We just finished trying out the unaged Contra Gin from Fierce Whiskers, one half of their special “Contra/Diction” release from this summer. And while it was unquestionably delicious, there was some room for improvement. They seem to have identified that opportunity as well, and today we’re looking at their Diction gin — the other half of the matched pair in the form of a barrel aged gin that spent some time in a bourbon whiskey barrel before making its way to our glass.
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, it was the literal contradiction of the distillery owner’s earlier statement and a cute 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. That 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 this Diction version of their gin, this finished product was placed into previously used bourbon barrels from the Heaven Hill distillery for a period of six months before bottling.
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.
Despite only spending six months in a bourbon barrel, this seems to have picked up a good bit of color. It still isn’t quite that dark amber we’d normally expect from a bourbon, but instead closer to the pale straw or light gold that you’d see in a good scotch. That’s probably thanks to the extreme temperature shifts that we enjoy here in Austin, which tend to accelerate things quite a bit (and is why the better Texas whiskies tend to be much younger than the best Scottish versions).
Just like we saw in the unaged version, the most predominant aromas coming off the glass are the citrus notes. I’m getting the grapefruit, tangerine, and lemon peel, but instead of the angelica root providing some depth and richness in the Contra bottle, now there’s a delicious brown sugar and vanilla aroma that performs that same task. It’s a sweeter and more appealing aroma in my opinion, a definite improvement.
Taking a sip, things are definitely changed here — and for the better, in my opinion. Immediately, as soon as you take a sip, the spices take center stage with a massive showing from the cinnamon and accompaniment by the coriander and cardamom. That cinnamon was almost nowhere to be seen in the unaged version but comes out in spades here. That’s all supported by some brown sugar sweetness and vanilla at first, and then as the flavor develops the angelica root and licorice flavors combines to add more saturation and richness to the flavors. On the finish, the citrus finally makes an entrance with the grapefruit and lemon peel being the primary notes, and lingers with a bit of black pepper spice.
There are two broad sources for flavors in a spirit: flavors added during (and prior to) distillation, and flavors added during maturation. (I mean, technically you can also splash some cranberry juice in at the end, too — but we’re ignoring “flavored spirits” for the moment.) When adding ice, what you’ll typically see is that the distillation flavors take a back seat, and the maturation flavors become much bolder. That’s exactly what’s happening here, and I really like the result.
To be frank, a lot of the spices seem to have disappeared at this point. There’s a little bit of caraway and some cinnamon, but not much else. The real stars of the show are the vanilla and brown sugar flavors picked up from the bourbon barrels, which make this taste closer to a young whiskey than a gin… at first, at least. As the flavors develop, those citrus components come back with a vigor; specifically, the grapefruit, tangerine, and lemon peel. They almost make this a mid-century old fashioned cocktail without even needing to add the bitters.
It’s absolutely delicious. And while our normal testing doesn’t call for testing gin in an old fashioned, I would highly recommend it.
Fizz (Tom Collins)
When we tried this with the unaged version of their gin, there was just too much citrus in the glass to really make a difference. Between the citrus of the gin and the citrus of the added lemon juice, there wasn’t any real indication that anything interesting was going on, and we dubbed it a ‘fizzy lemonade’.
But in this case, the added maturation flavors in the gin make an immense difference in what we’re tasting.
This still does taste a little like a fizzy lemonade, but now there’s a rich and delicious brown sugar and vanilla flavor component that is adding some depth and character to the cocktail. There’s a more balanced flavor here that is really enjoyable and interesting.
I don’t personally like a negroni as a cocktail — I find it to be a bitter and overpowering drink, one that is more of a challenge than an enjoyment. But in this case, I think the barrel aging on the gin has done some amazing things and really helped balance out the experience.
What a normal gin lacks in this test is the sweetness and the richness that you’d normally see with a bourbon. That little bit of time in some charred oak produces delicious brown sugar and vanilla notes that can balance out the more bitter and tangy aspects, and in this specific case I think that’s what has happened. It isn’t quite as much as I’d like, as the Campari is still slightly overpowering, but this is closer than I’ve ever gotten to a nicely balanced negroni.
I can absolutely see why this gin was the one to get the owners of the distillery to back down and properly release a bottled gin. There are a couple good gins I’ve had that have come out of Austin, but this is one of the more complex, interesting, and delicious ones I’ve tried. The citrus-forward flavor profile is a great choice (especially for cocktails that I’d want to make in the Texas heat of the summer) and the added sweetness and complexity from the barrel aging provides a whole new layer of deliciousness that elevates everything it touches.
If I had one complaint, it might be that this could use a bit more spice and a bit more kick. I think there’s plenty of citrus in here, but in the cocktails I’d love to see more of the cinnamon and other spices contributing to the flavor profile.
|Fierce Whiskers Diction Gin|
Produced By: Fierce WhiskersProduction Location: Texas, United States
Classification: American Gin
Aging: 0.5 Year
Proof: 47% ABV
Price: $35 / 750 ml
Overall Rating: 4.5/5
A deliciously well saturated and sweet version of a gin that should go well just about any way you take it.