Two years ago, a couple of Real Ale Brewing employees decided they wanted a crack at their own business — but they didn’t get into brewing.
Ty Phelps and Tommy Erwin had watched as Texas changed the laws in favor of distillers in 2013 — allowing them to sell cocktails from their tasting rooms, as well as a limited number of bottles to go — and saw the potential for a “more in-depth tasting room experience,” Phelps said.
That potential has turned into reality. The duo opened Andalusia Whiskey Co. last month in the Hill Country as a large, comfortable place where whiskey lovers can hang out, taste the boozy offerings and tour the distillery where barrels have started stacking up and a copper pot still sits plumply, dutifully delivering their product.
Day trippers wanting to visit don’t have to worry about driving to the middle of nowhere, either. Andalusia is not far from Phelps and Erwin’s old stomping grounds: Phelps had moved onto ranch land near Blanco-based Real Ale with his wife, Ericka, in 2010 and turned part of the acreage into the distillery site, built from scratch by the two Andalusia co-founders and a friend without blueprints.
The proximity to the 20-year-old Real Ale has already proved helpful, as the brewery has pointed customers their way and has offered ready advice to Phelps and Erwin whenever they ask.
Not that the whiskey makers always need it. Phelps, in addition to brewing, had been helping Real Ale owner Brad Farbstein launch a distilling project, Real Spirits (which is still in the works). Erwin, a microbiologist, ran Real Ale’s quality assurance lab and has the science background.
Distilling is also not terribly different from brewing, Phelps said — or, rather, “it’s brewing and then another step. We make malt whiskey here, which is similar to beer because they’re both barley-based.”
He and Erwin create a whiskey wash (essentially beer, sans hops) and double-distill it with the 250-gallon copper pot still. Having a pot still versus a column still — as many spirits producers prefer, for the column’s ability to produce a pure, clean spirit — was a deliberate choice for Andalusia because it “keeps the flavor and oils from the grain, so it gives the whiskey a nice body and a lot more flavor,” Phelps said.
Once it’s been properly distilled, the clear spirit (yes, whiskey looks more like vodka at that point) is either added to barrels for aging or filtered and bottled as Andalusia Whiskey’s White Pearl. It’s a white whiskey, moonshine-like, that provides Phelps and Erwin the chance for income while they wait for the barrels to transform the maturing liquid within into single malt and other kinds of aged products.
And boy, do they have plans for that barreled whiskey.
Phelps and Erwin have chosen single malt whiskey — instead of bourbon, for instance, the spirit that U.S. distillers invented — because of their beer background. Plus, they tend to prefer it the most.
“I’m much more of a malt whiskey guy,” Erwin said. “Bourbon is a much different flavor profile, and we’d have to change our still, our process, to make it.”
Instead, they have three different kinds of malt whiskey in the works that they hope will introduce the U.S., which still largely thinks of single malt whiskey as being produced exclusively in Scotland, to the growing category of American single malt whiskeys. Andalusia Single Malt, the flagship, will be similar to a non-peated Scotch, Phelps said. The distillery will also make a whiskey with peat for all the Scotch drinkers out there, but he and Erwin want to branch out and make another whiskey that is distinctly American.
“We’re going to do an American craft version of peated Scotch, which is instead of using peat to smoke the malt, we’ll use American barbecue woods, like mesquite, oak, apple,” Phelps said. “We’ve got many barrels of this whiskey that I’m talking about now that is going to be our American smoked single malt. Instead of peat, which is a very unique smoke flavor, very phenolic and spicy, this whiskey will have more of a smoke flavor like barbecue, campfire. A type of smoke that I think is more familiar to the American palate.”
Because of the aging process, visitors to the distillery can only buy bottles of the White Pearl for now. But the cocktails are made from both the White Pearl and from already produced Andalusia Single Malt, too small in quantity to be bottled.
The White Pearl — sweet and fruity, like a light white rum — hasn’t been the only draw so far. Walk into Andalusia Whiskey Co. and you just might gasp, like many people laying eyes on the airy, wood-and-metal space for the first time. It’s two stories, with the bar along one side, couches and other seating in the center, and a back room filled with old books that Phelps and Erwin call the library because you can pull out these tomes and read them, if you like. Upstairs is filled with tables and chairs and has games like Jenga available.
“We are one of the first distilleries to come out after the laws changed, so we really focused on this tasting room,” Phelps said. “Really, what we’ve got is something more than just a tasting room. People can come and play darts or hang out in the library. We wanted to take advantage of the success that wineries have had.”
Once a fence goes up around the property, he wants to bring his family’s livestock back to the field in front of the distillery, where they used to graze before the building was erected. The farm animals will be one more element of Andalusia Whiskey Co. as a destination spot — and as a family-friendly place where kids can have just as much fun as their whiskey-drinking parents.
Distillery tours provide the chance to try much more than just the white whiskey, but Phelps and Erwin can’t wait for their aged products to be fully ready on a wider scale.
“Maybe if the whiskey gods are good to us, we’ll have something ready for spring next year,” Erwin said.