- By Arianna Auber American-Statesman Staff
You can find good whiskey at just about any bar worth its booze in Austin — Maker’s Mark, anyone? — but some watering holes go above and beyond to make their whiskey selection worth a splurge.
Here are some of the best places in town for those times when you’re feeling adventurous and want something more than the well bourbon. An overproof rye? An exotic Japanese whisky? The ever-elusive Pappy Van Winkle? These places have ’em.
Seven Grand Whiskey Bar, 405 E. Seventh St. Part Irish pub, part Pacific Northwest hunting lodge, the stately bar specializes, as its name suggests, in whiskey — hundreds of bottles of the dark aged spirit, to be exact, some of which are accessible from the tallest shelves by ladder.
It’s here where I tried Suntory Hakushu 12-Year-Old Japanese Whisky for the first time and felt my world rocked by the aroma of delicate cherry blossom wafting from the glass like perfume. This place has those kinds of wild whiskey rides as well as reliable staples. Maker’s, the popular wheated bourbon, is the base in all of Seven Grand’s classic whiskey cocktails, for instance.
Want to learn why the Suntory Hakushu 12-Year has that subtle floral nose or what the requirements are to make a Scotch whisky? Seven Grand, a Los Angeles outpost and sibling of Half Step on Rainey Street, offers its Whiskey Society as a relaxed but educational meetup.
Easy Tiger, 709 E. Sixth St. Although Easy Tiger is known primarily as a beer bar, with a hefty list of craft beer and an inviting outdoor beer garden, the pub has always placed a focus on whiskey as well. That love was taken to the next level with the introduction of a patio whiskey bar last year. And on #WhiskeyWednesdays, whiskey cocktails are just $5 (versus the usual $10) from 4:30 p.m. to close.
Look out for a Japanese Whisky Flight Night coming up Nov. 8. The $25 flights will have four Japanese whiskies that will lend insight into why these Asian spirits are so special.
Freedmen’s, 2402 San Gabriel St. That’s right: A campus-area barbecue joint has one of the best whiskey selections in town. In addition to a menu divided by type of whiskey (whether that’s Canadian, rye, Irish, limited-release or other categories), Freedmen’s helpfully offers flights of three at a time, ranging from $13.25 to $27, like the TX Pride flight with TX Bourbon, Kooper Family Rye and Balcones Baby Blue.
Although you might think you’d want a beer with your brisket, have a whiskey cocktail — the cocktail menu, featuring a range of spirits and not just whiskey, is similarly solid and was also recently updated with fall flavors. Try the Autumn Spice and Everything Nice, with Western Son Red River Rye, pumpkin soda syrup, lemon, egg white and a grated smoked pumpkin seed garnish.
Or, if you’re dining with a small group, Freedmen’s just debuted a large-format drink called the Gold Dollar. It’s pricey at $60, but with Bulleit 10 Year Bourbon, Ron Zacapa 23-year, dry curacao, smoked pineapple syrup, lime and grapefruit, it’s well worth splitting with one to three of your friends. And there’s a cool story behind the name: It’s a nod to one of the country’s first black newspapers.
The very old building where the refined Freedmen’s is located — designed to feel like a turn-of-the-century saloon — was the former home of Reverend Fontaine and his family, who occupied it from 1875 to 1898. During that time, he started the newspaper, taking the name “from a gold dollar that was presented to him by his sister Nelly Miller on a visit to Mississippi in 1872, after they had been separated by slavery for 20 years,” according to Freedmen’s.
The Blackheart, 86 Rainey St. This bungalow bar in a building from the late 1800s has a laid-back vibe similar to other Rainey Street spots, but it stands out to whiskey lovers because of its devotion to the spirit. The considerable menu of whiskeys includes everything from the creamy, smoky Laphroaig Cairdeas Quarter Cask to the locally produced Kooper Family Rye — a wide range of styles, regions and prices.
And if you prefer your whiskey in a cocktail, the Blackheart has those, too, such as the seasonal Toki Toddy with Suntory Whisky Toki, plum, brown sugar and lemon.
Still Austin Whiskey Co., 440 E. St. Elmo Road. OK, this new South Austin distillery doesn’t have whiskeys beyond its own, but they are certainly worth a visit. While bourbon ages in barrels, Still has “new make” (unaged) whiskey available in the tasting room that you can try neat and in cocktails.
Sip each one (such as the spicy Mother Pepper) neat to get a sense of how the corn they’re made with contributes a flavor that can be overshadowed by barrel-aging. If you’re there between 3 to 7 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, that’s happy hour, when you can get $2 off flights and all cocktails.
Vox Table, 1100 S. Lamar Blvd. From the beginning, this New American restaurant in the Lamar Union complex has emphasized whiskey and built a hefty menu of the stuff divided into styles, with an extra-large supply of bourbon as well as a section playfully titled “Baller American whiskey.”
Mischievous names are a bit of a signature at Vox Table, and that’s never more evident than with a rye cocktail called Tom Selleck’s Mustache. After sipping the combination of Knob Creek, Casa Brasil coffee-infused Cocchi Torino, Bar Keep Chinese Five Spice Bitters and smoke, you’ll just know that’s exactly how the “Magnum, P.I.” star’s iconic ’stache smells and tastes. In a non-weird way, of course.
Jack Allen’s Kitchen, multiple locations. The four restaurants from prolific Austin chef Jack Gilmore highlight bourbon and tequila drinks more than any other spirit, and they took their love of the booze to the next level last month with the launch of a single-barrel program. Now, each location has bourbon you can’t get anywhere else.
Peche, 208 W. Fourth St. Like Easy Tiger, the Warehouse District bar isn’t thought of as much of a whiskey den. Elegant and narrow, with carefully dimmed chandeliers, Peche serves up French comfort food and specializes in absinthe cocktails, as Austin’s first absinthe bar. But don’t dismiss its whiskey offerings so easily. Perhaps because of the French influence, Peche makes New Orleans-originating drinks like the Sazerac and Vieux Carré especially well.
Vince Young Steakhouse, 301 San Jacinto Blvd. Although the executive chef at Vince Young Steakhouse, Phillip Brown, is mainly in charge of the kitchen at the downtown restaurant, he also has a deep love of bourbon and has taken charge of putting together the considerable list of whiskeys. As a result, the steakhouse has some quality sippers, including Pappy Van Winkle.
TenOak Bourbon House + Lounge, 409 Colorado St. Featuring lots of exposed brick, dark wood and leather banquettes, this place has the sort of masculine ambience you’d imagine would fuel a lot of whiskey-soaked nights in downtown Austin. But you’d better like bourbon.
TenOak boasts, as the name suggests, one of the largest small-batch bourbon collections in town, to help wash down the full menu of comfort food necessities. It’s not the place to go if you’re more of a Scotch lover, but the lounge does dive deeply into bourbon waters, offering the likes of the local Garrison Brothers, Kentucky’s Jefferson’s and many more bourbon-focused distilleries.
And if you want the best Old Fashioned in town, head to Whisler’s at 1816 E. Sixth St. The Old Fashioned, a divine classic cocktail with simple ingredients that’s nonetheless easy to mess up, has become my benchmark test for local bars and their cocktail-making prowess. Many of them do it right, but no one is better than Whisler’s.