Distilling the Spirit of Austin
By Briana Loëb
Photos by Leslie Hodge
For the first time since Prohibition, our city has its very own whiskey distillery set right within the city limits. Fortunately, in today's era, we have no shortage of excellent spirits to choose from. But even better yet, we now have an option with an approach that is just as authentic and original as Austin itself.
Started by three Austin families and backed by a group of friends, Still Austin Whiskey Co. is locally owned and operated in the St. Elmo district. While many whiskey makers in Texas have outsourced the production of their spirits and just age, flavor, or bottle it, Still Austin Whiskey Co. has committed to crafting a "grain-to-glass" product. This means they make their spirits from scratch, sourcing 100% of their ingredients from Texas farmers. Milling, mashing, fermenting, distilling, barreling, and bottling are all done in-house in their facility located south of Highway 290 just off South Congress in the heart of Austin.
Still Austin Whiskey Co. was established by couples Andrew and Lisa Braunberg, Sal and Joanna Salinas, as well as Chris Seals and
his father, Cleveland Seals. These six cofounders were all united for different reasons, but shared a common passion. "We started drinking together," recalls Andrew Braunberg, who oversees production. "Next thing you know, we're in business together."
"We all had the same desire to get involved with establishing a distillery," says Lisa Braunberg, co-founder and the head of marketing. "Why don't we try to band together and see what we could come up with? We each had uniquely complementary skill sets in different areas, and it seemed too good to pass up."
Beyond just the shared interest in operating a distillery, they wanted to create something genuine. "We felt the region needed someone to take leadership and make something from this region," says Chris Seals, a co-founder with a background in economic consulting.
"Fortunately, we had no idea quite how difficult that would be." They reached out to the closest grain elevator, only to find out that it was 300 miles away. "We realized that the best approach was to develop relationships with farmers and to focus on grains that are indigenous to Central Texas. From there, making a whiskey from what grows around here just seemed natural."
"Austin is one of the most original, genuine, and authentic places I know of," adds Chris.
"So we decided that if we were going to make this from scratch and be the first whiskey distillery grain-to-glass within the Austin city limits, we better make it authentically. The financial temptation could be to buy spirits and put them in a bottle. But now we get to tell our story. We know the farmer that grew the grain, we met the people who made the barrels, and we got to make the whiskey right here."
So, Still Austin Whiskey Co. has set out to define a Texas expression of American whiskey. Of course, the founders have learned a lot from the generations of distillers in Kentucky, but where better to look for inspiration next than our neighbors to the south? "In Mexico, they've mastered a spirit that has a lot of character. It doesn't necessarily need a lot of wood behind it," says Andrew.
"Liquor actually outsells beer in Mexico," adds Sal Salinas. "That's the inverse of the United States. And in Mexico, it's the clear spirits that sell the most." So they saw
the opportunity to introduce the market
to a clear spirit, or New Make whiskey. Traditionally, whiskey is made from a distilled grain mash and then aged in charred wood barrels. Whiskey's distinct caramel coloring comes from the aging process,
and New Make is a term for whiskey that's taken straight from the still. Since it hasn't been rested in a barrel, the spirit has been carefully crafted to have a wonderful flavor even before the magic of aging.
"Whiskey is a very distinct thing," says Lisa. "We love the flavor of the barrel, and we're barreling every day. There is so much work that is done before it sits in a barrel, but that clear, unaged whiskey, has a story to tell, too."
"And there are distinctions," adds Andrew.
"There are boundaries for a standard identity. For instance, a vodka has to be distilled at 190 proof or above. A whiskey can't be pulled off above 160 proof."
"If you really pay attention, you can decipher the grains in there," says Sal. "You'll know what's in the spirit. The sweetness is from the corn. The buttery texture comes from the wheat. Barley adds a peppery note. Just like you can develop a palette to distinguish notes in any wine varietal, you can use the same sensory experience to explore liquor. Of course, the barrel completely transforms it, you then get all these kind of complex flavors like vanilla, caramel, and leather that you11 never get out of clear, unaged product. We really wanted it to stand on its own before it leans on the magic of the barrel."
The first three products that Still Austin Whiskey Co. has rolled out are all unaged spirits made from a bourbon mash. If you walk into the distillery today, you can try their blue-label signature New Make Whiskey or two infused products. The "Mother Pepper" is infused with a spicy trio of chili pequin, smoked serrano (providing that roasted color), and aji amarillo. The "Daydreamer" is a lighter, more citrusy spirit, infused with valencia, tangelo, and bergamot. And the best part? All of the ingredients are sourced right here in our home state.
Before they could unveil these spirits though, they had a lot to conquer. "None of us knew how to get a whiskey distillery approved for being constructed inside the city limits of Austin, Texas," says Chris. "When we sat down with the city officials, they said 'no,' which was all we needed to hear."
"Of course this city has a reputation for red tape regarding building,'' says Joanna Salinas, an attorney who provides general counsel and oversees all regulatory matters. "And we knew that building something like a whiskey distillery would be extremely difficult. We knew we couldn't go in with something half-baked. We had to show how serious we were and do everything thoroughly." Instead of hiring an engineer to help, they went to the fire engineers who wrote the code. And it required a great deal of time. "However long we thought it would take, it took ten times longer. However many questions we thought they would have, they had ten times more. But we were committed, whatever it would take."
"We are a complex set of people who are tackling a complex set of things together," adds Chris. "That's why this has worked. From zoning, to the fire department, to liaising with the neighborhood, to water, to electricity, it has taken a constellation of elements to come together and make it happen. More than anything, it has taken patience, just like whiskey."
After three years of overcoming barriers to obtain permits, the team's inordinate amount of patience has paid off. On Saturday, September 23rd of 2017, the distillery opened its doors in "The Yard," a community in the St. Elmo neighborhood. The Yard houses Austin makers such as a brewery, a winery, a coffee roaster, crafters, coworkers, manufacturers, and more. "The community has made this so rewarding," says Joanna. "And even when we have been facing the impermeable long slog of getting everything going, the determination to create this distillery has sustained us. We're still a plant, and we're going to face issues that a plant would face. But seeing our product behind the bar or on the shelf, running into random people wearing a Still Austin shirt, or walking into the doors of this facility and knowing that we built it, it keeps our passion alive."
"I love adventures," says Chris. "I love going places I've never gone before. But this has been an adventure unlike any other. And even beyond that, the whiskey lends itself to amazing new experiences. Usually, when you share a whiskey with someone, you're inviting them in, you're letting your guard down. Just to raise a glass for something or someone is a beautiful thing, and we get to do that every day."
"And really, we're at the beginning of our journey," adds Andrew. "It will only continue to evolve. When you see the aged product on our shelves, it will add a completely new dimension."
The founders of Still Austin Whiskey Co. have learned a lot on their journey, and we can learn a lot from their journey. Besides the fact that they've pioneered something completely unique to our city, they've done it as a team. They're a group of people who know each other's strengths and weaknesses, they know what steps are needed to make a choice, and they can work as a unit.
“We always eat dinner before we have a meeting,” says Andrew. “And we try not to have meetings with more people than will fit around a table. Six to eight people is probably all you want to have when making big decisions.”
"I would tell any aspiring entrepreneur to talk to as many people as you can," says Joanna. "In our group, not one of us is worried about getting in front of a stranger, and asking questions, or admitting that we don't know things. Most people are really happy to share their stories, mistakes, or ideas."
"As an economist, I know that whatever we think we know is wrong," says Chris. "It was true when we said we didn't know what we didn't know."
Last, but certainly not least, we can learn a lot from these experts about drinking whiskey, which is definitely a fun learning process. "I always give the same advice" says Andrew. "Drink what you want, but know what you drink. Don't let anyone tell you what to drink, but learn how to read the label." Sal suggests pushing your boundaries. "Try something different, taste something craft."
"Whiskey isn't one thing. Whiskey is a thousand things," is Joanna's advice. "If you think you don't like whiskey, it means you didn't like the whiskey you drank, which just means you haven't tried enough, which is a really good problem to have, right? You can go try more. So, try them everywhere. Try different ones. Ask people to explain the differences between them."
"We're doing something a bit edgy," says Chris. "We're inviting you to the edge of the box with us, to have an adventure. Be adventurous in what you drink."
The co-founders who opened Still Austin Whiskey Co. set out to do something truly genuine. They have established a company that distills the essence of the community and contributes to the culture of this city we all love.
To learn where you can responsibly enjoy Still Austin Whiskey Co.'s New Make whiskey or find where you can purchase a bottle for yourself, check out stillaustin.com.
Stop by their tasting room, go on a distillery tour, or relax in their Whiskey Garden all at 440 E St. Elmo Rd.