Winemaker Austin Hope is a busy guy. In addition to his regular duties with California’s Hope Family Wines and the winery’s brands of Treana, Liberty School and others, he helped to produce a special Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah blend for the Austin-based Nobelity Project last year. He also decided to pursue one of his dreams: to get into spirits-making, specifically by producing rye whiskey.
The result of that project is Highspire Pure Rye Whiskey, which he debuted at the Austin Food and Wine Festival Sunday with a trio of cocktails that displayed the range of the rye’s flavor profile.
It’s a peculiar rye, to be sure — Hope trumpets its distinction as a whiskey with an all-rye bill, an unusual characteristic for most other rye whiskeys, but sip it neat and you’ll notice the robust spice so prevalent in many other rye brands is subdued by a fruity sweetness. Tasting it at the festival yesterday, I was puzzled by that until he said that Highspire spends about 120 days in the French and American oak barrels that previously used to age Hope Family wines. Oak staves are also added to the rye’s maturing process.
The wood’s brief influence on the rye imparts hints of vanilla into it, but the sweetness (which the Highspire tasting sheet gave the more nuanced description of “poached apples”) most likely derives from the wine that aged in the used barrels. That’s another unusual trait of Hope’s rye whiskey — wine barrels don’t typically have a second life as whiskey barrels. (In fact, one of the rules of American rye, besides having to be distilled from at least 51 percent rye, is that the whiskey has to be aged in new charred oak barrels, just like bourbon.)
Hope’s aware his whiskey isn’t made the customary way, and he’s okay with that. “That’s who I am. Untraditional and random,” he said during his festival presentation yesterday.
Although I prefer rye whiskeys that make the spicy soul of the grain more prominent, I still appreciated Highspire for its complexity. It’s exactly the sort of whiskey that a winemaker like Hope might make, as he seems unafraid to break the rules to stay true to a certain vision.
The name of his whiskey brings back an old rye brand from 1823, when it was much more common to distill with 100 percent rye. He wanted to stay true to the Highspire legacy (which died out, like so many American spirits did, during Prohibition) by making it from a single-varietal heirloom rye that he had specially grown.
“Last year, nobody like rye,” Hope said, but he’s noticed a trend toward adding it in cocktails that he’s betting will only continue. He and local bartenders Brian Floyd and Vanessa Cook all presented the audience with three drinks featuring Highspire, including this one below.
Peach Julep with Highspire Rye
1-2 oz. Highspire Pure Rye Whiskey
3 oz. peach juice
3 oz. club soda
1/2 tsp. sugar
Muddle mint leaves in a shaker. Add rye, peach juice and sugar into the shaker with ice and shake thoroughly. Pour over crushed ice and top with club soda.
— Adapted from Vanessa Cook