For any young distillery that reaches the point of releasing their first straight bourbon whiskey, some congratulations are deserved. That aging process alone (to qualify as the federal definition of “straight”) takes at least two years, but it’s not like you’re going to open a new distillery and have a straight bourbon ready to go only two years later. Bourbon, after all, is finnicky, and the market is packed with every shade of grey at this point. You’re going to want to go through test batches in order to find your own niche, and every experiment is going to take precious time. The first arrival of a straight bourbon, then, is often the sign that a distillery has reached a certain level of maturity both as a business and an artistic enterprise. It’s fitting, then, that Still Austin Whiskey Co.’s first straight bourbon, The Musician, is named for the very artists people associate with the city that hosts South By Southwest.
Still Austin has leaned here into embracing its Texas roots, producing a grain-to-glass product that is made entirely from Texas fermentables, before being aged “at least two years” in newly charred oak. That means a mash bill of 70% Texas white corn, which of course the distillery notes is “the same found in Austin’s tortillas,” 25% Texas Elbon rye, and 5% wildfire malted barley. That puts the result firmly in the “high rye bourbon” camp. It’s aged for likely a scooch over two years, and bottled at an oddly specific 98.4 proof (49.2% ABV). CEO Chris Seals says the following of the occasion:
“After six years of hard work and perfecting our technique, we’re ready to launch our new flagship straight bourbon whiskey. We started Still Austin Whiskey Co. because we saw an opportunity to create our own kind of distillery where we do everything intentionally. This bourbon is an expression of true Texas terroir, but also the distillation of all we are, and of all that has created us. We’ve managed to bottle the inclusive spirit of our home city; a complex bourbon with substance, flair, and finesse.”
“Young straight bourbon” is still a pretty common craft distillery product, but there’s one last thing in particular that is interesting to note about Still Austin Whiskey Co. and The Musician: The use of a process that is referred to as “slow cut” water proofing, which I had not encountered before.
Traditionally, bourbon enters the barrel at a proof point between roughly 100 and the federal maximum of 125, which fluctuates during aging thanks to evaporation of water and alcohol. Barrels are then dumped and blended, and water is added to proof the spirit down to the desired level of strength. In “slow cut” water proofing, however, small amounts of water are instead added directly the barrels throughout the aging process, slowly proofing down the spirit as it ages.
There are theoretically several features to this kind of process. For one, Still Austin says that slow water proofing prevents the high heat and humidity of the Texas climate from causing the spirit to move in and out of the wood too vigorously, picking up “heavy oak flavor or harsh tannic qualities” in the process. Instead, they say this process “gives the alcohol a softness on the palate and brings more mature notes to the forefront.” At the same time, a slow water proofing in the barrel would theoretically offer the spirit the chance to interact with the wood at a variety of proof points, possibly extracting a wider range of flavors in the process. Finally, other companies that use the slow water proofing process, such as Old Elk, have noted that because heat is actually generated in the mixing of water with alcohol (a reaction to the two liquids combining to become one), the slow proofing with water in the barrel generates far less heat and therefore preserves delicate congeners (flavor compounds) that would otherwise be destroyed. With that said, slow water proofing is clearly still an emerging technique, so you’ll likely see more references to distilleries experimenting with it in the future.
Now that we’ve gone through all the geeky stuff, though, let’s get to the tasting.
On the nose, The Musician immediately strikes me as both familiar and subtly exotic. Certainly, the combination of proof point and their aging methods (likely that hot Texas climate) gives the impression of a whiskey considerably older than two years. Deep caramel notes are right up front here, with considerable fruitiness that seems to veer between red berries and more tropical impressions. At the same time, there’s some of that telltale sawdust oakiness that indicates the younger age, along with cornbread graininess and a hint of earthiness I can’t quite place.
On the palate, that earthiness is revealed as more of a spice note, a chile-like spice that evokes jalapeno and plays naturally with cornbread. The rest of the spice profile is a bit odd—Dr. Pepper like, with vanilla extract and sweet cherry syrup. Despite the talk of “softer’ alcohol, this is on the hotter side on the palate—it is 98.4 proof, after all—with a lasting prickling on the tip of the tongue. The high rye content is interesting to recall at this point—it doesn’t really present a lot of “rye grain” or peppery notes, instead seeming to encourage more baking spice and cocoa notes. It’s a promising profile, but the end result is a bit on the brash side. It does make one think that perhaps you don’t see a lot of near 100-proof bourbons this young for a reason.
All in all, Still Austin is doing some interesting things here, and it’s easy to admire the passion with which they’ve dedicated themselves to showcasing Texas ingredients in particular. They’re building what seems to be a unique bourbon flavor profile, and making use of interesting new techniques, but there are clearly still rough edges here to be worked out in future iterations, and the spirit may not yet have the refinement to support a higher proof point. Still, I have a feeling that future releases of this bourbon may turn into something very interesting indeed.
Distillery: Still Austin Whiskey Co.
City: Austin, TX
ABV: 49.2% (98.4 proof)
Availability: 750 ml bottles, $45 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.