Real Ale Brewing Launches Real Spirits Distilling Co.: A Lesson in Patience
From the moment I pulled into the driveway -three cars are ahead of me, waiting for spots- I realize that the launch party for Real Spirits is going to be a zoo. After making my own parking space (hey! New Jersey comes to Texas by way of LA) I battle my way up to the second-story tasting room.
Don't get me wrong. I love how everyone -a mix of tourists and locals as far as I can tell- is milling about with their drinks and having a good time. Inside, there's a massive, room-length bar. There's also dozens of people standing in a confused blob of a line, that eventually tapers down to two points: a cocktail server and beer pourer. Spirits are my mission, so I do my best to find something resembling the beginning of the cocktail path.
Until the day before, I had never heard of Real Ale Brewing Company, let alone that they were launching a spirits line. It was the good folks at Garrison Brothers Distilling, a short drive down the highway, that clued me in. There's a welcoming, celebratory vibe. Everyone wants to try these new spirits: two whiskies and a gin. And so we wait.
All three spirits are made by distilling beer made at Real Ale Brewing. Their Devil's Backbone Belgian-style Tripel and Real Heavy Scotch Ale both get distilled into the Signature and Single Barrel whiskies. The gin is distilled from their Real Ale White, with botanicals added on the third and final distillation.
I've wedged myself among friendly visitors at a table, flight of three samples in front of me. Plenty of time to enjoy. Distillery and brewery tours alternate on the hour. It turns out I just missed the distillery tour, so I will have to wait.
Before giving feedback on the spirits, I should say that I have not sampled any of the beers from which they're made. The gin is 92 proof. I would surmise this was the least impressive of the three: typical juniper nose, with the notes just citrus forward enough not to be considered a London dry gin.
The whiskey that goes on to become the Signature and Single Barrel is aged in new charred oak barrels for about seventeen months, and proofed down to 92 using filtered rainwater. The nose on the Single Barrel is surprisingly metallic. The palate is more pleasant: deep oak, grain and a strong char finish. The nose on the Signature is slightly less metallic, mixed with flowers. It has tangy, grassy notes on the palate.
I guess as I was chatting with the bartender about the tour schedule, she could sense my frustration. Though I'm trying to match, best I can, everyone's sunny Texas attitude, my impatience must have surfaced. She points out a young lady that can help me. Her name is Katie and she is the social media manager for the brewery (and now distillery). She very kindly offers to take me on a private tour. First, she needs to scarf down some lunch.
We head outside, where the chilliness of morning has completely given way to an overhead sun. She gets a quesadilla from the food truck and we join some folks at a picnic table. They're getting a little bonus today, as Katie gives us the backstory on Real Ale between bites.
The brewery opened up twenty-one years ago. In fact, they're celebrating a twenty-first birthday bash the weekend I write this. A couple years ago, the owner, Brad, and a couple of his brewers became interested in making spirits. As they did more researched, they realized they had been halfway there the whole time. All distilled spirits start out as a beer of some sort, simply from the fermentation of mashed grains. Real Ale produces about eleven beers (with some seasonal releases thrown in). The big decision was whether to use an existing beer or create one just for distilling.
I don't know what those R&D sessions were like, but I'm sure they were fun and nobody was driving home. The description of their Real Heavy Scotch Ale says it's made from"English Crystal malt, English hops, and fermented with our house English ale yeast." The Belgian-style Tripel uses "traditional ingredients, such as unmalted wheat, orange peel and coriander, and fermented with our house Belgian yeast strain." I can't be sure of the proportions of each used as Real Spirits' whiskey wash, but I did find those grassy flavors noticeable in the Signature Whiskey that would come from the Tripel's wheat makeup.
Katie is finished with her lunch, so she leads me inside the gigantic brewery. There are rows of mash tuns, fermenters and boilers. It would seem the brewery gets its grains already milled and ready for processing. It smells of young bread and there is a palatable wetness in the air.
Each state has their own labyrinth of laws regulating every step of brewing and distilling. For companies to do both, things can get quite complex. One outcome is that Real Ale, in order to start a distillery, had to physically separate its still from all other parts of the brewery. So Katie leads me outside to a large closet, essentially, that was tacked onto the back of the main building. This is where the still is housed and Real Spirits are born.
I also notice some metal shipping containers. In Texas, it is common for distillers to age their barrels in these giant metal boxes. In summer, or certain days in spring, they are nothing less than ovens. It's still cool out enough for me to have my jacket on. But when Katie opens one of these suckers up, wow. I imagine come summer, how cooked this whiskey will be. Summer heat is the reason why you will rarely find whiskeys aged for more than three years in Texas. With the shipping container method, there is no need to age beyond two.
With the tour concluded I check the time. I've been here over two hours and I'm getting hungry. Katie's quesadilla didn't look too appetizing, so it's back into the tiny town of Blanco, TX to find something. What is it with gas stations here and their fried catfish? I figure it can't be any worse than the beef 'empanadas' in a warming case I will sometimes, in moments of desperation or drunken carelessness, grab in LA. Blanco consists of exactly one gas station (and the requisite church), so catfish it is! Now only if there was somewhere to get a beer to wash it down.