Witnessing whiskey orders at a packed bar makes it pretty clear that in the almost 400 years since the beloved brown liquor landed on the official record, and despite countless variations to suit most palates, people choose their whiskey out of habit. Along with his team of fellow bourbon lovers, David Toby, beverage director of Jack Allen's Kitchen and Salt Traders Coastal Cooking, created a hand-selected single barrel whiskey program at their family of four JAK restaurants. Their goal? Present high-quality, reasonably priced, approachable whiskeys that will encourage people out of their comfort zone and into the whiskey-fueled world of possibilities.
What started about seven years ago as a curiosity about the nuances of single barrel liquors – ranging from an Eagle Rare 10-year bourbon to an extra añejo Casa Noble tequila – has grown into a one-of-a-kind program with five distinct options from several of the most notable whiskey brands in the world. Toby, along with Jack Gilmore, Tom Kamm, and chef Chris Ten Eyck, hand-selects every one of the candidates at each distiller's headquarters across the country, which is a rare journey. They were only the second in Texas – after the Dallas Cowboys and before Alamo Drafthouse – to offer a Maker's Mark Private Select bourbon.
For the Maker's Mark selection process (different for each distillery), the group of aficionados gathered to blind taste test a series of combinations to narrow down their proprietary blend of French oak staves, which are inserted into the barrel to rest for nine weeks. (The first barrel made this way was Maker's 46). Each stave, or plank of the barrel, is baked, toasted, and charred at different temperatures and styles, with slightly different woods, and named. The JAK blend, for example, is four Maker's 46, three Mocha, and three French spice staves, and since one stave is no longer available, they're in the process of reconfiguring the 10-stave combo for a third barrel. (As an aside, when the barrels are empty, they cut the staves into chips, soak them in cheesecloth, and create barrel-aged Worcestershire for micheladas and Bloody Marys.)
Other program mainstays are the Whistle Pig Straight Rye, Toby's personal favorite, with a butterscotch-tinged long finish created from batching together two 13-years from Vermont, and the George Dickel, a 9-year, 103 proof medium body Tennessee whiskey with notes of s'mores and hay and wintergreen. The Russell's Reserve is a 10-year, 110 proof, that notes a vanilla chocolate swirl, honeycomb, and graham crackers. From local favorites Garrison Brothers, a four 5-year barrel combo batch has honey on the nose and a taste of charred marshmallow: "It's an elevated campfire whiskey, a cowboy bourbon," explains Toby. Garrison Brothers only allows JAK to do small batches because, well, "that's messing with stuff."
Denoted in the menu description, each whiskey tells a story, with the notes, palate, finish, proof, and barrel identification, its birthright. "It lived in that house – sitting right there in Warehouse JJ on the fifth floor – for 10 whole years, which is pretty cool. I mean, what were we doing 10 years ago?"
Speaking of Kentucky-born, the newest addition is the Elijah Craig Small Batch, notable not only because of the brand's origin story and its 10-year super-smooth finish with notes of Raisin Bran, but because it's the least expensive of the program at only an almost unheard of $8 for a 2-ounce pour. And everything in their barrel program is, in fact, a 2-ounce pour: George Dickel at $10, Russell's at $12, Maker's Mark at $14, Whistle Pig at $16, and Garrison Brothers at $18.
Toby says, "I want to get off work and have a good bourbon every day. Maybe you decide to pay more on your birthday, but with this one, we're giving it away almost, and I'm okay with that. I'm really proud of this program and want to make it affordable.
"I walk into this joint in Tahoe and they had everything – I was in awe. They had four Boss Hogs, four different years, multiple years of Old Forester, all five of Old Pappy [Van Winkle], etc. But then you looked at the price and they're asking $150, $200 for an ounce and a half. I was like, 'That's just not cool,' you know? Not only was the price elevated, they were actually pouring less. Just so they can look really great on the top shelf. But whiskey wasn't made for that! It already sat in a warehouse for 10 years, so once it's in the bottle, it's made to be drank! I feel like, 'Let's campfire it up, and let's drink more whiskeys.'"
These batches won't be available forever because that's just the thing about single barrels. Every barrel averages 150-180 750-mL bottles, and they're not going at the same pace, so despite constant adjustments, as with everything whiskey-related, timing is everything. "When it's gone, it's gone. That's the beauty of it. We're not faking it. It's just gone. I want to make sure I have different barrels lined up to keep it full and keep it honest. It's cool to have unique stuff that people aren't familiar with, but it's also good to have the favorites. I want to let the program morph and do its thing."
It's a sort of interactive experience, from trying different delivery methods – order it neat or with a splash of water (or make it an Old Fashioned or Manhattan for $2 more) – to discovering new flavor profiles and body preferences. "Everyone always likes talking tasting notes and geeking out with wine, and our program can help people educate themselves a bit with whiskey. Like, 'Oh, I smell that almond' – it makes it fun, and there's no right or wrong. You can identify with things that are in the earth, just like wine. And if you're into that, go for it, but if you just want to kick back and drink it, that's cool, too."[Editor's note: We updated the story to reflect the whiskey program is available at JAK only, not STTC.]
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