Mike Hershey puts the Spirit in Spirit of Texas
I have to say, this guy Mike has the right attitude, and it's infectious.
I meet Mike as he's tending to the bar of the tasting room at Spirit of Texas Distillery, in Pflugerville, TX, just north of Austin. Big smile and big beard, he comes around to shake my hand, and lights up even brighter when I tell him of my mission. "That's fucking awesome," Mike exclaims as he grabs some bottles for me to sample.
I admire Mike's passion, as it's clearly the driving force of his life. He started off as a chef in Austin, bouncing around a couple seafood joints. It really got to him when he'd see his creations only half finished. See, Mike puts his everything into whatever he does. So it's hard for him not to take it personally if someone doesn't love his final product as much as he clearly does. The predicament for a true artist.
I witness this firsthand as Mike, the only full-time employee and distiller there, walks me through the process for making their rums and whiskey.
The rum is fermented from a high-grade Texas molasses for about two weeks. It is then run through a column still for a triple distillation. Their whiskey is a single malt, Bavarian barley with just a touch of rye. It's then aged for about two years in #4 char new oak barrels.
Being the only full-time employee (the other owners have 9-5 jobs elsewhere), Mike is involved in every step. He bounces around the production floor and climbs up ladders to show off each piece of equipment. Then he scoops the wood cubes they use for aging the rum into my hands. Given this level of care, I'm eager to sample the end result.
The silver (unaged) rum has a sour tequila-like nose. On the palate, it hits woody notes, in keeping with a Resposado. I can't quite fathom where the taste comes from, since this rum is unaged, proofed from the still down to 80.
The pecan rum is made the same way as the silver, except the distillate is aged with oak cubes and pecans, anywhere from six weeks to six months. The nose is honey with a hint of nut. On the palate, it's oaky with a sweet finish. I'm left with a lingering taste of vanilla, butterscotch and hazelnut. Mike tells me this is his "get home" drink. As in, he pours himself some on the rocks and sips it, while playing with his kid.
The 92-proof whiskey is my favorite, just for the contrast to the rums' sweetness. True, the nose has the lighter notes of apple, banana bread and some honey. But the palate is all oak and sour notes. Mike notices how much I enjoy it and since I'm now convinced his M.O. in life is to simply maximize the pleasure of those around him, he heads to the back and emerges with an unmarked bottle of an 'experiment.'
It's a four-year aged version of the single malt, at 110 proof. The nose is a bit sharper, due to the higher proof, but the notes are smooth pear.
I don't finish all of the sample, so Mike asks me to select a cocktail, one of his own creations, from the board. They all sounding tempting. When he describes the Fumble Ruski as his take on a white Russian, I'm sold. The Big Lebowski taught me to love white Russians, though I think I'm like most people in that I save them for special occasions. I figure shooting the shit with Mike is as good as any.
It's made of equal parts of both rums, a little bit of espresso and Irish cream. Here's another thing Mike excels at: mixology. I can only hope I've shown enough appreciation, as that is what Mike lives on.
As parting words, he tells me he really believes you can sense the love and care a creator puts into his or her work. This sets him off a semi-tangent on the problem not just with some distillers, but the food and beverage industry as a whole. As a trio from California once sang, where is the love?
The point is, both the spirits and cocktails out out at the tasting room, are as enjoyable as they are because of Mike's love and dedication to craft. I consider myself privileged to have experienced all of it, if only for an hour.