- By Arianna Auber American-Statesman Staff
The brick-walled room where a plump pot still produces gin and the beginnings of two types of whiskey is a closet in comparison to the massive industrial warehouse where Real Ale Brewing makes beer. But you’ve got to start somewhere.
That’s a lesson Real Ale’s owner Brad Farbstein knows well. He might operate the Austin area’s oldest brewery — now one of the 50 top producing craft breweries in the country — but he’s not sitting on his laurels. A year after the Blanco brewery celebrated its 20th anniversary, he’s ready to unveil a boozy project he’s been wanting to launch for years: a line of hard liquor products that he’s calling Real Spirits.
Real Spirits officially debuts this weekend at the taproom, which will have bottles to go and cocktails served for on-site consumption alongside the packaged and draft beers that have been Real Ale’s sole specialty for so long.
“This project we eventually hope to make money on, but that’s not a driving factor,” Farbstein said. “We’re very fortunate in that the brewery pays the bills, and this is more of a passion and a drive to create something that hasn’t been created before.”
He’s not exaggerating about the exclusive nature of the spirits. The gin and two whiskeys — one a blend of sorts called Texas Hill Country Signature Whiskey, the other a single-source spirit called Texas Hill Country Single Barrel — are each distilled from one or more of Real Ale’s beers, sans hops, which means they can’t be replicated by another producer. That sets them apart from many distilleries that rely on mass-produced base distillate.
Real Spirits’ gin, aged in stainless steel tanks for three months, is perhaps the most unconventional of the three offerings.
Responsible for implementing Farbstein’s precise vision is head distiller Davin Topel, who found his calling at High West Whiskey in Utah. It’s fitting, then, that the Texas Hill Country Grain to Glass Gin starts with less of a neutral base than most gins, in part because of the pot still that Farbstein said is made “for spirits with a lot of flavor,” like whiskey.
He said the gin is more in the style of New Western than London dry, the latter of which is characterized by a strong juniper note. Topel chose to balance theirs with “a lot of fresh botanicals,” Farbstein said. “We introduced them in some fairly unusual ways to produce a gin that we think is pretty exciting considering that there is a lot of younger distillers, especially in the U.S., pushing the limits of what is normally considered a gin.”
The botanicals include juniper, coriander, angelica root, boris root, locally grown lavender, lemon, lime and grapefruit peel, as well as leaves from the bottlebrush tree that give off a sweet menthol flavor, according to Topel. He teamed up with Texas forager Mark “Merriweather” Vorderbruggen to find an atypical ingredient like the bottlebrush leaves that would help balance the distinctive juniper characteristics and make the gin stand out.
But you might also notice hints of the base beer, Real Ale White, in Real Spirits’ gin.
“One thing we discovered in the distillation process was that the yeast (in the beer) contributes a lot of unique flavor profiles, whether that’s in the whiskey or the gin,” Topel said. “The orange peel and coriander you get in the Real Ale White kind of carry through to the final product.”
The two whiskeys proved to be a much longer project because of their time in barrels, but they didn’t age as long as most bourbons in Kentucky do — an amount that has become a baseline for many U.S. whiskeys — because “a Texas summer is significantly different,” Farbstein said.
The heat speeds up the aging process and lends new meaning to the idea of a Texas whiskey. In this case, the liquid inside the barrels, which Real Ale keeps in a storage container parked outside the brewery, matured at an average of 17 months.
Real Spirits’ signature whiskey comprises what Farbstein calls a “mingling” of three different washes, the term that describes each of the hops-less beers before they’re distilled. The first wash is made from Real Ale’s Devil’s Backbone Belgian Tripel, the second from Real Ale’s Real Heavy Scotch Ale. A final wash is a single malt produced in the brewhouse exclusively for the stillhouse.
Once each has aged properly in barrels, they’re brought together for the final product.
“Our signature whiskey is atypical from the ones the craft distillers make in the U.S.,” Topel said. “Their process generally is to make a wash over and over again, age the whiskey in different barrels and blend the results together. But they all start as the same whiskey. Here, we’re taking three different beer styles, distilling them the same way, then aging them separately and putting them together in a way that helps them complement each other.”
The initial release of this whiskey and the gin will have about 1,500 bottles of each, but the Texas Hill Country Single Barrel is far more limited at 125 bottles. That one, he said, was created when the Real Spirits team noticed “a barrel of Real Heavy that stood out among its peers.”
Future projects in the small stillhouse include a possible white whiskey, an aged whiskey with a corn component, and brandies made from Texas pears and grapes.
Real Ale isn’t alone as the producer of both beer and hard booze; in Texas, it’s joining Treaty Oak Brewing & Distilling, Ranger Creek Brewing & Distilling and Dorcol Distilling/HighWheel Beerworks. Unlike these other “brewstilleries,” however, Real Ale plans to sell bottles of its spirits only at the Blanco taproom.
“We don’t have the luxury of being surrounded by a million people, so one of our biggest challenges is getting people to drive out to see us,” Farbstein said. “We’re only offering spirits in our pub in the hopes that they become another reason for people to visit. We want to show customers the breadth of capability that Real Ale has — beer as well as spirits.”