The Best of Austin’s Steakhouses

Eddie V's PorterhouseThere is one huge reason why I’m not a vegetarian: steak. Oh, glorious steak. The mere smell of it sends me into a shark-like frenzy. Biting into that hot flesh is the closest I will come to being a vampire, giving myself over to that carnal lust. Fortunately, Austin is well stocked with prime steakhouses. There are at least a dozen places to get an amazing steak in the downtown area. ATX Man made the rounds to pick the best of Austin steakhouses

BEST NEW KID ON THE BLOCK: THE CAPITAL GRILLE

117 W. Fourth St.

Chef Brent Jager, Capital GrilleAustin’s newest steakhouse is also arguably its best. Everything you want in a steakhouse is here. The Capital Grille, located in the former Spaghetti Warehouse on Fourth Street, pays extraordinary attention to its dry-aged steaks, flies in fresh seafood daily, has a master sommelier selecting the wines for its wine list and a team dedicated to personal service. The Capital Grille started in Providence, R.I., in 1990 and now has 57 locations.

The long-awaited opening of the Austin restaurant happened in April 2014, after it was announced in 2012. Despite entering a crowded market—there are nine steakhouses in a six-block radius of the Grille—the owners chose to enter the Austin market because of the strong economy boom and the growth of the foodie community. So far, the Austin community has been receptive. The star of the menu is definitely steak.

“We source our beef locally and then dry-age the porterhouse and strip steaks for about 24 days in a humidity- and temperature-controlled room,” says Chef Brent Jaeger, a veteran of The Capital Grille chain.

“Dry-aging gives the steaks a nuttier, more intense flavor. We have a third-generation butcher on staff who cuts each steak by hand every day.”

Can’t-Miss Menu Items

Start with the signature appetizer, which is flash-fried calamari served with a trio of hot cherry peppers. The serving is ample for sharing.

The bone-in, Kona-crusted, dry-aged sirloin is on the must-try list. This hand-cut strip steak has a crispy crust courtesy of a rub that includes Kona coffee for delightful bitterness, dried mustard for spicy savoriness and sugar for a hint of sweetness. It is served with caramelized shallot butter drizzled over the top, which picks up the sweetness of the sugar and brings out the flavors of the herbs. It’s unbelievably juicy and firm, yet yielding to the knife. Pair it with a bottle of sumptuous cabernet-sauvignon- based wine like Château Bernadotte Haut-Médoc, which will marry well with the rich beef flavor.

For a contemporary twist on surf and turf, try the seared tenderloin with butterpoached lobster tails. North Atlantic lobster is poached in the butter sauce then stacked on two impossibly tender petite filet-mignon cuts. The whole luscious stack is drizzled with butter sauce and fresh herbs. Bite into both the lobster and tenderloin at the same time. It is bliss. It will go particularly well with a spicy red wine like Delas Freres Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

The lobster mac ’n’ cheese is a perfect accompaniment to any steak. Packed with huge chunks of lobster and smothered with mascarpone, Havarti, Grana Padano and white cheddar cheeses, and topped with a crispy dusting of pan-roasted breadcrumbs, this could be a meal all by itself.

Finish dinner with a decadent coconut cream pie layered with whipped and coconut creams in a substantial, cakey vanilla crust and garnished with a crispy macaroon. Like all of the desserts here, it is made in house to order, from scratch.

Wine lovers will rejoice in selecting one of 350 bottles from throughout the world, housed in a lovely glass-enclosed wine cellar. If you’re serious about your wine, private wine lockers are available with the purchase of 12 bottles from the list. Wine members get priority seating and are invited to a special wine dinner every quarter. The gracious dining room has soft lighting and dark wood paneling, giving it a classic steakhouse feel.

Even though The Capital Grille wasn’t born and raised in Austin, it has a bit of a hometown feel, with large portraits of prominent Texans, such as President Lyndon B. Johnson and Farrah Fawcett, on the walls. The elegant setting is a draw for date night, birthday celebrations, girls’ nights out and business meetings alike. It’s destined to become a new staple on the Austin steak circuit.

BEST TRIED AND TRUE: ALC STEAKS

1205 N. Lamar Blvd.

ALC SteaksThe only family-owned steakhouse in town, ALC Steaks—formerly known as Austin Land & Cattle Company—has been an Austin favorite for 21 years. The key to its success has been its casual, friendly atmosphere and excellent steaks. It may not be Austin’s flashiest steakhouse, but it certainly scores high marks for authenticity and charm. Situated just down the hill from the Capitol, ALC Steaks draws a crowd of families and prominent citizens.

“It’s a huge hangout for politicians when the Legislature is in session. It is a tradition,” says General Manager Scottie Mescall, who has been a fixture at the restaurant since it opened. “We keep things low-key, so a fair share of celebrities come in again and again. The X Games athletes came in droves, including gold-medal winner Chase Hawk, who has been coming since he was 12 years old.”

It’s that personal touch, longevity of the staff and familial atmosphere that keep locals and out-of-towners coming back. Guests are greeted by name and hugs are doled out with regularity. This is the kind of place where it’s easy to become a regular. Husband-and-wife team Christian and Theresa Mertens own ALC Steaks and have steered its evolution since it started serving steaks and family-style coleslaw and beans in 1993. The menu has evolved to add salads, several side dishes and plenty of vegetables.

Can’t-Miss Menu Items

Warm up your appetite with Asian-style prime beef sashimi, thinly sliced strips of raw steak served with fresh jalapeño, ponzu and Sriracha sauce, and crostini.

The Buffalo-style lamb chops are downright fun. This best-selling appetizer is big enough to make a meal. The tender cuts of lamb are cooked with hot sauce and served with a side of blue cheese.

Loosen your belt and order the 22-ounce bone-in rib-eye. It, along with all of the steaks, is wetaged and cut on premise. It’s melt-in-your-mouth tender. Round out the plate with white truffle bacon mac ’n’ cheese and a loaded potato, and you’re sure to leave happy.

BEST PORTERHOUSE: EDDIE V’S PRIME SEAFOOD

301 E. Fifth St.

Eddie V's 42 oz PorterhouseEddie V’s may be a prime seafood restaurant, but it’s also known for its Texas-sized porterhouse. This massive 42-ounce heritage-breed Angus is a step above prime in quality and is only available at the downtown location. It’s wet-aged and handcut, and the porterhouse quality stands on its own without a lot of seasoning or special toppings.

“We baste it with butter while it cooks and sprinkle it with salt and pepper, nothing else,” says Chef Chris Bauer. “It’s all about technique. We use a 1,400-degree broiler to get a nice charred crust outside and a tender, juicy center.”

Chef Bauer chose the 42-ounce size to add to the menu three years ago because the thick cut chars well but never overcooks. It is carved tableside, with the server slicing it off the bone and into strips. The porterhouse is presented on a cutting board with the juice spilling over the edge of the board. It’s enough to make a grown man drool. It has a sublime balance of crunchy, caramelized crust with a tender center. The filet side is so buttery it will make your knees buckle. The strip side is firm yet yielding, like an aerobics instructor. The ultimate pairing for this beast is truffled macaroni ’n’ cheese, made with baked gruyere, Parmesan truffle oil and black truffles sprinkled on top.

“During F1, these things fly off the grill,” says Chef Bauer. “It’s also a political powerhouse steak. The guys with the lapel pins buy a lot of these. This is a perfect steak for sharing, but some people eat it by themselves. One couple ordered both the porterhouse and a 22-ounce tomahawk bone-in rib-eye and ate them both. That’s almost four pounds of beef between two people!”

BEST PLACE TO MEET FOR DRINKS: FLEMING’S PRIME STEAKHOUSE & WINE BAR

320 E. Second St.

Melissa Lamb, Fleming's sommelierFleming’s Prime Steakhouse is an excellent place to have a killer meal, but it shouldn’t be overlooked as a fantastic place to meet friends for drinks. Not only do they have great drink specials, but they also have been recognized for an outstanding wine selection, receiving the Wine Spectator Award of Excellence.

Every day of the week, Fleming’s has happy-hour deals at the bar that they call 5,6,7. That means they have five menus in every category—cocktails, wine and appetizers— for $6 until 7 p.m. You can pick up pan-crisped pork belly and an Old Fashioned cocktail for $12 total. The deal even includes a burger or two beers for $6. I can’t see a reason to leave the bar.

The bar is well-stocked. Fleming’s has more than 20 varieties of scotch, a solid whiskey and tequila selection and an admirable collection of cognac. The wine list is fat, with more than 100 types poured by the glass. For those who are daunted by the seemingly endless drink possibilities, the menus are available on iPads, which categorize drinks by type of cocktail. They even offer wine pairings for various dishes.

An added bonus is that it is easy for old eyes to read the menu in low light. If you don’t want to fiddle with a gadget to order the right kind of wine, you always can get a stellar recommendation from the talented and gorgeous sommelier, Melissa Lamb.

Nibbles to try at the bar include the tenderloin Carpaccio with creole mustard sauce. The generous portion of beef is tender and flavorful. The baked Brie is fantastic with an amber ale. Ooey, gooey hot cheese encased in puff pastry encrusted with candied walnut and cinnamon is like a holiday treat that you can enjoy anytime.

Despite being part of a larger group of restaurants, Fleming’s downtown has a bit of a mom-and-pop feel because many of the staff have been working there for a decade or more. Whether you stay at the bar or dig into a dry-aged prime rib-eye, you can expect friendly, attentive service from the tenured staff.

BEST NON-STEAK OPTION: PERRY’S STEAKHOUSE & GRILLE

114 W. Seventh St.

Perry's Pork ChopPerry’s is one of the city’s finest steakhouses, and worthy of a long visit. The Rat Pack would feel right at home in this stylish, classy den of meat. There is a lot to love about this place, starting with an elegant bar serving fantastic cocktails and the fantastic menu packed with classic dishes that harken back to the restaurant’s origin as a butcher shop that opened in 1979 in Houston.

You don’t have to be a high-flying politician to enjoy Perry’s. While a lot of lobbyist and legislators frequent Perry’s, walk-in guests are welcome. If you are coming for just one entrée, General Manager Jeff Halford recommends the famous Perry’s pork chop. This gorgeous chop is slow-roasted and smoked over pecan wood, and rubbed with barbecue spice and brown sugar. The rub gives it an amazing smoky, charred crust that protects the ultra-tender, succulent pork. The 32-ounce hunk of lusciousness is carved tableside into three portions: the eyelash, the tenderloin and the ribs.

Eat that flavorful eyelash first and work your way around the hot cast-iron plate to the loin, and then finish by gnawing the ribs off the bone. Get in there. Get that sweet, glistening fat all over your lips and fingers. Pair it with a Glenmo Ginger Blossom cocktail made with Gllenmorangie 10-year-old Scotch, lemon juice, honey water and fresh ginger, and you are good to go. Bring your appetite. This beast is enough for the stoutest man, or any man willing to share with a good friend. It’s a carnivore’s dream.

To avoid hearing Mom’s voice in your head, order some veggies to accompany the chop. You can’t miss the sweet Sriracha Brussels sprouts that are roasted with salt, pepper and a little caramelized Sriracha sauce. The smoky, crisp skins, spice and sweetness pair well with the pork.

Now that you’ve had your healthy stuff, treat yourself with the Nutty D’Angelo, vanilla ice cream crusted with pecans and flambéed tableside with brown sugar and brandy, and then drizzled in white chocolate and toasted almonds. It’s a spectacular show and flat-out delectable. Pair it with a lovely glass of Royal Tokaji Red Label Tokaji Aszu 5 Puttonyos dessert wine.

BEST MUST-HAVE APPETIZERS: VINCE YOUNG STEAKHOUSE

301 San Jacinto Blvd.

Vince Young Steakhouse CrabcakeNamed for former University of Texas star quarterback Vince Young, this independent steakhouse deftly combines an upscale sports bar with fine dining. Steak is definitely a draw at Vince Young, but they have some of the best appetizers in town to nibble before the main course. Chef Philip Brown and his team make everything from scratch, from the ketchup to the bread to the desserts. That allows the kitchen to give special attention to the quality of ingredients when creating local twists on steakhouse favorites.

Vince Young Steakhouse makes a killer crab cake. Made with substantial hunks of crab and jalapeno aioli, this dish is mostly crab cake with none of that breadcrumb filler. Chef Brown gets the crab to hold together with a bare minimum of ingredients. Rather that tossing it into the deep fryer like some hockey-puck crab cake, this one is seared crispy on the outside, but moist and delicate inside. The aioli gives it a pleasant kick and delightful tanginess. It’s an ample enough portion to share with your date. Pair it with a glass or three of Pierre Sparr Gewürztraminer.

This snazzy place is far from a tailgate saloon. However, if you want to conjure some of the playful feeling of a pre-game celebration, order the crispy quail. What could be better than deep-fried quail from Lockhart, Texas, served with bacon-infused tangerine marmalade and Sriracha sauce? The quail rests on a tarragon funnel cake for a sophisticated play on chicken and waffle. The juicy quail is mostly boneless, so pick it up and dig in. Enjoy it with a glass of slightly sweet and fizzy Mionetto Il Moscato.

If you’re still hungry after that, by all means, tuck into the unbelievably delicious 14-ounce prime dry-aged bone-in filet. It’s an experience.

OTHER NOTABLE STEAKHOUSES

III Forks Steakhouse, 111 Lavaca St.

The elegance of mahogany paneling and marble floors meets the ranch feel of antlers and longhorns. It feels expensive, and it is. With a selection of 10 USDA prime steaks and a selection of classic steakhouse sides, III Forks fits the bill for a Texas-style steak binge.

Bob’s Steak & Chop House, 301 Lavaca St.

This Dallas-based chain opened its doors across the street from the W Hotel in downtown Austin in the summer of 2012. While the wood paneling screams traditional, stuffy steakhouse, Bob’s is also studded with TVs for sports fans and has a rooftop deck perfect for enjoying an after-dinner drink by the light of the moon. Its prime steaks are all served with a signature huge carrot that would make Olaf from the movie Frozen blush.

Jeffrey’s, 1204 W. Lynn St.

While it’s not billed as a steakhouse, steak dominates the elegant menu at this beautifully refurbished fine-dining spot. Chef Rebecca Meeker serves prime steaks that are locally aged and cut. Choose rib-eye, strip or filet from three different ranches. Six cuts of Wagyu beef and five dry-aged cuts show this place means business about its meats. Prices range from $45 for an Akaushi “club-cut” New York strip, to $85 for a dry-aged bone-in tenderloin.

Ruth’s Chris Prime Steak House & Restaurant, 107 W. Sixth St.

This venerable restaurant group traces its roots to the 1960s, and is now the largest steakhouse chain in the U.S. The Austin Ruth’s Chris will celebrate its 30th anniversary next spring, and has hosted a long list of celebrities and hungry locals throughout the years. Ruth’s Chris set the standard for quality steaks in Austin, and has stayed true to its heritage with its USDA prime cuts served with Southern hospitality.

Steiner Ranch Steakhouse, 5424 Steiner Ranch Blvd.

Situated a stone’s throw from Lake Travis, this Texas-themed steakhouse is a long haul from downtown Austin. The menu of 10 steaks, punctuated by a 22-ounce cowboy rib-eye, makes it worth the drive.

Sullivan’s Steakhouse, 300 Colorado St.

This downtown steakhouse staple underwent massive renovations last year to give the space a more modern, elegant and less masculine look. The revamped menu adds more seafood and lighter items, but still retains a strong lineup of eight steaks that can be served with a variety of sauces or lump crab. The 26-ounce dry-aged long-bone rib-eye is certain to satisfy the biggest appetites.

Truluck’s Seafood, Steak and Crab House, 400 Colorado St.

The crab may be the draw, but the luscious selection of classic steak cuts will turn any carnivore’s gaze. After receiving extensive renovations that added a second floor with sweeping views of the city, Truluck’s is even more of a draw for steak lovers. The all-natural rib-eye always hits the spot.

Prime Cuts

Prime Cuts illustrations by Nora Iglesias.

This story was originally published in the Fall issue of Austin Man Magazine. Pick it up on newsstands. It looks gorgeous.

Disclosure: participating restaurants provided samples of food and beverage for review at now charge.

What are you drinking?

Whiskey: Everything you ever needed to know about the drink for every man

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.

 

INSIDER’S TIPS

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 DadElijah 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 FriendGuide 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.

 

BALCONES DISTILLERY INTRODUCES THE WORLD TO TEXAS SINGLE MALT

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.

TREATY OAK DISTILLING CO. RED HANDED WHISKEY

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.

GARRISON BROTHERS DISTILLERY

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.

“We have no plans to sell outside Texas,” Garrison says. “As long as the Texans keep drinking, we’re in good shape.”

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.

BARTENDER’S WISDOM

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.

Battle of New Orleans at Drink.Well

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.

The Atlantic Avenue at Drink.Well

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

Bar Congress

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.”

Drink.Well

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.

Péché

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.

Jack Allen’s Kitchen

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.

tenOakTen Oak

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.

Vince Young Steakhouse

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. 

What are you drinking?