Old Town Lewisville visitors entertained and educated by distillery tours with Quentin Witherspoon
By Dru Murray
Two Saturdays ago, I journeyed to Lewisville native Quentin Witherspoon’s distillery at 225 S. Charles Street just off of Old Town’s Main Street to take in a tour of the facility, and partake of samples.
As I paid for the tour, Jason Claeys carded me, explaining that since the distillery is a distilled spirits plant and the Texas Alcohol Beverage Commission (TABC) is “stricter than the FBI.”
Claeys then introduced me to Anna Hartsock, the distillery’s tasting hall manager. Though the bar was hopping, Hartsock took the time to welcome me and describe her work.
Hartsock, who has progressed in her career for 18 years and is self-taught, told me she was busy testing new cocktail recipes for the summer set to be rolled out “next week.” She said she creates new menus for summer, spring, fall, and winter. “I incorporate a lot of seasonal foods, like strawberries, rhubarb, mint, sage, rosemary,” she enthused.
And then she blew my socks off with samples of her newest creations, all infusions. Anna informed me that she makes an infusion by taking “our star spirits to a higher proof, adding the infusion, straining it, and proofing it down.”
The first was a bacon-infused bourbon she dubbed a Breakfast Old Fashioned. Anna said that to create the drink, she cooks Applewood bacon and strains off the fat while it’s cold before adding it to the distillery’s bourbon. Before sipping a tiny bit, my nostrils definitely whiffed a hint of bacon, that foodstuff few disdain, and upon swilling the liquid mixture down my throat, found the drink lived up to its promise—its bacon flavor enhanced the bourbon’s burn.
Next, Anna offered me a sample of her apple pie-infused whisky, whose creamy, smooth sweetness nicely mitigated the bite of its whisky host.
But the best was next—the coconut-infused rum. Now, I must preface what follows with a confession that I’m not wild about coconut, but wow!—the drink could not be characterized as anything but delicious. Anna stated that the coconut drink is “an all-natural plantation style” since she uses real coconut and leaves a lot of fat in the infusion.
Anna, who was hired at the Witherspoon Distillery in September 2015, said the “owners have been amazing. For instance, they had me attend a three-day bar conference sponsored by the USBG, or U.S. Bartenders’ Guild, to learn new things.”
Others obviously enjoy Anna’s creations as patrons at the large bar were buzzing like bees around a hive brimming with scrumptious, irresistible honey.
The distillery tours cost $10 and are worth every penny. Mine was conducted by Founder and Master Distiller Quentin Witherspoon who delivered a font of information about distilling spirits, plus great gobs of merriment.
Witherspoon started the tour with the words, “We are federally compliant since we are a hazardous materials chemical plant.” Then added, “Now as many of you know, when you grow up in a smaller town, it cramps your style so I joined the U.S. Marine Corps, which enabled me to travel to over 40 countries. There I visited communities that lacked the amenities of electricity, AC, refrigeration, and fresh water. We were close to diplomats who graciously supplied us with beer, which we started stockpiling. We had a water distillation unit and the first thing we did was put a lot of beer and wine into it to turn it into really bad vodka, which was popular at parties.” Witherspoon continued, “I made it my objective to learn how locals produced alcohol.”
Other founders of the distillery include Witherspoon’s friend and fellow Marine Ryan DeHart and Ryan’s wife Natasha. Ryan serves as the distillery’s chief financial officer, while Natasha is its chief revenue officer. Pointing to the two stills on his left, Witherspoon said, “These two stills are fractionated stills named Porgy & Bess. They produce 1,000 cases per month. The new ones right here behind me distill via steam. They don’t have a name yet; we may have a contest to name them. The three cylinders you see outside I valiantly rescued from Canada and will produce one million gallons of whisky in a year.”
“Our distillery was formerly a Piggly Wiggly store that burned down in the ’80s but we still have the sign and since I didn’t know what to do with it, I decided to keep it and hang it on the wall,” Witherspoon said.
Witherspoon’s great humor that elicited tons of laughs from the 36 tour participants was accompanied by copious amounts of information his audience appreciated. He explained how his interest in distilling came about when he served in Central Africa. He said that distilling evolved in Northern Africa where fermented liquids were heated up in a container with a neck that looped down. It was in the neck from which a separate vapor of alcohol or “magical spirit” was captured to create what we still call today “spirits.”
Upon his return to Charleston, South Carolina, Witherspoon immersed himself in learning the art of creating mountain whisky. Witherspoon said that when the liquid from fermented grain undergoes distillation, the first liquid to emerge is a bluish-grey and tastes like vomit, but after the distilled liquid reaches the aziotropic limit, the outcome is a liquid with good color, flavor, and aroma. The resulting industrial-grade alcohol is then filtered through charcoal to produce 182-proof vodka. “We don’t make vodka on purpose on the way to rum or whisky,” stated Witherspoon. “Vodka may be made from any fermentable resource on earth.”
According to Witherspoon, brandy is derived from bad wine. “In France,” he noted, “distilleries produce Cognac and Armagnac. Cognac is actually brandy that has been distilled twice.”
“Mexico, I love that place,” said Witherspoon. “They have the agave plants that have the sugar used to make mescal and tequila. But beware that when a bartender pours your drink while low behind the bar, it’s a red flag as he’s probably giving you vodka, not tequila.”
“Whisky may be made from lots of types of grains—wheat, barley, corn, or rye. France and Great Britain produce whiskies. Malting in Scotland consists of adding water to grain, which then germinates,” Witherspoon stated. “Once that happens, it’s mashed down in a process called mashing, which activates the sugar to produce a 7% alcohol called distiller’s beer. The white whiskey is then loaded into a barrel. The whisky’s flavor may come from smoke generated by peat moss that’s set on fire. Scotch whisky is extremely refined and delicate and one of the most refined.”
Witherspoon related how he entered his whisky in the International Whisky Competition held in San Francisco in 2015. He said that though the whisky garnering the competition’s top honors was Yamasaki, a Japanese distiller, his whisky did well and he was “consoled by the fact that our whisky was only 12 months old.”
“Everyone’s heard the term ‘single-malt whisky,’ Witherspoon said. “That means the whisky was distilled at a single distillery. Many distilleries have few roads and many products. A single malt may cost a lot.” Witherspoon added: “A blended Scotch whisky gives you a better value. ‘Blended’ means the whisky is a blend of whiskies from at least two distilleries. But, you should drink what you like to drink.”
Witherspoon warned that blended American whiskey is undesirable because “it is anything but whiskey. Its ingredients are vodka, beet juice, carrot juice, glycerin, maybe vanilla extract, and propylene glycol, which is antifreeze and toxic. There’s a government warning on the bottles.” To elicit more warm laughter, he opined, “Death has long been a health problem.”
“Ireland ages its bourbons in oak barrels that come from the U.S. and we import the Irish to drink it, so it’s a fair trade,” said Witherspoon, a statement that drew raucous laughter from his rapt audience.
“The U.S. and Canada produce rye whiskey, with half a percent thinking it’s better tasting than water while many think it tastes like pesticides. Whiskeys are ranked and are made from a dominant grain—wheat, barley, corn, or rye—but may have other ingredients that affect the taste like maple or cherry.”
After learning all about the distilling of mountain whiskies, Witherspoon traveled to Puerto Rico to learn how to make rum from molasses and sugarcane grown in the Caribbean. The yeast resident on the sugar cane ferments the combination for one and a half weeks to make alcohol the stills capture. “Our rum is 90 proof. The tannic acid gives the rum its brown color,” said Witherspoon. “Every Friday night, I enjoy River Rum Reserve at home.”
We moved from the distillation room to the barrel room, home to brand-new charred white oak barrels so important in the aging of whisky. Our tour guide said that some Scotch whiskies are aged for 27 years but “our Straight bourbon is aged two years or more. Age is not an indication of maturity or wisdom.”
“Though we load each barrel with 53 gallons, we never know how much bourbon concentrate will come out. Some leaks out through evaporation—that is called ‘the angel’s share,’” explained Witherspoon.
Said Witherspoon, “You may have noticed the barrel room is warm since there is no air conditioning in it. Texas is the perfect place to age whisky since our temperature changes produce better whisky. When there is no air conditioning in here, the temperature opens the barrels’ pores more intensely and a better whisky is produced. In fact, we can produce whisky one-half to three-quarters faster than any other place. While all bourbon must be at a minimum of 80 proof, ours is 100 proof or higher. The whisky differs from barrel to barrel. I chose the range of oak barrels. If you want a single-barrel experience, we can give it to you.”
Witherspoon concluded the tour by saying the distillery uses “the finest ingredients to make the finest spirits.”
Then we tour attendees moved to the tasting area under the capable stewardship of Felix Cordova. There, we tasted with gusto Witherspoon’s River Rum that has a natural vanilla flavor, River Rum Reserve, Texas Straight Bourbon, red Bonfire Rum whose name came from its history of being the culprit in a fire at the distillery and whose distinctiveness is attributable to the strong cinnamon flavor derived from the addition of cinnamon sticks, and delicious rum cake made with River Rum. After the fire involving the Bonfire Rum, the Lewisville Fire Department subsequently requested that the rum be diluted down below flammable level.
The distillery tour was well worth its entry fee. When asked for her reaction to the tour, attendee Sarah Jones of Frisco unhesitatingly proclaimed: “Enlightening, exciting, entertaining.”
Witherspoon Distillery doesn’t just distill spirits—it offers locals a venue for a variety of entertaining events. Tours run Fridays and Saturdays and cost $10. Check the website at www.witherspoondistillery.com for times and to make reservations. Come early and make sure you have a government-issued ID with you, no matter your age. Guests may buy products on or off premise.
On Facebook are posted schedules for the distillery’s weekday bottling parties so volunteers may sign up.
Sunday, June 19, Witherspoon Distillery will host a Father’s Day event called “Oaked & Smoked, A Celebration of Dad” that’s surefire to be fun and memorable Its description promises participants will be able “Spend the Day at the Distillery with Dad.” The event will include master distiller’s tours, cask-strength tastings of exclusive distillery-only bottle releases, barbeque, live music, whiskey desserts, and cigar pairings. Tickets will cost $15 for children and $25 for adults.