The great thing about having a local distillery is that you get to try out all their quirky experiments and in-jokes — often with delicious results. For those of us here in Austin, that’s historically been Still Austin’s Monster Mash or the Balcones Texas Bock. But today we’re looking at the first half of an experiment from the newest player in Austin, Fierce Whiskers, as they release their very first paired set of gins.
Fierce Whiskers is a new player in the Austin whiskey scene. Founded by Tri Vo and Tim Penney, a pair of high school friends who had made their money in energy trading who had purchased a six acre chunk of land near the airport and decided to open the second licensed distillery in the city of Austin (second after Still Austin). Construction of the distillery started in 2018 and the first barrel of whiskey rolled off the filling station in October of 2020.
Why “Fierce Whiskers” as a name? It’s the same reason that there are pictures of Rutherford B. Hayes upside-down all around the facility. In 1849, twenty-eight years before he became President of the United States, the famous teetotaler visited the city of Austin and had some choice words to say about its residents. Specifically, he described the city as:
…an inconsiderable villiage… with ‘large expectations’… full of discharged ‘Rangers’… costumes of every variety… fierce whiskers, gaming, and drinking very abounding in all quarters.”Rutherford B. Hayes, 1849
The words were meant to be derogatory, but for those who live in Austin, it’s actually a pretty good description of the kind of lifestyle that drew them to this city and the eccentricity that keeps it weird. Which is why the founders of Fierce Whiskers decided to pluck those two interesting words out of the description and make it the name of their new distillery.
As is common with other local distilleries around Austin, the company focuses on grain-to-glass production of their spirits (meaning that all parts of the distillation process are under their control and happen within the state) and sustainable manufacturing methods. But the two things that they hope will help them stand out from the crowd are a focus on live events at their six acre facility and their state of the art rickhouse.
- Learn More: What Is Gin?
In the early days of the distillery, back in late 2020, the owners of Fierce Whiskers made a bold statement: that the only bottles of spirit they wanted to sell out of that distillery would be whiskey, and nothing else.
Naturally, the scrappy and argumentative bunch of distillers on their staff took that as a challenge and created some delicious gins to use in their tasting room to make cocktails while the whiskey matures in the rickhouse next door. Demand for those spirits was much higher than expected, and with one of those gins winning the gold medal at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition in 2022, the owners pretty quickly recognized the need to change strategy and offer gins.
The result is a pair of gins released by the distillery in 2023 dubbed the “Contradiction” release — as it was the literal contradiction of the distillery owner’s earlier statement (and a fun play on words). The two bottles are dubbed “Contra” for the unaged version of their gin, and “Diction” for the aged version.
For this gin, the distillery made everything from scratch. Most distilleries will take a shortcut and bring in “neutral spirit” (vodka, basically) mass produced elsewhere and only do the latter part of the process, but Fierce Whiskers did every step of the process themselves. This starts with a batch of 100% wheat that is milled, cooked, and fermented to create a mildly alcoholic liquid. It is then distilled to over 95% alcohol by volume (way higher than a normal whiskey) to create the “neutral spirit” that they use for the base of their gin.
As a small and very new distillery, Fierce Whiskers hasn’t had a lot of time to perfect their gin recipe in full scale production runs just yet, but they knew they had to knock this first shot out of the park to even get a release. So they borrowed a small still to do some testing and experiments on getting the right ingredients for their gin, eventually settling on the recipe that was used for this release. While we don’t have a complete list of the ingredients, the distillers have told us that the list includes:
- Grains of Paradise
- Angelica Root
- Lemon Peel
Those ingredients were added to their 500 gallon Vendome still alongside their neutral spirit, and they let it sit and macerate for 12 hours before firing up the still and starting the second distillation. Interesting to note here is that they didn’t remove the raw ingredients before the distillation run. Some distilleries like Aviation Gin remove those components before the distillation, but leaving them in essentially means that the ingredients are cooked during distillation which can create unique and complex flavors that otherwise might not appear.
For the Contra version of their gin, this finished product was proofed down and bottled immediately after distillation with no post processing.
Fierce Whiskers is a fairly new distillery, and as such I do want to cut them a bit of slack on their bottle design. Not only have they not been around long enough to find their groove, but the bottles that we’re seeing right now are specifically “limited release” versions that aren’t meant to be the finished product. These are the amuse bouche of their product line.
Just like with the Five O’ Clock Shadow bottling, this uses a sleek and slender bottle that sports a thin cylindrical body, rounded shoulder, and a very long neck. It’s the bottle version of a 1920’s “leggy blonde dame”, if you will. This design is something that we’ve seen many times before, but it does happen to be one of my favorites — evoking a stylish and modern feel without being “over the top” and complex. The bottle is capped off with a wood and cork stopper.
For their Contra/Diction paired bottle release, the labels on these bottles are what simultaneously differentiate the two products and tie them together. The illustration is the same — a pencil sketch of a flower — but on the unaged version the drawing is black on a white background while the slightly aged version is the inverse.
The gin is crystal clear and water white, just like you’d expect from a good cleanly produced spirit. But while it might look like a “proper” gin, from the very first whiff you’ll know immediately that there’s more of an American twist on things going on. The very first aroma I’m getting is this delicious citrus grapefruit, supported by some coriander spice that provides a bit of velvety depth and saturation. After a few moments, I can start to tease out the tangerine and the lemon peel, but the one component that isn’t clearly visible is the juniper.
Usually a gin has a crisp, light flavor to it — clearly, heavily influenced by the copious addition of juniper. But while the juniper is definitely here and present in this gin, I feel like they took this down a richer, spicier, and more flavorful path … and I love it.
Right up front, it feels like the flavor coats your tongue with this rich velvety earthy flavor, probably thanks to the angelica root. Like a lighter licorice, but without the overpowering taste. There’s also a bit of juniper flavor added in here, like pine needles and a snowy walk in the woods, but it isn’t nearly as overpowering as you might expect. From there, the spices start to kick in; specifically, the cardamom, coriander, and caraway seeds all giving the flavor profile a delightful kick and an interesting spicy texture. On the finish is where the citrus finally comes back, with the tangerine, grapefruit, and lemon peel clearly discernible and providing a crisp close to the flavor profile.
Ice can be a tough challenge for a gin. Most of the flavors come from the distillation process instead of any maturation, and as a result they tend to be lighter, less saturated, and unlikely to stand up to the harsh impact of the added ice. Thankfully, though, it seems like this gin has come through the other side still as delicious as ever.
What’s changed is that, while this originally tasted much richer and earthier before, the citrus is now really shines at this point. The grapefruit, tangerine, and lemon peel are clearly visible and the stars of the show, with that light licorice from the angelica root providing a good earthy foundation. There’s still plenty of richness and saturation, but the spices seem to have taken a back seat.
Fizz (Tom Collins)
Generally speaking, this gin seems to be an okay option for cocktails. As we saw when we tried this on the rocks, there was still plenty of flavor even when ice is added. The only problem in this specific case, however, is that the majority of the flavors in the gin are citrus… which leads to this cocktail just tasting like a fizzy lemonade.
It isn’t unpleasant (and I actually enjoy it) but there’s not much depth or character here. The flavor profile is relatively one-note, and just makes me curious to see how this will go with the aged gin when we try it next.
A negroni is an incredibly tough challenge for a gin. There are a lot of powerful flavors in here that end up making for a bitter cocktail, and only a truly exceptional gin can even make a dent in changing that trajectory. In this case, though, I think the gin is absolutely making a difference.
The biggest change is the texture. Instead of bitter and sharp, the texture of this drink is smoother and richer. I think that’s mainly attributable to the licorice flavor from the angelica root, providing that earthy component that can balance out some of the other flavors in here. On the finish is another surprise — namely, the citrus from the grapefruit peeking through and making itself known.
As soon as I took a sip, I knew I was going to like this gin. In general, the flavor profile here is a richer, better saturated, and more spice- and citrus-forward mixture compared to many of the other American style gins on the market. It’s a whiskey drinker’s take on an unaged gin, and I’m a fan.
Where I think this might struggle a bit is in the cocktails: most gin cocktails are designed to offset the juniper forward flavor profile that you’d typically see, but in this American style gin we don’t have that same constraint. As a result, the added citrus becomes a little much, and the cocktails seem a bit off. My recommendation is to either try this neat, or try to craft some new cocktails around it. There are some amazing flavors in here — as a blackberry bramble or maybe even a mule, this gin might be the key to a unique and delicious cocktail.
If this was the result of their unaged gin, I really can’t wait to see what a little bit of time in a barrel adds.
|Fierce Whiskers Contra Gin|
Produced By: Fierce WhiskersProduction Location: Texas, United States
Classification: American Gin
Aging: No Age Statement (NAS)
Proof: 45% ABV
Price: $35 / 750 ml
Overall Rating: 4/5
A delicious earthy and spicy American style gin, with some delicious citrus notes.