Witherspoon Distillery: Staying Smooth at the Highest Proofs
When I first call Witherspoon Distillery in Lewisville, Texas, it's not very encouraging. Don't get me wrong, Emma, on the other end of the line and who ended up being my tour guide and host, is as personable as they come. It's just that I called on a day when they are not open for tastings or tours. Why do things the easy way?
Luckily, Emma relents and invites me to stop by. She asks that I call when I get there. I do, and am now waiting outside for her to let me in. The building strikes me as an odd mix of industrial and neighborhood bar. Case in point: there are three unmissable, massive distilling columns attached to the brick wall. On the opposite side: a perimeter of wood fencing, separating us outsiders from a world of fun inside (ok, maybe a couple corn-hole boards and fake turf).
Emma greets me warmly and invites me inside. I follow her down a hallway to the giant bar/tasting room. It's empty now, of course, but I can just imagine the cacophony on the weekends. Also fortunate for me, Emma is inspired to take up her tour-guide role and after some chitchat, she launches into Witherspoon's backstory.
There is Quentin, former marine, who got into distilling while trying to salvage spoiled beer during his tours in Africa. Emma explains: the marines would guard various embassies. The staff showed their appreciation by handing out beer. However, electricity would be spotty in these parts of the world, and thus unreliable refrigeration would lead to spoiled beer. But if you set up a rudimentary still, you can turn the beer into spirits, as Quentin learned through trial and error. (It helped that one of Quentin's tasks was water purification, so he had the access to, and knowledge, of rudimentary equipment).
Ryan was Quentin's buddy in the marines and avid brewer. They ran into each other in Dallas, each not knowing the other had moved there. Natasha rounds out the trio as Ryan's wife, and oversees revenue and operations - or the party pooper that keeps flights of fancy in check and the lights on.
There is a lot to taste at Witherspoon. Not only their varieties of rum and whiskey, but a lot of concoctions and special runs only available at the distillery. Emma is very generous. I look at the towering wall of bottles behind the bar and wonder if it wold be bad form to nap in their parking lot.
Their straight bourbon will do a changing act in your mouth, morphing from sour to sweet quick enough to miss, if Emma hadn't pointed it out beforehand. The sour may come from the 10% rye in the mash, riding the tail of 70% corn and 20% barley. Emma nicknames it the Sourpatch Kid. At 100 proof, I wouldn't recommend the entire bag.
Next is their River Rum, at 80 proof. It is made from Texas cane sugar, molasses (left over from a feed lot up the street), water and yeast. The taste is as simple and clean as the ingredient list, with only a hint of sweetness. The White Rum is more flavorful, with notes of butterscotch and spice. There is a 90 proof rum aged in bourbon barrels. It definitely retains that bourbon nose, and the notes are all spicy wood. "Bonfire," their cinnamon rum is their answer to Fireball. We're talking a lot of cinnamon here: 46 lbs of cinnamon infused in an entire 330-gallon tote. Don't drink this if you want to be able to taste any flavor other than Big Red for the rest of the day.
At this point, Steve the barrel expert comes out from playing with casks in the rickhouse. He jokes with Emma that he still doesn't have an official title, but his vote is for "Wood Master." Steve's quick wit and good nature aside, this man is dangerous and you should take the highest precaution around him. He comes across immediately as super nice, because he wants to share samples of his specially aged batches. This is where things can quickly go off the rails.
He darts off and returns with a 146 proof cask strength bourbon. They have a Cask Strength edition bourbon for the general public (at 125 proof) and a Single Barrel edition (100 proof). But the way Steve is relishing the swirl of a deceptively elegant sifter, I know trouble's abrewing. This stuff burns immediately from the tiniest sip. I have to admit, it's enjoyable to feel the heat spread from the tongue, to the back of the throat, and down into my chest. A flavor lingers that I can only describe as spicy banana. Think of it as a banana jubilee in (alcoholic) liquid form. Ok, so I won't be writing labels for Witherspoon any time soon. The point is, the burn might signal for you to brace for an onslaught of harshness. But it never comes. The Cask Strength, like Witherspoon's higher proof bourbon, stays smooth throughout.
I black out at this point... just kidding. I get to cool down with a delicious Bourbon Cream, at a thankful 30 proof. It is comprised of Witherspoon's bourbon sent to a local dairy so they can infuse it with cream. It tastes like one of Starbucks' mocha calorie bombs - or in other words, addictive.
Before I can leave, I have to try their Single Malt. It is aged about a year in port or rum barrels and finished in bourbon barrels for a couple more months. The bourbon barrels give it that classic smoky oaky taste, but there are still hints of citrus in there. And of course, it goes down smooth. This is Witherspoon we're talking about here.
It's impressive to think that some marine grunt distilling water in Africa has risen to the level where he is making such delicate yet flavorful spirits. Of course, it's done with plenty of talented staff just like Emma and Steve, that I don't get to see. That the tasting room offers spirits that are not available in stores -vodka, agave liqueur, brand and gin- is only one reason to stop by Witherspoon, should you find yourself in Dallas. Another is the good chance you'll get to hear stories from Emma and others tending the bar. Just keep your eye on Steve, if he tries to sneak off to the rickhouse and bring back a "special sample."