Although visitors often head out to wineries in Texas Hill Country, I have found the wine industry there to still be evolving. As it improves, I tend to gravitate to the excellent breweries and distilleries just outside Austin proper. On this trip, we visited five distilleries and sampled some absolutely delicious spirits.
Located on a secluded ranch in the small town of Hye, 60 miles west of downtown Austin, this is Texas’ “first legal bourbon distillery.” Dan Garrison, who founded it in 2006, custom orders his barrels with thicker staves to counterbalance the extreme Texas heat (average high temperatures hit 90 degrees and above for about three months of the year), which causes the whiskey to extract more of the oak essences in a shorter maturation time. The Cowboy, an uncut and unfiltered straight bourbon whiskey, was delightful. Though not especially viscous, it was rich and well rounded with a deep earthiness balanced by cinnamon and toffee flavors. We loved that it wasn’t too sweet, and when we added ice, floral hints became more prominent. While you’re there, you can also try the label’s other seven bourbons.
Garrison Brothers Distillery
1827 Hye Albert Road, Hye. Tel. (830) 392-0246
To discover sotol, head to Desert Door, which is the only distillery in the United States producing this relatively unknown spirit. Considered an invasive weed by most ranchers and farmers, the sotol plant, once employed by Native American tribes living in the Chihuahuan Desert to make woven baskets, resembles a large bowling-ball-size artichoke with a tall and straight flower stalk. The distillery’s owners source the plants from ranches in West Texas, trim them and steam the bulbs in a custom cooker. The sotol is then machine-shredded and fermented in stainless steel tanks for five days prior to being distilled in custom-built copper stills. For those new to the spirit, it can best be described as a vegetal, slightly smoky and somewhat spicy cross between mezcal and tequila. We especially enjoyed the oak-aged sotol, which is creamier, with a more herbaceous taste and stronger notes of caramel and cedar. With gold logos and old-fashioned flip-top stoppers, the dark cerulean ceramic bottles of Desert Door sotol are an attractive addition to any liquor shelf.
Desert Door Distillery
211 Darden Hill Road, Driftwood. Tel. (512) 829-6129
This small family-owned distillery produces several spirits — vodka, rum, whiskey and gin — but we were interested in trying its award-winning brandy. David “Clint” Blythe, founder of Stinson, was approached by William Chris Vineyards, a winery located 45 minutes away in Hye. The winemakers had a large quantity of orange Moscato wine that they felt was not up to standards and asked Blythe to make a brandy out of it. In 2015, after much trial and error, he produced the first batch. Our bartender detailed how the wine, once received, is distilled again then aged for a little over two years in glass vessels containing blocks of American white oak. We found this refined brandy to have an appealing spicy-clove finish and be best served neat rather than mixed in the fanciful cocktails they offered. The distillery, housed in a rudimentary metal building, would be easy to miss if not for the stacks of wine barrels out front. The space is family friendly, and the staff knowledgeable and passionate.
Stinson Distilling & Winery
18281 Ranch to Market Road 150, Driftwood. Tel. (512) 894-2009
Founded in 2006 by Daniel Barnes, this distillery is situated on Treaty Oak Ranch, a peaceful 28-acre Hill Country property named after the historic 500-year-old live oak tree in downtown Austin, where it is believed Stephen F. Austin signed border agreements with Tonkawa and Comanche tribe members in the 1830s. The Dripping Springs ranch encompasses Treaty Oak Distillery, Waterloo Gin and Alice’s restaurant and is a popular destination for Austinites, who come to enjoy the tranquil setting, creative cocktails, Texas barbecue and live music hosted every weekend. Of the five whiskeys produced here, our favorite was the Ghost Hill Bourbon. This “grain to glass” spirit, created with local heirloom grains sourced from Barton Springs Mill, is aged two years in new charred-oak barrels. The taste hints at red apple and buttery vanilla with a peppery finish. We sat back in Adirondack rockers under a massive live oak and enjoyed our bourbon on the rocks, before heading to the restaurant to tuck into pork ribs served with a Treaty Oak bourbon-infused barbecue sauce.
Treaty Oak Distilling
16604 Fitzhugh Road, Dripping Springs. Tel. (512) 400-4023
Writers and artists of the belle epoque period described absinthe, or “green fairy,” as it was known, as an elixir that induced hallucinations. The reputation of the anise-flavored spirit may keep newcomers from signing up for a tasting, but I have tried several absinthes in my life and never has the drink brought on delirium. Similar but considerably more herbaceous than ouzo and pastis, absinthe is a delightful aperitif or digestif. Established in 2015, Violet Crown Spirits is the first absinthe to be made and sold in Texas. After years of studying traditional methods of production and dissecting recipes from the 1600s to 1800s, founders Matt Mancuso, Chris McLaughlin and Jessica Leigh Graves have created two versions: the delicate and light-colored Opal absinthe, which uses a grape spirit mixed with 60 pounds of botanicals that include peppermint, angelica, fennel, anise and traces of wormwood, and Emerald, which steeps Opal with a second round of herbs. The Emerald is greener in color, and we found it to be more aromatic and savory. Located in an industrial business park in Bastrop, 40 miles east of Austin, Violet Crown’s current tasting room is small and lacking in character, but we had a surprisingly delightful experience where the easygoing setup is ideal for those trying absinthe for the first time.
Violet Crown Spirits
704 Highway 71 East, Bastrop. Tel. (512) 766-5090