Keeping it in the Family at Stinson Distilling
Visiting Stinson Distilling on a Sunday afternoon (especially when they've opened up the place just for me) is like dropping in on a family as they lounge around their living room. I feel like I'm interrupting a moment I shouldn't be in, even as Clint, the patriarch and owner, beckons me into the two-room workshop that is the distillery in Driftwood, TX.
Along with Clint, I meet his wife, Andrea, who mostly tends to the tasting room bar, and his nephew, Philip, a distilling apprentice of sorts.
Everything at Stinson is informal, and that starts to put me at ease. Clint leads me through to the production room, which is comprised of stacks of just about everything: totes, barrels, pallets of bottles and gallon jugs. You get the idea. I'm sure Clint knows exactly where everything is, but to an outsider like me, it makes as much sense as anyone's garage.
Clint leads me to the back corner, where I see a modest-sized pot still. It's from this 100-gallon still that's produced their vodka, rum, agave liqueur and brandy.
The brandy is the first spirit they ever produced, starting about two years ago. Clint tells me he's been experimenting, first home-brewing then distilling, for the past twenty three years, all the while working a day job. The distillery began when a nearby vineyard, William Chris Wines, asked Clint if he could make a brandy out of a batch of Orange Moscato wine that wasn't up to their standards, and therefore couldn't be sold as is.
The wine is distilled once and then aged in gallon glass jugs with white oak cubes, for about two years, and it gets bottled at 120 proof. I try the result. The nose has a spicy clove vibe to it. The palate is of deep fruit notes and finishes on spice. I would think I'd detect more oak, since Clint shows me one of the jugs and there's quite a lot of wood in there. Oh well.
Their vodka starts at corn neutral grain spirits. It gets distilled about five times and is proofed down to 80 with filtered local spring water. It doesn't have much of a nose and the only palate note I get, other than alcohol, is a lingering sweetness.
Stinson's rum is made from high-grade molasses, is not aged, and gets bottled at 80 proof. The nose is slightly sweet while the palate is nutty and woody. Clint is very proud that last year they submitted an eggnog made out of this rum, Treaty Oak whiskey, cream, vanilla, sugar and nutmeg to the San Diego Wine and Spirits Challenge (for the cream liqueur category) and won bronze.
I'm offered a sample of elderflower-flavored vodka. It's the 80 proof vodka that's been infused with elderflower, lemon zest and sugar. The nose is perfume, flower and citrus. The palate is sweet, with a bitter, musty finish.
The agave liqueur sounds interesting. They get agave nectar from Mexico and ferment it, distill the wash, and age it with those oak cubes for about a year. The nose on this one has strong wood tones. The palate is sharply of plant. I wrongly assumed "nectar" would mean "sweet," but it's nowhere near it.
Lastly, I try a version of the brandy that has had peach infused in it. The nose is, as you'd expect, peachy. When I sip it, the notes are much more complex. Beyond the peach, there is wildflower and some grape. To think that this brandy started out years ago as some unwanted wine, and is now very drinkable, is amazing.
By now, I feel very at home with Clint and family. We've settled around the tasting room bar, and I'm clearly eight or so samples in by now. The conversation veers to a potentially sensitive topic in this part of Hill Country: best bbq joint. I can tell Clint is trying his best to be diplomatic, because it takes me a couple tries for him to reveal his favorite spot.
We're five minutes down the road from Salt Lick, which every travel guide cites as one of the best. So of course I'm going to visit. Clint agrees that I should, but it doesn't sound like much of a ringing endorsement. I suppose it's the same way anyone would begrudge a first-time tourist: "yes, of course you should visit my city's claim-to-fame." But most people also have their favorite, off-the-radar spot - and usually keep it close to the chest.
I immediately recognize the place Clint names, only because I've passed it on my treks up and down route 290 over the past three days and had these thoughts: "looks like someone built a shack around a smoker, and it's ready to fall down" and "what a weird name" (roughly translates to "fatso" in another language). No, I didn't eat there. Clint's favorite spot, and Salt Lick's supremacy, remain safe.