- By Arianna Auber American-Statesman Staff
If drinking your favorite alcoholic beverage in the peace of the countryside surrounding Austin sounds ideal, you have a couple of new options.
A distillery in Blanco and a brewery in Liberty Hill have opened as destination tasting rooms, one west of the city, the other north. Andalusia Whiskey Co. and San Gabriel River Brewery are both about an hour’s drive from Austin’s core, but they’re banking on the success of brands like Real Ale Brewing, Live Oak Brewing and Treaty Oak Distilling to draw the crowds. Each of those companies and others have built picturesque places we want to visit.
Though much smaller, the newer producers have cool spots of their own that they’re hoping to grow and develop. But you might want to check them out on separate days — they’re not exactly close to each other.
Distilling Hill Country charm into a whiskey business
When two Real Ale employees decided they wanted a crack at their own business, they didn’t get into brewing.
Ty Phelps and Tommy Erwin had watched as Texas changed the laws in favor of distillers — allowing them to sell cocktails from their tasting rooms, as well as a limited number of bottles to go — and saw the potential for a “more in-depth tasting room experience,” Phelps said.
They largely had everything they needed to make Andalusia Whiskey Co. happen. Phelps, in addition to brewing, had been helping Real Ale owner Brad Farbstein launch a distilling project, Real Spirits (which is still in the works). Plus, he and his wife, Ericka, live on ranch land not far from the 20-year-old Blanco brewery: the perfect place for a built-from-scratch distillery. Erwin, a microbiologist, ran Real Ale’s quality assurance lab and has the science background.
Distilling is also not terribly different from brewing, Phelps said — or, rather, “it’s brewing and then another step. We make malt whiskey here, which is similar to beer because they’re both barley-based.”
He and Erwin create a whiskey wash (essentially beer, sans hops) and double-distill it with a 250-gallon copper pot still. From there, the clear spirit is either added to barrels for aging or filtered and bottled as Andalusia Whiskey’s White Pearl. It’s a white whiskey, moonshine-like, that provides Phelps and Erwin the chance for income while they wait for the barrels to transform the maturing liquid within into single malt and other kinds of aged products.
Because of the aging process, visitors to the distillery can only buy bottles of the White Pearl for now. But the cocktails are made from both the White Pearl and from already produced Andalusia Single Malt, too small in quantity to be bottled.
The White Pearl — sweet and fruity, like a light white rum — isn’t the only draw. Walk into Andalusia Whiskey Co. and you just might gasp, like many people laying eyes on the airy, wood-and-metal two-story space for the first time.
“We are one of the first distilleries to come out after the laws changed, so we really focused on this tasting room,” Phelps said. “Really, what we’ve got is something more than just a tasting room. People can come and play darts or hang out in the library. We wanted to take advantage of the success that wineries have had.”
Once a fence goes up around the property, he wants to bring his family’s livestock back to the field in front of the distillery, where they used to graze before the building was erected. The farm animals will be one more element of Andalusia Whiskey Co. as a destination spot — and as a family-friendly place where kids can have just as much fun as their whiskey-drinking parents.
Distillery tours provide the chance to try much more than just the white whiskey, but Phelps and Erwin can’t wait for their aged products to be fully ready on a wider scale.
“Maybe if the whiskey gods are good to us, we’ll have something ready for spring next year,” Erwin said.
Two brothers, eight beers and one very big pecan tree
Brothers John and Patrick Peck opened a tiny, 1 1/2 barrel brewpub on land that John already owned after hearing from friends and family that their homebrews were good.
“My first year down here three years ago, we went to Texas Craft Brewers Festival and were talking about it,” Patrick Peck said. “We thought (opening a brewery) might be something we’d like to do, and the people we talked to said, ‘Oh, it’ll take you 8 to 10 years before you’re able to do something. And three years later, here we are.”
A few weeks after a grand opening party — which drew the largest crowd to the brewery yet — San Gabriel River Brewery debuted at this year’s Texas Craft Brewers Festival with two of its best-sellers: the Texas Red and the Honey Porter, made with local honey.
San Gabriel River Brewery is licensed as a brewpub so that the Pecks can sell 22 oz. bottles to-go straight from the taproom. But they’re also happy to have you in for a pint or a flight of four brews. They’ve opened with an impressive roster of eight beers (six mainstays and two seasonals) from their original homebrew recipes, tweaked with practice.
“We plan on getting bourbon barrels for aging, but that’s next year’s plan,” Patrick Peck said. “This year, we are concentrating on just getting our beer out there and finding a fanbase so people want to come back. We’ve been really lucky with that. We’ve already got regulars.”
One fan of theirs, he said, drives all the way from Dripping Springs because of how much he likes the beer.
Visitors to San Gabriel River Brewery can sit at one of the handful of bar stools in the tasting room or outside under a pergola where there’s much more seating. The space isn’t very large, but there’s lots of land and a pretty cool piece of history behind the brewpub that is named for a nearby river.
“The tree in our logo is the pecan tree we have back there that is maybe one of the oldest in Williamson County,” John Peck said, noting they opened the brewery so far north because “nothing is here yet.”
The brothers have plans as big as the tree for their business, although they are growing it modestly. They plan to upgrade to a 5 barrel system next year and, eventually, quit their day jobs. In the meantime, they’re just hoping to attract food trucks more regularly, as well as start offering live music. They’re even trying their hand as gardeners.
“We’ve got these hop plants we’re trying to grow for the beer,” John Peck said. “So far, we’ve had one plant put up one hop.”
Patrick Peck added, “And then, of course, the deer came in and ate them.”