Not much beats a local distillery experience — especially when you can locally purchase different experiments and expressions that you might struggle to get your hands on otherwise. Still Austin is one of those distilleries for those of us here in Austin. For years now, they’ve been trying some interesting experiments and today we’re checking out the latest release in their “Distillery Reserve” series: their Cognac Cask Strength Straight Bourbon Whiskey.
Locally owned and operated in Austin, Texas, the Still Austin Whiskey Co. opened its doors in 2017.
Despite being fairly young, Still actually has the historical distinction of being the first distillery in the city limits of Austin since prohibition. Keeping it local, their plan was to try and use locally grown “heirloom” grains to make a craft spirit that would be unique to Austin.
And from the start, the company took a different approach from many distillers when they decided to offer only product that they themselves have distilled (not re-bottling someone else’s whiskey). To keep the business afloat while waiting for their first product to age, they relied on infused “white lightning” unaged whiskey. Their plan worked, producing a number of delicious unaged whiskey and gin concoctions before the business finally produced its first 100% locally grown, distilled, aged, bottled, and distributed bourbon in 2019.
- Learn More: What Is Bourbon Whiskey?
This is a version of their typical bourbon recipe, the twist here is that they finished it in a new and interesting way.
As usual, the whiskey starts with a grain bill of 70% non-GMO white corn, 25% rye, and 5% malted barley. All of the ingredients are locally sourced, and all of the production from grain to glass is done on-site at the Austin, Texas based distillery. (Interesting to note: the white corn used in the whiskey is the same white corn used to make the delicious tortillas here in Austin.)
From there, the mash is fermented and distilled on-site and the resulting whiskey is placed in charred oak barrels (with a #3 char) from ISC in Kentucky. The spirit is aged for one year in the Texas heat (which offers a wider swing in temperatures than other climates and accelerates the aging process).
Another fun fact: the whiskey is actually proofed in the barrel using a “slow water” process. Instead of aging a cask strength whiskey and then dumping in tap water at the end, some water is added each month to dilute the whiskey as it ages. This reduces the alcohol content to an enjoyable level without diminishing any of the flavors coming from the barrel.
The barrels are aged for an undisclosed period of time. With this being a straight bourbon, we know that time period must be at least two years (although the exact age is still not disclosed) and, once their stint is complete, different barrels are blended together under the direction of master blender Nancy Fraley to produce the standard straight bourbon.
With this bottle, the whiskey was then pumped into authentic once-used French cognac casks, where it continued to mature for an additional 17 months. Once the whiskey was finished aging, the barrels were blended together and the resulting whiskey was bottled in a one-time run at cask strength without any dilution.
Back in the day, Still Austin used a custom etched bottle with a very “chill hipster” era Austin vibe. It was different and interesting, and I liked it very much.
The bottle has changed a couple times since then, moving to a slim straight walled cylindrical version for their first bourbon, but they’ve always kept with a tradition of using art from local artists on the labels. That art trend continued with the straight bourbon released earlier this year, even though the bottle changed once more to a more traditional whiskey bottle shape and style.
For this release, the traditional whiskey bottle remains. The body is cylindrical with a slight flare from the base to the shoulder, and then gently rounds at the shoulder to meet the medium length neck. There’s a slight bulge in the neck which makes pouring easier, and the whole thing is capped off with a wood and cork stopper.
What’s really different here is the label. For this release, they partnered with local abstract artist Kel Brown who hand painted a unique label design for each of their bottles.
In a previous Distillery Reserve release, they used a spray paint artist that completely obscured the label with their art. While I liked this in theory, I wasn’t a huge fan of the result. This bottle is a more contained and appropriate level of chaos in my opinion — still unique and interesting without obscuring the text and information on the bottle.
The impact of the cognac cask finishing is immediately apparent as soon as you take a sniff: the telltale aromas of dried fruit and fruitcake, something that cognac aficionados refer to as “rancio”, are front and center. The sweetness of those components seems to have been amplified by a bit of the brown sugar from the bourbon itself and creates a fruity and sweet aroma in the glass.
When I originally reviewed their cask strength bourbon, I thought the flavors were a little too much — too loud, too brash. Taking a sip of this, the positive impact of that cognac cask finishing is readily apparent. There’s a sweeter, more cohesive flavor profile in this bottle. It starts with some dark dried fruit, like dried figs and plums, layers in some brown sugar, and then adds some nutmeg and cinnamon spice to make things interesting. As the flavor develops, some black pepper that appears and on the finish there’s a delicious combination of the black pepper, brown sugar, and vanilla with just a hint of dried fruit that leaves a wonderfully complex flavor for you to chew on.
This is an A+ sipper, without question. There are no rough edges here and, even for a cask strength spirit, this won’t send you under the table or light your mouth on fire.
When the ice goes into the glass, you often lose some things. Usually, it’s the lightest and least saturated components that drop out of the running, leaving behind the stronger notes (albeit at a slightly reduced intensity). And that’s unfortunately exactly what has happened here — and to add insult to injury, I think most of the cognac cask flavors are the ones that have disappeared.
At this point, it tastes very much like the normal cask strength version: brown sugar and caramel, toffee, vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg, and a dash of cherry and a bit of orange citrus as the flavor develops. There’s also a bit of earthy nuttiness layered in there that adds some depth to the flavors, like a bit of chocolate and tobacco.
Even though the cognac components are now hidden, it’s still an absolutely delicious thing to sip. Full flavored and well balanced, it almost counts as a cocktail without adding anything else to the glass.
Cocktail (Old Fashioned)
The best case scenario for an old fashioned, in my opinion, is when a spirit is still flavorful, rich, dark, and complex when the ice goes into the glass. And that’s exactly what we have here.
With the angostura bitters, there are really two components that need to balance out. The flavors of the bitters, with the aromatic and herbal components, need something a little richer and darker to play with. That’s perfectly served here, with that darker chocolate and tobacco component of the bourbon providing a perfect playmate. There’s also the bitterness (because they’re called bitters for a reason), which the sweeter notes like the brown sugar and vanilla balance perfectly.
I’d almost suggest that you ditch the sugar in this cocktail, or at least go lightly. There are so many good flavor interactions happening as-is, and you don’t want to hide them.
What you’re getting here is pretty to close to a perfect Kentucky mule.
Up front, those same flavors that made for a great old fashioned are doing the heavy lifting here as well. Balancing out the bitter lime juice and ginger beer is a tough challenge, and the darker notes combined with the sweeter components not only bring balance to that equation but add a richness and a complexity that make this a legitimate joy to drink.
The only place where I might have a quibble is on the finish. Usually, I’d like to see a bit more black pepper spice adding some texture to the cocktail — and while it does have some of that present, there’s also a lot of smooth and buttery flavors from the barley in the mash bill. Sadly, the end result cancels that pepper out. It’s close to, but ultimately not quite, perfect.
I really enjoy having sipped my way through Still Austin’s repertoire of distilled spirits, which means that I have the ability to compare and contrast how this spirit performed relative to some of their other attempts at similar styles and finishes. And this bottle is like the middle of a Venn diagram between their Cask Strength Bourbon and their Cognac Cask Rye special edition — in the best way.
With the rye version they cognac cask finished, I never felt like I actually saw the impact of the cognac on the aroma or the flavor. It was a minor change from the norm, but it wasn’t worth the added price. But in this version, I feel like the cognac finishing came through loud and clear, making a huge difference. The normal cask strength bourbon is overpowering and a bit rough, but the added cognac flavors provided just the right cushion to bring everything into balance.
This bourbon was complex, flavorful, and performed excellently in every cocktail we tried. My only complaint is that this is a one-off run and not a standard production version of their spirits that I can consistently stock on my own shelf.
|Still Austin Whiskey Co. Distillery Reserve Series Cognac Cask Strength Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Produced By: Still Austin Whiskey Co.Production Location: Texas, United States
Classification: Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Special Type: Certified Texas Whiskey
Aging: 2.5 Years
Proof: 54% ABV
Price: $120 / 750 ml
Product Website: Product Website
Overall Rating: 5/5
An excellent combination of the fruity flavors of cognac with the sweet and rich deliciousness of a bourbon that works well in cocktails or sipped on its own.