Cask Strength Rye Whiskey, top, and CEO Co-Founder Chris Seals, above
Chris Seals’ Still Austin uses Texas ingredients to make fine Texas whiskey
Founded in 2015, Still Austin prides itself on being the first true grain-to-glass distillery in Austin since the end of prohibition. Chris Seals, who founded Still Austin with his father, explains that Still Austin goes through a slow and elaborate process to create their award-winning blends.
Seals, who first came out as a gay man in his 20s, opening the distillery was as much about make a connection with his father as it was about making great whiskey.
— Tammye Nash
Dallas Voice: You grew up on your grandparents’ farm, right? Tell me about your childhood and the kind of stuff you did around the farm? Chris Seals: I was born in Missouri, and my grandparents’ farm is in Faucett, Mo. That is where I spent most of the summers of my childhood. Farming is a really special way of life, with cycles and rhythms to every day. But every day is also different. We grew soybeans, corn, wheat, hay and tobacco. Growing up I learned what makes each crop unique — and how to nurture the highest quality.
I also had a lot of fun exploring the farm, its fishing ponds, 4-wheeler trails, shooting ranges and basement treasures from past times. It’s a kid’s paradise. I moved to Texas when I was in second grade and have since lived in Plano and Allen in North Texas, Sulphur Springs in East Texas, Austin, Houston’s Montrose area and Amarillo in West Texas.
Tell me about when and how you came out as a gay man? Were you already in Austin then, and, if so, how did the environment and culture there in Austin affect your coming out? It seems you lived at least part of your life in a more rural environment. If so, how did that affect your identity as a gay man and your coming out process? You could say I came out twice — once was in my early 20s when I first came to accept that I love men; the second time in my mid-30s when I decided that my love of men is a good thing, and I needed to fully accept all of myself, live as an openly gay man 100 percent and find a deep sense of pride in myself.
Growing up a lot in rural areas, I didn’t have a lot of variety in gay role models. There were a courageous few who lived out loud even in the ’80s and ’90s. But not enough. I think that contributed to a slower process of self-acceptance and self-love. Austin definitely contributed to my coming-out stages. It’s a place where each person is a unique individual.
Your bio says you grew up in a family that “valued creative expression, excellence and individuality.” How did your family react when you came out? My parents encouraged me to participate in art, creative installations, theater, creative writing and “the arts.” But I think they went into a bit of shock when I came out and started to celebrate the good news that I am gay. They were worried about what it means to have a gay son, and it took a few years for them to fully process it and accept who I am. I don’t think we would have got to the level of acceptance we have today if we didn’t start Still Austin Whiskey together. It became a way that we could talk about everything. True fact: After a few whiskeys, you can actually get some shit off your chest.
You went to UT in Austin. What did you study there? And how did that prepare you for owning and operating a whiskey distillery? I studied at UT Austin from ’93 to ’96 and graduated with a BA in English. I think that the background was great for the imagination and communication needed to create something like Still Austin Whiskey.
One of the things I have come to appreciate is that whiskey is much more than alcohol. When a whiskey is extremely well-made, with 100 percent of every ingredient coming from our place, and with a laser focus on quality, the whiskey has both a taste of our place, and it gives a sense of who we are as people.
An English literature degree teaches you to write and, more importantly, to hear, see and enjoy the stories of the people around us. I think that is the most important challenge we have — to tell a story of who we are as Texans and make it a story that includes all Texans. There is an art to whiskey-making, and it needs to convey a story. So I would say my degree comes in quite handy for that.
I know from your bio that your father was the one who came to you with the idea of opening a whiskey distillery together. But what drew you to that idea? What, in terms of experience and background, makes you and your dad good candidates for that? We are actually bad candidates. We are completely unqualified, with no background whatsoever in the world of whiskey — other than drinking it. What my father and I had was a genuine desire to know one another, a desire that overcame our fears. We had courage and a notion that we needed to do this the right way. Authentic acceptance, courage, and doing everything the right way: Those have basically been our guiding principles.
You can see those values all over Still Austin. From our focus on everything coming from Texas — all true quality starts with valuing what you have at home — to the relentless honing of the art of Texas whiskey-making, to the beautiful, creative women on our labels. We are not afraid to embrace who we are. And celebrate it.
What makes a good whiskey? And what sets Still Austin whiskeys apart from others? Your bio mentions the one of a kind Scottish-made still you use, and the process of slow water reduction while the barrels of whiskey mature. What makes your still so unique? Why is the height and the fact that it is Scottish-made important? What makes for good whiskey is an obsession with quality and flavor. Plus the courage to look within your place and make something special and independent from everyone else. In our case, we have focused on Texas and on telling a story of Texans who are incredible, vibrant, bold and diverse.
Our still is made by Forsyths, a Scottish company that has been making stills for somewhere between 300 and 400 years (they are not exactly sure how long). Forsyths benefits from centuries of learning about making the best quality. Our still, named “Nancy” — after the lead character in the movie The Attack of the Fifty Foot Woman — is a one-of-a-kind, 50-foot tall still that is designed specifically to bring out the nuances of flavor from our Texas-grown grains.
Texas grains are entirely different from grains used in bourbon-making in Kentucky and Tennessee.
We use white corn (like that used in our Tex-Mex corn chips and tortillas) and Brassetto rye (which has a sweet-and-spicy flavor that you can’t find in ryes that Kentucky distillers source from Canada and the northern U.S.). In short: our still brings out the best of flavors from our Texas grains.
Our slow and painstaking process imparts to the whiskey a characteristic of softness — the alcohol doesn’t slap your tongue — with roundness and finesse. The layers of flavors that are infused at each round of reduction give the whiskey remarkable depth and length in the finish. This is what gives our bourbon a delicious flavor that you cannot find anywhere else.
Let’s switch gears a bit and talk about how you as an individual and Still Austin are involved with the community — the community in general and the LGBTQ community specifically. How are you involved? And why is it important to you to be involved, both personally and as a company? We have a very diverse and vibrant community in Austin and within our company. We feature the lives of the artists that inspire us through our Still Life Series on our website. Several of the features have been on LGBTQ members of our community, and we love to shine a spotlight on their passion and incredible art.
We also host Still Austin Pride each June. I think we are possibly the only whiskey distillery in the world that celebrates gay Pride as much as we do. More than all this though, we want to create whiskeys that people can see themselves in, and you can get a sense of that in our highly unusual and beautiful labels, which are painted by local artists.
We literally make whiskey for everybody. And we are proud of who we are. The Austin LBGT Chamber of Commerce recognized us last year as the LGBT business of the year, and we are so proud to be among the many great LGBTQ leaders who make up our diverse business community.
What else do you want to mention that I haven’t asked about? And where can folks in DFW find Still Austin whiskeys? Still Austin is available in bars across the DFW area. You can grab a Still Austin cocktail at Craftway Kitchen, Maple Landing, State And Allen, The Beeman Hotel, and The Fillmore Pub. Still Austin spirits are also available at Apothecary, Playwright Irish Pub, Ron’s Place, Rye, and The Joule Hotel.