Kooper Family Whiskey releases Austin’s first locally produced rye

Texas whiskey — unburdened by the long, storied legacies of other whiskeys like bourbon and Scotch — is beginning to become a category unto itself, thanks to the playful, knows-no-bounds direction the distillers in this state are taking the dark, aged spirit. One new whiskey producer is continuing that streak.

Joining the ranks of Texas whiskey is a 100 percent rye recipe — barreled, aged and blended in the Hill Country — that Austin couple Troy and Michelle Kooper, newcomers to the spirits industry, decided to create after noticing their love of rye whiskey couldn’t be satiated by any local producers.

“The whole idea has been rye from the beginning,” Troy Kooper said. “Michelle and I were drinking whiskey together one night when it struck us that no one local was making rye. That’s our favorite … so it just made sense that we do it.”

Kooper Family Rye, now in bars and stores around Austin, is the first rye whiskey to come out of Central Texas. And it’s a good one, too, with rye’s characteristic spice at the forefront in a delightful tug-of-war between black pepper and cinnamon. (Not all ryes are 100 percent rye, making this one distinctive.)

The robust rye is just as enjoyable to sip neat as it is to incorporate in a cocktail like an Old Fashioned. That’s how the Koopers drank it on a recent visit to the Blackheart on Rainey Street, the first bar in town to carry their whiskey. Notably, the couple had to wait a few minutes for another bottle of Kooper Family Rye to be brought in by the distributor — the previous one had already been emptied within days by thirsty Austinites curious about a new whiskey on Blackheart’s bar shelf.

That kind of positive reception for Kooper Family Whiskey Co.’s rye is exciting, but it’s also giving the Koopers growing pains.

Although they’re in charge of nearly every part of the process of producing their rye, from the barreling to the blending, they don’t have the proper equipment just yet to do any distilling of their own. They’re quick to explain that Chicago’s Koval Distillery, where both of them spent some time training to learn the trade, sends them unaged spirit “cut deep to eliminate every trace of the heads and tails” of the distillation.

“We chose them because they had a similar philosophy about the whiskey,” Troy Kooper said. “It was either doing it that way or not do it at all, and we’d already invested so much into it.”

He and Michelle are hoping their arrangement with Koval is only temporary, however. Their goal is to open a full-scale distillery where they can continue to play around with rye, maybe even produce a rye liqueur.

“Rye just stood out to us from the start,” Troy said, noting that he stumbled across it at a bar in New York that specialized in carrying American whiskeys. “As soon as we discovered it, it was head and shoulders better than the others for us.”

They decided to start tinkering with rye three years ago, when Troy, who’s in advertising, was looking for a way out of his career and into something he was more passionate about.

For Michelle, an avid cook involved in a variety of different DIY projects, coming up with the right recipe for rye was a fun challenge that required a lot of research, including visiting whiskey distilleries around the U.S. — as well as doing a lot of experimenting at home.

“The amount of trial-and-error we had,” she said, recalling how often they’d have to throw away eight hours’ worth of work in the early days of the business. “We would go to Central Market and buy out all their rye grains and just have these long days of mashing and trying to figure out which kind of rye was best,” whether that be pumpernickel or some other type of rye meal.

Now, the Koopers source the rye from an organic grower in Kansas because even though they’d like to keep all their ingredients as Texas-based as possible, rye — the kind used in whiskey — doesn’t grow here. But they are happy that Texas still has an influence over Kooper Family Rye.

“The Texas climate is perfect for aging whiskey,” Troy Kooper said. “We just let Texas do with it what it will.”

Above all, making rye whiskey together is a way of staying close. It’s allowed Troy, whose day job keeps him away from Michelle and their two kids more than he likes, to have guaranteed time to spend with them. That’s why, he said, they’ve called their business the Kooper Family Whiskey Co. “We had to name the distillery Kooper Family because that’s what it is,” he said.

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