Texas Whiskey Worth Shouting About
Still Austin’s local spirits are worthy of a “Yee-haw!” or five
By Wayne Alan Brenner,
1:00PM, Mon. Jun. 4, 2018
Still Austin, located in The Yard right off St. Elmo Road, is the first whiskey distillery within city limits since Prohibition.
That fact makes for a decent opening line, and that’s the only reason it's up there: To draw you in a little further.
Because Still Austin could be outside the city limits, or it could be one of several whiskey distilleries inside the city limits, and it wouldn’t matter – because Still Austin would still be worth writing about, worth shouting about, worth showing its website to out-of-state friends and saying, “See what you’re missing over there in [fill in name of lesser state], fool?”
I didn’t know this – I don’t keep tabs on the potent potable scene in this town – until I was assigned to cover Jake Clements’ inaugural Texas Whiskey Festival a couple months ago.
And Clements suggested Still Austin as a convenient place to meet for an interview, so I also got to talk to the owners of that young company, and got to sample their wares. And now I’m back and sort of evangelizing at you here – because those wares, listen, they’re Just So Damned Fine.
(Also, you know about The Yard itself? No? Well, if not in this post, we’ll eventually be reporting further on that entire compound. Because what’s going on there and how many parts of it are set up for the public is a testament to shopkeepers who give a damn about providing a welcoming and aesthetically delightful experience to money-spending – or just casually browsing – citizens.)
And who’s responsible for this particular liquid bounty of Austin-based goodness? The distillers, of course – the experts who are all hands-on with the actual process of distilling – and also the entire crew at Still Austin. But, initially, it was two married couples and a father-and-son team who started (and who continue to run) Still Austin: Lisa and Andrew Braunberg, Joanna and Sal Salinas, and Chris Seals and his father Cleveland. Those are the affable people I chatted with, back in March. They’re the ones who told me about the company’s continuous column still – a 42-foot apparatus designed by Michael Delevante, made by Forsyths in Scotland – and how it was the reason for something I didn’t quite understand.
See, during that interview with Jake Clements, the Still Austin proprietors treated me to one of the whiskey flights that accompany the tours they offer, a flight that includes samples of their New Make, Mother Pepper, and Daydreamer distillations – and, bonus, an Old Fashioned cocktail, made with that same Daydreamer.
And what do I know from whiskey? I know, as a man perennially closer to the non-drinker than the drinker end of any boozehound spectrum, that a whiskey’s got to be as easy as possible to imbibe or else my gullet's gonna rebel so hard its resistance will have a dedicated hashtag. My palate's relative ignorance requires a friendly albeit deep taste to achieve anything resembling bliss. And such taste is reached, in whiskey, as far as I understand the process, by aging the stuff. And maybe especially by aging it in curated wooden barrels, which aging-in-wood adds certain subtle undernotes and pleasant overtones and just, well, mellows the distillation toward the sublime.
Which also, microparticles being what they are, imbues that whiskey with its iconic amber color.
So here’s your naive reporter, taking the first sip in the flight. Taking a healthy sip of Still Austin’s New Make whiskey – which is as clear as water flowing from some fairy tale’s enchanted spring.
Brenner (eyebrows raised in disbelief after the first sip): This is right out of the vat?
Joanna Salinas: Yes.
Brenner (feeling like an idiot, or that he’s somehow being pranked here): Uh … why is it so smooth?
Joanna: Thank you! We worked very hard to make it that way!
Brenner: But … I mean, how … ?
Lisa Braunberg: I think the smoothness that you’re noticing is the combination of fresh grains and the still that we use. Instead of using a pot still, we have what’s referred to as a column still or even a bourbon still – and it’s part of why that tastes the way it does. It does a fantastic job of smoothing everything out before we put it in a bottle.
Brenner: This is amazing. I can taste the … it’s like when I was a kid on Long Island, and we’d get fresh corn from farmers along the road, and we’d shuck the ears, and – this has traces of the way that fresh-shucked corn smells.
Lisa: Well, this is our signature New Make – which is 70% corn, 20% wheat, and 10% malted barley. So we call it a bourbon mash, because it’s mostly corn. It’s a 92 proof, unaged whiskey. And it’s clear because it hasn’t been inside a barrel for any amount of time.
Chris Seals: Still Austin focuses on the grains that are indigenous to this region. Like, Kentucky bourbons use a variety of yellow corn that grows pretty plentiful in the Ohio Valley? But we’ve always had white corn here in Texas – most often used for corn tortillas – and we’ve never had a shortage of it, never run out of tortillas – thank God! – so we always have plenty of that. And we use red winter wheat that’s grown right here in Travis County, and barley that’s grown in Brady, Texas. So what you’re tasting is basically a basket of grains from Central Texas.
“We’re a grain-to-glass distillery,” Joanna Salinas adds, smiling, and you can hear the pride in her voice. “We make it all from scratch.”
You get the idea, whiskey lover? I could tell you more at this point, about how the Mother Pepper is infused with three types of chili peppers, about the subtle citrus-and-bergamot Daydreamer that makes for an Old Fashioned you’ll never want any other way, and so on. But that information’s available with a click to the company’s website, of course.
And since the point of this article was mostly to go, “Hey, y’all! Here’s some wonderful local stuff you should know about!” … I reckon my job here is done and it’s time for me to shut up and, after mentioning those Still Austin tours just one more time, concentrate on enjoying the ice-filled tumbler of New Make on the coaster near my computer’s mouse.