Whiskey Review: Austin 101 Light Whiskey

Whiskey is an inherently risky product for business. It’s a business where you need to predict years in advance what your supply will be and then invest a ton of money in facilities and materials… only to have your product literally sit on the shelf for a couple years before you can even sell it. Austin 101 Light Whiskey thinks that with the help of the Texas weather, they can get that cycle time down to just 101 days.

History

In true Austin tech-startup fashion, Austin 101 started with three founders who had spent years in the tech industry coming together to try and disrupt something through innovation. In this case, though, it wasn’t the next Uber — instead, it was producing a true Austin “light whiskey” that they would eventually call Austin 101.

Founded sometime around 2017, the Austin Craft Spirits Company spent the next three years testing and developing their process and finally launching their first product at the 3rd Annual Texas Whiskey Festival in March of 2020.

Product

Believe it or not, a “light whiskey” is a legally defined subset of whiskey. Just like a straight bourbon or a Tennessee whiskey, there are specific requirements it needs to meet to carry that labeling. In this case, the primary requirement is that it uses barrels that have not been charred, or barrels that have been previously used. This is radically different to a bourbon that requires brand new charred barrels every time.

The reason why they wanted to produce a “light” whiskey was that the market is already crowded with bourbon, and by using this designation they could achieve a more sustainable process (by re-using barrels from other distilleries).

Austin 101 light whiskey starts with a mixture of non-GMO Texas white corn, malted barley, and hard red wheat sourced from local producers. That mixture is mashed, fermented and distilled on site at their distillery on the Travis County line along Route 290 — a road with the second most wineries on it in the United States, and whose residents also include fellow distillers Garrison Brothers, Tito’s Vodka, and (just off the path a bit) Desert Door.

Once distilled, the whiskey is placed into previously used bourbon barrels, sourced from other distilleries and re-used for this process. The whiskey stays in the barrel for 101 days, relying on the Texas heat and cold nights to cycle the whiskey through the wood of the barrel and promote quicker aging. Once it is finally old enough, the whiskey is diluted with water from the Texas Hill Country and bottled at 101 proof (I’m sensing a theme here).

101 is also a valid number in binary, which translates to the number 5 in decimal. Which probably wasn’t unnoticed by a group of tech guys.

Packaging

I absolutely love this bottle.

Generally the bottle is rectangular in shape, with clean edges and slightly rounded corners. The shoulder is sharp and flat, with a short neck. The bottle is capped off with a wood and cork stopper, and there’s both a paper label keeping it sealed as well as a shrink wrapped bit of plastic when it’s on the store shelves.

The labels are what’s really getting me, though. The brand name is painted on the bottle, with only the characters opaque. The rest of the upper portion of the bottle is clear, allowing the beautiful color of the liquid within to show through. The rest of the required information is printed on a dimpled strip of paper along the bottom, using a typewriter style font.

It’s clean, bold, and lets the contents be the start of the show. Probably the only strike against it would be the “101” design, which my wife immediately thought was some kind of oddly stylized “O”. I can see a few others having the same confusion, but I personally didn’t. (Also, I didn’t care because I was too busy checking out the beautiful liquid in the bottle itself.)

Neat

The liquid is a pale straw color, very similar to some of the Scottish whisky where the cooler climate doesn’t force the whiskey to interact with the barrel as much. The aroma is similarly lighter and sweeter than a normal bourbon — coming off the glass is butterscotch, a healthy helping of raw corn, and a bit of ethanol. Which makes sense, given the high alcohol content combined with the short period maturing in the barrel.

As for the flavors, well, there are no surprises between the aroma and the actual taste. Sweet butterscotch is the first thing that comes to mind, followed almost immediately with the idea that I’m licking a dried ear of corn, and then finally a bit of alcohol burn on the end. I think there might also be a bit of vanilla and honey thrown in there, as well.

When I tried this at the Texas Whiskey Festival, my first impression was that this is a smooth and delicious whiskey and for the most part I think that impression holds true. But there is a bit of that alcohol bite in the aftertaste, which I’m starting to notice more upon repeated trips to the well.

On Ice

Usually, with the addition of a bit of ice, the more delicate flavors drop out of the running and any aspects that are abrasive or bitter tend to get evened out. In this case, though, it’s a mixed bag.

The butterscotch aspects are still there, but there’s significantly less of the corn flavor in the whiskey. It reminds me a lot of the Nikka Coffey Grain Whiskey: definitely on the lighter side of the spectrum with a boost to the vanilla and some additional hay flavors coming out.

As for the alcohol bite, it’s completely gone at this point which is a marked improvement.

Cocktail (Old Fashioned)

In a typical old fashioned (which is just a little bit of sugar, some angostura bitters, and a slice of orange), the bolder flavors of a bourbon or a rye usually do better here. The bitters can overpower a softer whiskey, and the added ice can wipe out whatever is left. And sadly, that’s exactly what happened here.

It’s not a bad cocktail… it’s just not as exciting as you’d hope. There’s some balance between the bitters and the whiskey, but there’s also no uniqueness that the whiskey brings to the table in this format.

Austin 101 suggests swapping out the traditional components for lemon bitters and a slice of lemon to garnish and I think that’s a good call. The brightness and lightness of those components will work a whole lot better than the darker and richer angostura version.

Fizz (Mule)

In a mule, I’m normally looking for the bold flavors of the whiskey to come through and make a statement despite the power of the ginger beer.

This is interesting and unique in a very different way.

In this case, what we’re getting is complimentary flavors that are mixing well to create something a little more subtle and delicate than we’re normally used to in this format. I’m getting the honey, the butterscotch, and even the hay that was uncovered with the added ice — and all are combining with the ginger beer to make something unique. It’s a much lighter version, but it definitely gets top marks for adding something unique to the cocktail.

Overall Rating

I think that going with a “light whiskey” is a smart decision. They’re right that the market is flooded with bourbons, and by striking out on their own in this under-served category, they can more easily make a name for themselves (and do so at a significantly reduced investment cost).

When it comes to comparing this whiskey to others in the same category and class, there’s nothing else to compare it to really. But if there was something close I could point to, I’d probably say it’s most similar to a Scottish whiskey, and compared to those… this is pretty good. It’s sweet and enjoyable, craft made, and in a bottle that will look great on your shelf.

Austin 101 Light Whiskey
Produced By: Austin 101
Owned By: Austin Craft Spirits Company
Production Location: Texas, United States
Classification: Light Whiskey
Aging: No Age Statement (NAS)
Proof: 50.5% ABV
Price: $45 / 750 ml
Overall Rating:

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Overall Rating: 4/5
A light whiskey that’s not to be taken lightly.

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