Whiskey Review: Still Austin Distillery Reserve Series Sherry Cask Finished Rye Whiskey

What I love most about having a good local distillery is that it means I get a chance to try out some unique bottlings that otherwise wouldn’t be available. Only about six weeks ago, Still Austin released their Monster Mash, which was an experimental combination of all their leftover grains made with no idea what was coming out the other end. Now they’re back — following a slightly more well trafficked route, but they still pulled out all the stops on giving their Sherry Cask Finished Rye a true Austin, Texas twist.



History

Locally owned and operated in Austin, Texas, the Still Austin Whiskey Co. opened its doors in 2017.

Despite being so new, 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.

The company took a different approach from most distillers, in that 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 would rely on infused “white lightning” unaged whiskey. Their plan worked, producing a number of delicious whiskey and gin concoctions before the business finally produced its first 100% locally grown, distilled, aged, bottled, and distributed bourbon in 2019.

Product

Still Austin has produced a number of spirits over the last couple years, from an unaged “white” corn whiskey, to a gin, and eventually a bourbon and a straight bourbon. In the coming weeks, they will be expanding their product line once more with a rye whiskey — but before that has even hit the shelves, they wanted to try and make it even better.

The base spirit for this bottling the same rye whiskey that Still Austin is using for their “standard” release. The whiskey starts as a fermented mash of 100% rye grains. Once the alcohol content has risen to the right levels, that distiller’s beer is fed through the massive column still in the center of the distillery’s warehouse (named “Nancy”) where the alcohol is concentrated and turned into “new make” whiskey.

Once the white whiskey has been produced, it is pumped into new charred oak barrels (produced in Missouri) which have been burned to a #3 level of char. There it usually sits for a period of no less than two years before being declared good enough for bottling.

Except for this batch. It didn’t quite make it to two years before they started monkeying with the recipe.

With the Distillery Select series, the whiskey only stayed in the original barrels for about 16 months. From there, the whiskey was pumped into Pedro Ximénez sherry casks imported from Spain where it continued to mature for an additional 8 months, bringing the total time in barrel to a combined two years.

Once the whiskey was finished aging, the barrels were blended together and the resulting whiskey was bottled in a one-time run.

Packaging

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.

The label is really where things get interesting and unique. I’ve definitely seen “small release” whiskey get a unique label before, but in this case every single label is an actual unique piece of art.

Image courtesy Still Austin (https://stillaustin.com/booze/sherry-cask-finished-rye-whiskey/)

For this version, Austin abstract artist Rachel Dickson hand painted every single bottle individually. The color palate and the general “look and feel” of the label is consistent, but no two labels are identical. That’s an immense amount of work and a really interesting idea for a whiskey label, and it’s executed perfectly here. It takes Still’s focus on local artists and unique designs for their labels to the extreme, adding that “small batch” touch not only to the whiskey but each and every bottle.

Especially in these times of COVID-19, I applaud the folks at Still Austin for working with the artist community here in Austin to make sure to get them as much work as possible.

Neat

Take one whiff of the glass and you won’t have any doubt that this was finished in a sherry cask. That sweet sherry aroma, the concentrated and sugary grape notes that come with distilled wines like cognac, is front and center in the profile. But it isn’t alone — there’s also some good caramel and vanilla from the charred oak barrels, and that sourdough rye bread note that brings it all together. The effect is a delicious aroma that I’d put on par (or better) than other sherry finished whiskies I’ve had.

The flavor that’s large and in charge here, however, is the charred oak from the original casks. There’s just a touch of the sherry coming through before that charred oak really takes charge of the situation and dominates the flavor profile, bringing with it a healthy dose of caramel and vanilla as it develops. That flavor slowly evolves into a slightly bitter dark chocolate before tapering off into a long finish that’s once more dominated by that concentrated grape note from the sherry, and comes with a healthy black pepper spice kick from the rye content.

There’s a lot of similarities to the straight bourbon, which is to be expected when coming from the same barrels. But there’s a lot more interesting stuff going on here as well.

On Ice

There’s no denying that there are some bold flavors in this whiskey. Perhaps a touch too bold for some. But usually, with a little bit of ice, the bolder flavors can be tamed — although usually to the detriment of the more softer, subtle aspects. Typically, with a sherry finished whiskey that means the sherry aspects would disappear… but in this case they are holding surprisingly strong.

Really, the only difference between taking this whiskey neat and with a few cubes of ice is that there’s less forcefulness behind the charred oak flavors. You still get all of the same depth and complexity, but that dark chocolate note is no longer quite as bitter and the charred oak isn’t as jarring to an unprepared palate. There might not be the hint of sherry on the front, but it still makes an appearance during the finish. And the black pepper spice remains just as potent.

Cocktail (Old Fashioned)

There’s a lot of good, dark, rich flavors and textures here. Exactly the kind of foundation that makes for a truly great old fashioned and, sure enough, this doesn’t disappoint.

What we get in the glass is a rich and smoky version of an old fashioned, more “dark corner of a cool, hip, smoke filled cocktail lounge” than “stodgy country club” vibe. The angostura bitters and those chocolate charred oak notes blend very well together, and the sherry finishing aspect actually seems to help balance the drink and provide a bit of sweetness and light. And that pepper kick from the rye helps keep you on your toes and adds some complexity to the experience.

Overall, a really good cocktail.

Fizz (Mule)

The mule is the biggest test of a whiskey. The flavor needs to be bold enough to make itself known over the ginger beer, yet not so bold and overpowering that it’s a punch to the mouth when taken neat. There needs to be a bit of pepper that isn’t wiped out by the ice, and all of this needs to balance properly without overwhelming the mixer either.

Just like with their straight bourbon, this whiskey pulls the feat off with ease. But there’s something else going on here as well. This is a version decidedly spicier than usual, with more of a pronounced kick. It’s almost closer to their old Mother Pepper product, which I’m in no way complaining about — I love that stuff and making spicy mules with it, probably thanks to the 100% rye content providing that natural kick.

As for the sherry content, surprisingly even that comes through in the mix. On the front flavors of the experience, the sherry is clearly evident among the other components and adds a sweetness that helps offset some of the dark rich notes brought by the charred oak. Usually, those subtle flavors would have been long lost but here the sherry is still fighting to the end to make itself known.



Overall Rating

For those base flavors, this is pretty much a copy-and-paste of the straight bourbon with some added bells and whistles. Which ain’t a bad thing — if you’re a fan of that straight bourbon, you’ll probably like this as well.

The big difference here is that the sherry aspects are obviously more pronounced than usual. I think it adds a beneficial bit of sweetness and softens up the flavor profile, which results in a damn delicious whiskey.

That alone would be worth a three start review (which means, for us, “100% worth every penny, but not amazing given other whiskey at this price range”). What kicks this up to a four star whiskey is the unique labeling that they did with a local artist, hand painting every one of the over 500 bottles. That’s something unique I’ve never seen before, and I love it.

Still Austin Whiskey Co. Distillery Reserve Series Sherry Cask Finished Rye Whiskey
Production Location: Texas, United States
Classification: Rye Whiskey
Special Type: Certified Texas Whiskey
Aging: No Age Statement (NAS)
Proof: 53.5% ABV
Price: $120 / 750 ml
Overall Rating:
All reviews are evaluated within the context of their specific spirit classification as specified above. Click here to check out similar spirits we have reviewed.

Overall Rating: 4/5
About three times as expensive as their usual bourbon… but three times as good.

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