Acre Distilling: Putting Wood to Good Use
I'm sure spirits competitions, like all industry award shows, come up with some pretty pedantic categories (Best Pure Pot Still Irish Whiskey?). So if I could create one for "Best Use of Wood," I would award it to Tony Formby of Acre Distilling Co. Tony and his crew are doing some creative things with barrels and wood chips.
The first clue as to what's going on inside the place (though I couldn't suspect it at the time) is a huge portion of the storefront -a perfect place for a patio, since no one asked me- is decked out in shingles. We're talking wood so new-looking, I'd believe you if you told me Tony drove in the last nail right before I got there.
The building, as I learn, is hardly new. Renovated, yes, in 2015. It was previously a restaurant so suddenly abandoned, Tony found tables still set with wilted flowers in vases. The building started as as a warehouse, in the neighborhood's heyday as a red-light district ("Hell's Half Acre," or where the distillery gets its name), circa 1870. This can be guessed at from the sheer size of the interior and height of the ceilings. Exposed brick inside and the way the bar area is elevated above the production space brings it full circle. Beautiful, wall-sized windows allow you to sit at the bar and watch the distillers tend to their potions.
Tony is not in this operation alone. No one person could be, since Acre is cranking out upwards of twenty spirits at any given time. (Sixteen were available for tasting on the day I was there, since four more are still in the government approval stage). A lot of credit goes to head distiller and Tony's business partner, JB. JB was not there that day, he still helps to manage a brewery he started. But I feel like I know him a smidge, just from sampling ten spirits. In no particular order:
Single Malt - this is all Texas barley. They're malting a batch as I enter the distilling room, and it fills the air with a wet corn smell. The batch I sample was aged five months in new oak barrels (#3 char), but Tony tells me they now want to age it as long as it makes sense. Since the notes on this one are vanilla and wood, I can only imagine how much richer the longer age will make it. It's 125 proof and there was only the slightest of burns.
The Longhair Jim Straight Bourbon is a single stock made by a Kentucky distiller and aged five years, the last year of which is in new barrels at Acre. The mash is 75% corn, 21% rye and 4% barley. The Single Barrel version won a silver medal at the 2016 LA International Spirits Competition. I got to try both. Maybe it's the power of suggestion, but I found the Single Barrel to be much richer and spicier than the Longhair Jim. Maybe Acre should call it "Luke Short." A quick Wikipedia search just told me that Short is the outlaw and saloon owner that killed Sheriff "Longhair" Jim Courtright in a shootout, at the pinnacle of Hell's Half Acre.
Acre Distilling makes a 100% corn vodka. It's 88 proof because "8" is JB's favorite number. Sometimes, a reason is just that simple and perfect. The vodka doesn't have a hint of corn to me, but maybe an underlying sweetness. It is very easy to drink.
Now comes that creativity with wood, in the form of Barrel-Finished Vodka. It spends six months in a bourbon barrel and is then brought down to108 proof. I take a sip and immediately get that toasty wood flavor. Starting at such a high proof (vodka is first distilled at 195 proof) really allows the barrel flavors to dissolve and permeate. Give me more barrel-flavored everything please.
Tony lets me a try a 114-proof unaged bourbon that they do not sell. It smells like pure alcohol, not surprisingly. The taste is very bright. But after having both the bourbon and barrel-aged vodka, the moonshine simply does not excite.
There is a London dry style gin ("Two Minnies"). "London dry" means very juniper-forward, which I do not like. However, it's a different story when Tony busts out the Wooded Gin. He swears it's the same as the 94-proof gin I just tasted, but aged for twelve weeks in a stainless steel vat with toasted oak chips. Amazing, it's like night and day (or juniper forest and oak closet). This is a gin I could drink, as the juniper notes are covered by more clove and wood. Apparently, the judges at the LA competition agreed in 2016, since they awarded it a silver medal.
Even though I'm careful to take tiny sips, the samples are adding up at this point. Good thing I had the foresight to move my car to the Acre's read parking lot well before my meter was up. Think I'll be wandering around the neighborhood for a while (It's come a ways since the wild west. Longhair Jim would raise an eyebrow at the suits walking to and fro the convention center nearby). But first, there's more spirits to taste.
I love the Ginger Peach Tea vodka. The "Tea" part could be misleading, as it's more a sweet peach flavor with just the specter of something spicy lurking in the background. At 60-proof, you could keep it to one glass and still drive safely around the block.
The Limoncello is slightly stronger, at 70 proof. It's a bit sweet for my taste, as would be expected. It's made from infusing the 195 proof vodka with lemon zest and sugar water. Tony assures me it makes a great lemonade when mixed with equal parts seltzer water.
Let's end on a last wood magic trick: Barrel Aged Wood. The mash is granulated Texas sugarcane. It's aged for up to six months in new charred oak barrels and comes out at 108 proof. The nose is a bit spicy. When I drink it, it's all wood and smoke. Delicious.
If you ever find yourself in Dallas-Fort Worth and are in need of an unusual drink, I recommend Acre's bar, day or night. It's so large, there's plenty of room to flail about, even when it has a decent amount of people. The bartenders are funny and genuinely interested in your drinking preferences. Thor was behind the bar (and yes, with a name like that, he is a giant and has plenty of stories). And who knows, maybe Tony will come out and try to knock you on your ass with some cask strength something or other. There's always hope.