Before starting the tour at Witherspoon Distillery in Lewisville, you are asked three questions: 1) "How old are you?" 2) "Would you like a cocktail?" 3) "Do you play giant Jenga?" The distillery may look like a nondescript office waiting area when you first enter (and it's located in an equally nondescript office park), but inside it's more like your cool friend's party garage.
At the far end of the room, a rustic-chic bar is already bustling. College football is being projected onto a blank wall, and roughly 20 people are milling around, munching Chex Mix and sipping on cocktails. This part of the room could easily be lifted out and plopped down in any fashionable area of Dallas: Industrial pipes snake their way up the reclaimed wood walls to form shelves, and the tops of all the bar tables are made from a single white oak tree, with the bar itself weighing 26,000 pounds.
The distillery may look like a nondescript office waiting area when you first enter, but inside it's more like your cool friend's party garage.
The distillery is open to the public on Fridays and Saturdays; there's a happy hour starting Friday afternoon at 4 that typically features a drink of the week along with special pricing. As founder Quentin Witherspoon gathers the group in the middle of the room for the tour, he smiles and points to some of his regulars, a group of young men in hip message tees and Converse.
"It's hard to have a distillery and not know everyone in town," he says, noting how receptive Lewisville has been to his business.
Opened in 2011, the distillery feels like the logical next step after Dallas' craft beer boom. In fact, newbie Cobra Brewing Company is right nearby, and it donates batches of beer it doesn't find up to snuff to be distilled into a beer-whiskey hybrid that plays games with your head. If you ask nicely, the bartenders might give you a sample.
Witherspoon, a former Marine who's traveled to roughly 40 countries, learned the art of distilling through necessity while stationed in Africa. (Masks and statues from his adventures decorate the bar.) His passion and knowledge is evident during the tour, which runs at 4 pm on Fridays and four times on Saturdays.
What's also obvious is the master distiller's easy way with words and subtle humor.
"Vodka is typically what is made when distillers screw up," he says while explaining the distilling process, using a small-scale copper still to illustrate his points. After the tour, one of the bartenders shows me a hidden bottle labeled "vodka" in black Sharpie, a just-in-case measure for people who insist they don't like rum or whiskey.
Luckily, they say they've never had to pour from it. "We just make damn good spirits around here," Witherspoon says.
"Rum is the original super fuel," says founder Quentin Witherspoon. "Drink enough and it can make you fly!"
What they do pour are Witherspoon's River Rum, Texas Straight Bourbon and two others that are currently only available at the distillery: River Rum Reserve, a creamy, pale yellow liquor with hints of butterscotch, and Bonfire, the original River Rum that's been infused with cinnamon sticks and tastes like Christmas.
Currently awaiting government approval, Bonfire hopefully will be publicly available in time for the holidays. For now, though, you can buy an airplane-size bottle from the bar. It's legal to sell in cocktail-equivalent quantities as long as you, the customer, screw the top onto the bottle yourself.
"Rum is the original super fuel," Witherspoon says. "Drink enough and it can make you fly!"
It's then that the tour moves over to the stills, a pair custom-designed by Witherspoon and built onsite. Two hundred degrees to the touch, "Porgy" and "Bess" are currently working on a batch of River Rum, which you can see bubbling in little round glass windows at the top.
As Witherspoon describes how the alcohol separates from the ingredients (sugar cane for rum, corn for whiskey), sales manager Dylan Smith brings over a large glass brimming with bright pink liquid. Witherspoon pauses to take a sip of the Hemingway Special, a mix of River Rum, maraschino liqueur, grapefruit and lime juices, and simple syrup that tastes like cherry limeade with an extremely strong kick.
Setting it down on the ledge, he points at the glass and smiles. "I built that," Witherspoon says.
Even the bottling and packaging are done onsite; the public can be involved in those too. Check the distillery's Facebook page regularly, and you'll see announcements for "bottling parties," where volunteers are given the simple task of filling and capping Witherspoon's handsome bottles in exchange for lunch, a few tastings and the opportunity to sign their names to the "door of shame." Folks of all kinds have been in to lend a hand, from locals to celebrities and athletes and even a minister and his church group.
There's a good chance you'll walk out of the tour feeling like an expert, able to discuss the differences between American and Scotch whiskey, why each batch of bourbon must legally be made using a new white oak barrel and what lower-proof liquors might be hiding. (Tip: "The lower the proof of the alcohol, the more goofy stuff is in there.")
But you might not want to leave just yet. Hang out at the bar, pet Mr. Waffles (the distillery cat), sip on a maple old fashioned (Texas Straight Bourbon, apple juice, maple syrup and a dash of bitters), have another slice of the buttery rum cake that you sampled during the post-tour tasting or ask for a sample of the single malt. That giant Jenga set is calling your name.