The best thing about having a true local distillery nearby is that you get to try out some of the stranger and more specialized bottlings that they produce. Instead of only getting the final, polished, mass produced stuff, you get to see some truly bonkers things. And for Halloween, at exactly noon, Still Austin released essentially that: a limited edition Monster Mash whiskey.
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.
Still Austin has a history of putting out some interesting limited release bottlings, and this is their Halloween 2020 release that has been over two years in the making.
The typical Still Austin bourbon recipe uses three local grains, a pleasantly large proportion of which is rye. In this case, the rye content and part of the corn is traded out for a couple of changes: namely, adding a large helping of wheat and some malted rye to go with the usual malted barley. The final grain bill is 63% Non-GMO white corn, 17% Winter Hawk wheat, 10% malted rye, 8% rye and 2% malted barley. As usual, 100% of the grains come from local Texas farmers.
Where did they come up with this specific concoction? According to their press release, they simply found a bunch of leftover grain bags in the distillery and tipped them all into a one-off batch to see what happens.
From there, the mash was fermented and distilled on-site and the resulting whiskey was placed in two specific charred oak barrels (with a #3 char) from ISC in Kentucky. The spirit was then aged for 26 months in the Texas heat, which offers a wider swing in temperatures than other climates and accelerates the aging process.
As usual with their products, 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.
For this release, the whiskey is bottled straight from the barrel instead of being proofed down further and therefore is listed as being an oddly specific 53.55% alcohol by volume. The two barrels yielded exactly 414 bottles of whiskey, and today we are reviewing bottle number 195 of that batch.
I think Still Austin is finally hitting their stride with the bottle design — this is pretty damn cool.
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 started the trend of using art from local artists on the label. That art trend continued with the straight bourbon released earlier this year, but 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 for this bottling uses art from Dan Grissom, which was commissioned for the release (and provided on a print accompanying the bottle for those who bought their whiskey at the distillery). It’s a funky and different style which I think ties back to the weird-Austin vibe better than the previous label with the straight bourbon. The label also uses a deep blue theme for the edges and the seal, which helps to visually differentiate it from their straight bourbon (which is in red).
As soon as you take a whiff of this whiskey, you can tell that this is going to be a rich, thick experience. There’s a level of saturation for these aromas that you don’t see outside a well-aged bourbon, which I appreciate. You can always proof it down yourself and dilute it if there’s just too much flavor, but going the other way isn’t an option.
The first impression I have of the smell is of baking chocolate chip cookies. There’s some brown sugar, vanilla, and a hint of chocolate in there that make up the depth, but there’s also a bit of fruit on the sides. A bit of black cherry and orange citrus adding some complexity.
Taking a sip, the alcohol kick that comes from this cask strength bottle definitely makes itself known. There’s a good bit of burn that comes throughout the experience and lingers even after the whiskey has disappeared.
After the burn, the next thing that comes is the flavor, which is primarily that of licking a charred oak barrel. The depth and richness of the charred wood flavor is large and in charge, with some caramel and vanilla peeking around the sides.
Typically, the addition of a little ice has a tendency to change the flavors — or at least their potency. It can tone down the bolder items, but it also tends to eliminate the more delicate flavors.
In this case, I think this is a whiskey that actually needs a bit of dilution to work right. The flavors are bold and beautiful but, when taken purely neat, a little too shout-y for my preference. Adding a bit of ice reduces the ferocity of that charred wood aspect and allows some of the other flavors to finally take center stage.
What I taste now is the brown sugar / caramel sweetness, with a little bit of vanilla and orange citrus flavor in support. There’s still a good richness and depth to the flavors, but instead of being a cacophony of noise there are now specific notes to follow. There’s also a bit of black pepper spice on the end, but it seems to have been significantly toned down thanks to the malting of the rye grains instead of using straight rye.
Cocktail (Old Fashioned)
Darker, richer bourbons usually do best in an old fashioned, but there’s a fine line that the spirit needs to balance on. Too much of the darker and richer elements can throw off the balance of the cocktail, leading to chaos and an unpleasant experience; not enough, and the spirit doesn’t bring anything to the flavor profile, getting lost in the noise.
For this version, the rich and dark flavor profile does well to provide a good base for the cocktail. That said, I don’t think that the supporting flavors really contribute much to the final product here unfortunately. It’s really the main cast that is doing the majority of the work.
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 that needs to balance properly without overwhelming the mixer either.
In this case, it handles the format as masterfully as the regular bourbon, but there’s something extra in here as well. The cocktail that this makes is darker, smokier, and richer than the original, adding a nice twist on the format.
I like that Still Austin does interesting experiments with whiskey, and I like that they put it out for us to experience instead of keeping it bottled up for themselves. In this case, while I appreciate that this is a cask strength bottle, I do think that this could have used a bit of proofing down to release some of those lighter flavors.
For the Thirty One Whiskey rating scale, three stars means “worth the price.” And that’s what we have here. This is entirely worth the price of admission, but that high cost also puts it on par with a bunch of other amazing whiskey where it just can’t compete. Which is fine — this is a one off experiment, and should be appreciated for its risk as much as anything (and maybe also for keeping Austin whiskey weird).
|Still Austin Whiskey Co. Monster Mash|
Produced By: Still Austin Whiskey Co.Production Location: Texas, United States
Classification: Bourbon Whiskey
Special Type: Certified Texas Whiskey
Aging: 2.16 Years
Proof: 53.55% ABV
Price: $100 / 750 ml
Overall Rating: 3/5
Big, bold, and scary to the unprepared taste buds. Just like Halloween.