There are a growing number of distilleries in the Austin area, and the newest one to open its doors is Fierce Whiskers. We visited them a little over a year ago when they were still just getting started and at that time they didn’t have any whiskey available for sale, but just this past month they finally released their first production run. Naturally, we couldn’t wait to crack it open and give it a taste.
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 weirdness that keeps it alive. 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 Bourbon Whiskey?
This bottle represents the very first production run of whiskey that someone could actually have purchased and taken home with them, originally barreled in 2020 and offered for sale only at their distillery location during their birthday celebration in September 2022.
The grain bill for this specific bourbon isn’t disclosed, but as a bourbon we know that by law it must contain a minimum of 51% corn among other grains as the raw ingredients. Those grains are locally sourced from farms surrounding Austin and trucked into the distillery where it is milled, cooked, and fermented on-site. The folks at Fierce Whiskers use local Austin groundwater for their distilling operations (which has been scrubbed through a reverse osmosis machine to ensure purity), claiming that the limestone and minerality of the Austin water makes it perfect for the flavors they want to achieve.
After fermentation, the resulting mildly alcoholic liquid is batch-distilled in Fierce Whisker’s hybrid still — a traditional copper pot still, but one with a column still on the top which helps improve the distillation process. Despite the additional rectification that the column portion provides, the spirit still needs to be distilled at least twice before it reaches the proper level of alcohol concentration.
Once distilled, the whiskey is barreled and placed into their rickhouse (as seen in the above photo), which is located just steps from their distillery in downtown Austin. This facility relies on the local temperature swings in the Texas climate to mature the spirits and impart some of the flavors of the charred new oak barrels into the spirits.
For this specific product, they selected one barrel (barrel 20-0047, just off the edge of this picture) which had been sitting on the shelf for just under two years.
One interesting note is that the distillery went to the effort of purchasing carbon offsets for the distillation of this spirit. Distilling is an energy intensive process, which requires a lot of water, grains, mechanical force, and heat… all of which results in carbon emissions. They partnered with a company called CarbonBetter to offset those emissions, and as a result can technically claim to be “carbon negative”. However, I do want to point out that the actual manufacturing process still resulted in carbon emissions — they just paid another company to reduce carbon sufficiently enough to claim that the production was carbon negative.
I really don’t want to harp on the bottle design that much. It’s a first release from a brand new distillery — as such, we’re definitely grading on a curve here. It takes time for a distillery to figure itself out and get into a groove. That said, for a first release, this looks fairly impressive.
The bottle design itself is fairly standard and looks like they bought it off the shelf of a supply store. Not that there’s anything wrong in that, especially for a craft distillery. Creating custom glass is an expensive proposition and not one that every new distillery can afford. I do appreciate that they went with a slim and slender bottle design, which sets this apart from some of the other more traditional styles.
What really draws my eye is the label. There’s a fresh and vibrant background on the label that is part comic book pop art, part Picasso cubist, and even might have a touch of Dali’s melting clocks thrown in for good measure. It looks fantastic.
Just from the aroma, there’s definitely something more than just corn in this mix. I’m not sure exactly what it is, but there’s definitely a complexity in here that you don’t get from corn and oak alone. I’m getting a good bit of raw corn sweetness and some toffee caramel, but mixed in is some malty oatmeal-like texture and green apple alongside some good baking spices.
Taking a sip, this turns out to be a deliciously spicy spirit. The very first flavors that hit you are some things that you’d expect from a bourbon matured in the Texas heat: caramel, vanilla, and dark chocolate — all flavors either from the raw materials or the oak barrels used for maturation.
What comes next is where things get interesting, as the flavor develops almost into an oatmeal raisin cookie. There’s a flash of black pepper spice as the flavors start to transition and develop; its surprisingly prominent and almost gets too spicy before that malty oatmeal flavor returns from the aroma and combines with some cedar wood earthiness to tone it down. Together with the baking spices that follow next, the whole package is spicy and sweet.
On the finish, the flavor takes more of a brown sugar turn, getting a bit more sweet and adding in some of that depth and character. There’s still plenty of black pepper spice however, which some people might find a bit off-putting and overpowering, but I feel like that’s what gives this spirit a great shot at making amazing cocktails.
This is where you can normally tell the difference between a distillery that “rapid aged” their whiskey or added artificial flavoring, versus distilleries that actually took their time to ensure the flavors are “punched in” and well saturated. Ice has a tendency to wash out a lot of the lesser flavors, leaving behind only those that have really melded and infused with the spirit itself. That kind of staying power can really only be accomplished with the use of time, temperature, and oak barrels. And in this case, while you can tell that it’s a younger whiskey, the flavors persist well enough to remain delicious and useful.
I say that this is a younger whiskey because the flavors do take a significant hit in terms of saturation, being much less prominent than before, but the fact that they all seem to persist on the rocks is proof that it was done “properly”. I’m still getting everything from the caramel and vanilla flavors to the cedar wood, and even the black pepper spice and brown sugar on the finish. The main difference here is that the black pepper spice seems to be significantly reduced in power, which could be welcome for those who found it overpowering when taken neat.
Cocktail (Old Fashioned)
Up to this point, if I had one complaint about the whiskey it would be that there isn’t a whole lot of depth or richness to the flavors. These are all fairly sweet and superficial components, stuff you’d expect from a one- to three-year spirit. There’s none of the dried fruit and richness that you’d expect with something closer to a five- to ten-year aged bourbon. The result shows in the kinds of cocktails you can create, and in this case that means a somewhat light old fashioned.
There’s still plenty of good to be found in this glass. The sweet and earthy flavors from the whiskey balance delightfully well with the herbal bitters to create something interesting and complex to drink, and I’m happy as a clam sipping it especially on a warm summer evening. That said, there isn’t much depth or complexity. It lacks the richness you’d find in something a bit older. It’s not inherently bad, it’s just a stylistic difference.
I’d love to see how this fares in a couple more years personally. Lighter old fashioned cocktails are fine, but the darker and richer versions are my jam.
This, I think, is where this spirit really shines. And is probably a good indication that this would make some killer cocktails in other formats as well.
First and foremost, there’s a good balance with the flavors in the whiskey and the ginger beer. Usually that ginger beer is a bit bitter and aggressive, but the sweetness in the caramel and brown sugar of this spirit does a great job of toning that down and making it much more enjoyable.
The real party trick is on the finish, though. Not only is it a nicely balanced drink, but that black pepper spice and cedar wood flavor combine on the finish to create a unique texture and experience that really elevates the cocktail. Instead of a flat finish, there’s something memorable — which is exactly what I want.
I usually try to grade new releases from new distilleries with a bit of forgiveness, but this is one example where I feel like it almost doesn’t need the special consideration. All on its own, this is a fine example of a young Texas whiskey. There are still some rough edges — the black pepper spice could use a bit of tweaking, and I’d love to see a bit more depth and complexity — but this is an excellent starting point.
If this is an indication of what Fierce Whiskers is going to be putting out, then they are going to be some fierce competition for the existing distilleries in Austin.
|Fierce Whiskers Five O' Clock Shadow Single Barrel Bourbon Whiskey|
Produced By: Fierce WhiskersProduction Location: Texas, United States
Classification: Bourbon Whiskey
Aging: No Age Statement (NAS)
Proof: 49% ABV
Price: $70 / 750 ml
Product Website: Product Website
Overall Rating: 3/5
A spicy and complex first showing from a new distillery that probably just needs a little bit more time in the barrel.