- By Arianna Auber American-Statesman Staff
At heart, the guys at Treaty Oak Distilling are tinkerers. Their distillery is as much a little science laboratory where they like to play with cool toys as it is a boozy place where vodka, gin, rum and whiskey are produced.
On an ordinary day at the distillery, you’ll find them experimenting. Matt Moody, Treaty Oak’s food and beverage director, is making vodka tonics with Treaty Oak’s Starlite Vodka and Liber & Co.’s Spiced Tonic Syrup on one such day — but he’s not doing it in any recognizable way. His face, for one, is obscured by a ghostly cloud of liquid nitrogen. He’s using it to cool the drink down to the point that he can carbonate it and make sure the bubbles will hold.
Granted, there hasn’t been an ordinary day at the distillery in quite some time. Founded by Daniel Barnes, Treaty Oak has moved to a sprawling 27-acre property on the road to Dripping Springs — the same intoxicating road where you can also find Jester King, Argus Cidery, Revolution Spirits and Last Stand Brewing. After a lot of construction and planning, it’s gearing up to open in the next two weeks.
In the room with Moody is a variety of odd instruments and machines. An industrial-strength juicer. A Japanese shaved ice machine from the 1800s. Even a cotton candy machine. But most interesting of these contraptions to anyone who knows that Treaty Oak Distilling makes spirits, not beer, is the stainless steel PicoBrew system that allows Barnes and Chris Lamb, his head distiller, to tinker with homebrew recipes.
A big change is coming with the move to the Hill Country property southwest of Austin: Treaty Oak, in addition to providing visitors with plenty of places on-site to dine and drink, is about to start brewing beer with a soon-to-come 30-barrel brewing system that will allow Lamb, moving into a head brewer role, to eventually distribute his sudsy creations.
The 9-year-old distillery isn’t the first alcoholic beverage producer to venture into new territory. Anchor Brewing, the first American craft brewery post-Prohibition, developed Anchor Distilling Company in 1993; since then, Ballast Point Brewing and Rogue Ales & Spirits are among the others that have followed suit. San Antonio’s Ranger Creek Brewing & Distilling is Texas’ most notable example, but we’re about to get another one, in addition to Treaty Oak.
Real Ale Brewing, the 19-year-old Blanco brewery that Brad Farbstein took over in 1998, has also decided to make the leap into creating a beverage rather different from the one it’s already perfected.
“A brewery is obviously a natural first step in a distillery, since you’re essentially making beer and then distilling the wash down to make a spirit,” Farbstein says. “Beer will always be our main focus, but I’ve always been interested in spirits as well. Real Spirits is something that’s been in the making for almost 20 years now.”
Barnes and Lamb have already brewed dozens of different iterations of a session IPA with the PicoBrew contraption, among many other small-brewing projects. Farbstein and his distiller, Ty Phelps, have been making whiskey with plans to start work on a gin this fall and release it next spring. It’ll be the first of the Real Spirits that visitors to the brewery can taste.
Both of these projects have taken lots of time and effort to get right — but the investment is worth it to them because the trial-and-error of recipe refining is partly the point.
“You have to break something down scientifically to understand why you’re doing what you’re doing,” Barnes says. “We wanted to start from scratch with brewing — look at why brewers do what they do, see if that’s the best way to do it. What does each ingredient do, and why do you use it? That’s something we did with distilling.”
At the end of November, Treaty Oak visitors will be able to try the Little Hop Session IPA, the Tommy Ale English-Style Mild and a blonde ale made with a slight amount of honey that won’t make it sweet. Eventually, they’ll also be able to try up to five other more experimental brews on tap at the distillery’s rickhouse, including ones that will showcase the impact of hops and yeast by leaving the other ingredients the same. Many of these will only be available there.
For Real Ale’s Farbstein, that exclusivity is partly why he decided to pursue distilling and had a copper pot still made in Spain for the brewery.
“We’re a destination brewery,” he says. “We aren’t located in a metropolitan area where you can just hop on your bike or get in your car and see us. You’re driving alongside John Deere on the road to get to us. You’re making a commitment. So anything we can do to encourage people to come out, we try to do it.”
Therefore, he says, Real Spirits will only be found at the brewery, where one day people can come for cocktails or a pint of beer and take home a bottle of one of the spirits. The release of the gin might even time perfectly with the 20th anniversary of Real Ale in April.
Besides the gin, which will contain regionally sourced botanicals, Real Spirits also hopes to create a tequila-like spirit with agave from Mexico and a whiskey that Farbstein thinks will become the distillery’s signature product. “Our plan is to take our brewhouse barley and smoke it over peach wood from my neighbor and make a whiskey from that,” he says.
Smaller-batch whiskeys are on the docket, too, using the washes — sans hops — from Real Ale beers, including Phoenixx Wintertime Ale, the Coffee Porter and Devil’s Backbone Tripel. Being able to combine the beers and the spirits in this way — as well as by aging them separately in the same barrels — is part of the fun for Farbstein, who seems to have the same adventurous, go-all-in spirit as the guys at Treaty Oak.
“Pulling our two products together like that is the ultimate dream,” he says.”It would be awesome to someday have a Phoenixx barrel-aged in one of the whiskey barrels and a shot of the Phoenixx whiskey next to it.”
It’s not hard to imagine that Barnes, Moody and Lamb have similar ideas for their “brewstillery.”
“It’s crazy to think we’re taking this step up,” Lamb says as he reflects on Treaty Oak’s original 50-gallon stills, which have recently been joined by 1,000-gallon, open-top whiskey fermenters. “Crazy but exciting.”