- By Arianna Auber American-Statesman Staff
Owning the first urban whiskey distillery in Austin since Prohibition, the co-founders of Still Austin Whiskey Co. knew from the start that they wanted their product to be as distinctive as the place where it’s made.
For head distiller John Schrepel, who consults with Chris Seals and the other co-owners, that has meant seeking out Texas-grown grains and making whiskey entirely from scratch: milling the grain, making it into mash, fermenting and distilling it, and then barreling it for aging or bottling it for what is called new make whiskey. The result is whiskey that draws its flavor from hard-to-find Texas corn and wheat.
On Sept. 23, the official opening day, Austinites will get to try new make whiskeys both neat and in cocktails in Still Austin Whiskey’s sterling new tasting room, a highlight of which is two windows into the distillery. One of them shows off the 50-foot-tall still — towering above the rest of the building — that can produce 1,000 gallons of whiskey in a day.
The property, in the same South Austin complex where St. Elmo Brewing and the Austin Winery have also set up shop, has an on-site Indian-Texas fusion food truck called Puli-Ra, a small garden where herbs for the cocktails are grown, an outdoor seating area, and an art gallery that doubles as an events space. There’s also room outside for live music.
Visitors will have ample things to do there, but the only thing to drink, of course, is the whiskey.
At first, the whiskey offerings won’t include anything aged. The co-owners, a group that includes Seals and his father Cleveland, Lisa Braunberg and her husband, Andrew, and couple Sal and Joanna Salinas, want Still to ultimately produce bourbon, but in the meantime — while the years pass with liquid slowly maturing in barrels — the distillery will provide new make (which isn’t the same as generally higher-proof moonshine, they maintain).
“We wanted to start with a spirit that is of a quality that reflects our grains and holds onto some of the terroir from the grain,” Seals said. “A whiskey that tastes good enough that we don’t have to put it in a barrel unless we want to. Ninety percent of what we make goes into a barrel. But we wanted something that goes in at a good quality.”
For that, he had to research where exactly Still would get the corn that makes up the majority of the whiskey’s grain bill. Most of the world’s corn is now one single variety, yellow dent number three. Though Kentucky distilleries use it to produce a majority of the country’s bourbon, it’s not actually the most ideal corn to use for whiskey, Seals said.
“When Prohibition came through, it literally wiped out $1.2 billion in farmers’ profits for specialty grains,” he said. “Overnight, there was no longer a market for grains that were great for beer or grains that were great for whiskey, and what came in its place is this global commodity system that we have today. The whole agricultural world changed for a lot of reasons in the last century, but Prohibition was a seminal piece of it.”
Instead of yellow dent number three, Still Austin Whiskey makes its spirits with Hondo white corn from a town near San Antonio and red winter wheat from a farm in Travis County, as well as a small amount of barley. These have imparted a great deal of flavor in the main New Make Whiskey, which has notes of corn tortilla and baked bread.
“The things it tastes like are the things we eat here,” Seals said. “We decided that the main trio of whiskeys nod to our Tex-Mex culture. Rather than looking to Kentucky for inspiration, we started looking here, at who we are locally. We have a very diverse, vibrant culture with a lot of influence from Mexico, and our new make is very connected to what we eat and drink in Austin.”
Two of the other three new make whiskeys are infusions: Daydreamer, made with Texas tangelo and valencia and bergamot oranges; and Mother Pepper, made with chile pequin, smoked serrano and aji amarillo peppers (yes, it’s got some heat!).
The final offering, likely available in a few months, is the Smoked Briskey, a collaboration with local barbecue joint La Barbecue, and it’ll be a tasting room-only item. The name might suggest there’s brisket in the whiskey (a meaty experiment that San Antonio’s Ranger Creek Brewing & Distilling recently did), but the grains were simply smoked on La Barbecue’s pits for subtle notes of smoke.
These are enjoyable neat, but you’ll be able to also order cocktails courtesy of Still Austin Whiskey’s bar manager, Melody Plate, who relied on the cocktail garden outside for herbs incorporated into infusions. A distillery can only use alcohol made on-site, requiring creativity with non-boozy ingredients. Having come from Treaty Oak Brewing & Distilling, she’s already flexed those muscles.
At Still, she has made disarming concoctions like the Cucumber Basil Martini, featuring cucumber- and basil-infused New Make Whiskey, lime juice and simple syrup; the Hibiscus Mule, containing hibiscus-infused New Make Whiskey; and the Daisy Pepper with Mother Pepper Whiskey, lemon juice and brown sugar simple syrup.
Once Still Austin Whiskey is up and running, the co-founders plan to introduce a program, Distill Your Own Barrel, that will allow visitors not only to tour the distillery side of the operation but also to make their own whiskey at a small whiskey lab complete with its own small pot still and an unusual-looking contraption called a spirits safe. Another program, Stash, specifically will grant participants a personalized look at the barreling process.
“We want Austin to have a say in the direction where craft whiskey goes,” Seals said.