskey, but Co-owner Jessica Sanders knows her corn from her rye. Sanders not only has studied all things wine, beer and spirits as a board member of the Austin chapter of the United States Bartenders Guild and as a sommelier, but she also recently attended a week-long camp about bourbon in Kentucky. She uses that knowledge for good, teaching whiskey classes and by droppin’ science behind the bar at Drink.Well.
“Drink.Well. specializes in American craft spirits,” Sanders says. “Bourbon and American whiskey are the ultimate American craft sprits. Bourbon is a national treasure. Having a big whiskey selection is critical to our concept. It has become a life-long mission to learn about all of them.”
Tasting a whiskey properly can also improve the enjoyment. Smell it twice by inhaling with your mouth and nose simultaneously with the glass away from your face. Smell as slowly as you possibly can. That way, the alcohol level is turned down and you can smell the fruit and the balance of the spirit. Don’t bury your nose in the glass like wine or it will burn your nose hairs off. Next, sip twice. The first sip acclimates your palate to get past the first burn of alcohol. The second sip is what counts.
Now, think about the various flavors and separate the notion of heat from spice. Whiskey can have great spice flavors of black pepper, cinnamon and nutmeg that are completely different from the burn of alcohol. Mind you, that alcohol heat can be there, particularly in the higher alcohol and barrel-strength styles, which can be up to 110 proof. A big swig of that without warming up your mouth will be like getting kissed by a fist.
Whiskey can be intimidating to some with its rough-and-tumble fire-water reputation. Sanders recommends beginners start with bourbon like Maker’s Mark, which has an approachable flavor. Its creaminess, vanilla and sweetness make it a suitable gateway whiskey. As people progress and want to discover the types of whiskey that they enjoy most, Sanders recommends people branch out from whiskeys they already like. Ask the bartender about whiskeys that are in the same family as your favorite.
“Don’t jump from Maker’s Mark to Bulleit,” Sanders advises. “It’s a high-rye bourbon that is spicier. Make the process a gradual one. Drink different spirits until you find the ones you don’t like and the ones you like best.”
A great way to explore different whiskeys is to order a flight, which allows you to compare both complementary and contradictory styles to see which you like better. It might be difficult to know if you prefer the Eagle Rare versus the Elijah Craig 12 if you drink them a week apart. Tasting in flights also helps find preferences among different styles of whiskey. Do you prefer the sweetness of bourbon that corn brings? Do you gravitate to spice rye or softer wheat whiskey? Or are you a big fan of the bold peatiness of Scotch? Sipping whiskey on its own is definitely an enjoyable pastime.
Purists may thumb their noses at mixing whiskey with anything but a cube of ice or a dash of water, but there are many delicious classic and signature cocktails worth exploring.
A classic cocktail recipe that’s perfect for Sazerac drinkers who like a little variety.
- 1.5 ounce bourbon
- 3 dashes Peychaud’s Bitters
- 1 dash orange bitters
- 1/4 teaspoon Herbsaint
- 1/4 teaspoon Meletti Anisette
Stir all ingredients and strain into a chilled glass. Garnish with an expressed lemon peel.
This variation on the classic Manhattan is homage to the Brooklyn cocktail, using Swedish Punsch, which is a popular Scandinavian liqueur that’s based with Batavia Arrack. Combine all ingredients with ice and stir until properly diluted and chilled. Strain into a cold cocktail coupe and express a lemon peel over the drink.
- 2 ounces rye whiskey
- 1/2 ounce Swedish Punsch
- 1/2 ounce Bonal
- 2 bar spoons Amontillado Sherry
- 1 dash baked apple bitters
- 1 dash orange bitters
WHERE TO DRINK WHISKEY IN AUSTIN
This intimate lounge carries 60 to 70 American, Canadian, Irish, Scottish, Japanese and other regional whiskeys available, including an allocated Black Maple Hill 16 year and a rare bottle of A.H. Hirsch 16 Year Reserve. Bar Congress is known both for making solid classic cocktails like the Old Fashioned, Vieux Carre and Black Manhattan, and for signature drinks like The Roundabout.
Bar manager Jason Stevens: “I’m a huge fan of the Suntory Hibiki 12 year with an extended preparation. I will start a guest with the Hibiki neat, having them take a few sips to get used to the flavor then add ice, a few sips more and then finally and slowly elongate with Topo Chico soda. It’s incredible how the flavors change and how different elements fade and become pronounced throughout.”
This North Loop neighborhood bar has more than 75 types of American whiskey like E.H. Taylor Small Batch Bottled in Bond and St. George Single Malt Whiskey. Drink.Well. offers flights of four whiskeys to let you taste the difference between a Whistle Pig Straight Rye 11 year and a Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch.
The absinthe selection might draw you in and then the whiskey will catch your eye with a selection of about 100 bottles. Péché carries special whiskeys like a hand-selected single barrel Buffalo Trace bottled just for it and a Talisker 40-year-old Scotch.
Known for periodically hosting whiskey dinners, Jack Allen’s Kitchen carries 25 different whiskeys, including Texas whiskeys, Kentucky bourbon, Irish, Canadian and Rye. The Texas lineup includes Firestone & Robertson Distillery, Rebecca Creek Spirit Whiskey, Garrison Brothers and True Blue from Balcones. They have a hand-selected barrel of Eagle Rare 10 Year Kentucky Straight Bourbon bottle especially for them.
This whiskey bar has 220 to 250 whiskeys from throughout the world, including 127 bourbons and as many as 30 American whiskeys. They love to pour Texas whiskey like the Ranger Creek Ranger Creek .36 Texas Bourbon Whiskey and Garrison Brothers Cowboy Bourbon. They have rare and special whiskeys like the Buffalo Trace Experimental made with rice and Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve 15 Year.
While it may not have the largest list of whiskeys with more than 65 on hand, it has some of the most exclusive labels in town. Vince Young Steakhouse carries full sets of whiskeys, like all five Macallans, from 12 year to 30 year, and four bottlings of Pappy Van Winkle.
Disclosure: Samples were provided for tastings by Balcones, Treaty Oak and Garrison Brothers.