Texas Whiskey Talk

Ep #3 - Interview with Houston Farris, Head Distiller, Yellow Rose Distilling

April 14, 2019 Justice Season 1 Episode 3
Texas Whiskey Talk
Ep #3 - Interview with Houston Farris, Head Distiller, Yellow Rose Distilling
Show Notes Transcript

Texas Whiskey Talk catches up with Houston Farris, Head Distiller at Yellow Rose Distilling in Houston, Texas. He walks us through his roles and how he shapes the flavor of Outlaw Bourbon at every step of the "grain to glass" process.

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Speaker 1:

[inaudible]

Justice:

Howdy folks, Justice here with another episode of Texas Whiskey Talk, the voice of the Texas Whiskey Experience. Today, the Experience brings you to Houston, Texas, where we're at Yellow Rose Distilling and we're hanging out with their head to distiller Houston Ferris. As always. I'm accompanied by my cohost though. We've, well, Houston, thanks for having us here today. Yeah . Thank you for inviting me on your show. So your name is Houston. You live in Houston? Yeah, I'm sure your story, is that your distiller call sign or is that your or is that your real name?

Speaker 3:

Not a stage name. Not at all. No, it's the real name. Yeah. Yeah. Uh, I decided that I've been going by Houston my entire life, but it's a little bit more interesting than , uh , Robert, which is , uh , apologies to any other Roberts that are out there. Um, like my family. Uh, but just be, you know, different from my father, my grandfather. Gotcha. Go by Houston.

Justice:

So you get a lot of Houston, we have a problem jokes and they , people think they're like, really? Yeah, pretty original . Yeah. Nice. Well. So tell us why did you get into distilling?

Speaker 3:

Hi , I needed a job as well. Let's go back. Um, so , uh, I , uh, was actually , um, the bulk of my kind of professional work experience has actually been in a professional ministry. Um, I did that for about nine years. Uh, and then when they decided that it was not for me , um, they decided that it was not for me. Um, I , I needed work. Uh, and so I had always been fascinated by , uh, bartending bar culture, cocktail culture was just coming into Vogue again , uh , around that same time. Uh, and I , I just liked the social aspect and the , the culinary aspect of it, all of it had a bunch of appeal to me. Uh, so I, I dove in and , uh, slowly started working my way up from basically nothing until , uh, I was given the right opportunities. And at one point I was managing the bar , the beverage program at a hotel bar in downtown Houston, had a pretty, a prestigious bar restaurant there. Uh, and I wanted to have an all Texas spirits section on the menu. So about half the menu was Texas spirits. Um , and at that exact same time I was trying to do that , uh, yellow Rose distilling had released their very first product , uh, which is the product that we're making all the way until today. Uh, and so I reached out directly to them, said, Hey, I want to put you on my menu. Uh, can I get a barrel? Cause I want to take this barrel, I want to break it apart, I want to make some shot glasses out of a shot. Glass stands out of it , uh , and serve the drinks on it. And so I got on their radar there , uh, started selling cocktails using their product , uh, became one of their largest accounts. And it's great for a very young company , uh , to move that much whiskey through one account, big deal. So they brought me on as their mixologist and part of the agreement was that they didn't have to pay me too much money because they couldn't afford to. Uh, but when it came time to make whiskey, I wanted to learn how to make the whiskey. I'd always been fascinated by , uh, the actual craft of the spirits. I thought it was about the cocktails originally, but it really was about the spirits and the, and , uh, the , the decisions and the, the , uh, artisan attitudes around making really high quality spirits I rather than the big industrial type stuff. Uh, and I knew that's what I wanted to do. And so after being behind the bar for a number of years , uh, I just threw that away and said, I am going to pursue being a distiller and yellow Rose distilling did not know that they were going to hire me at that point.

Justice:

And so I know you work now. Yes . But you get a paycheck. Yeah. If you had been here earlier, you might've missed actual work, but then you can come back an hour later. And then I'm sitting around waiting. So ,

Speaker 3:

uh, I went out and got some education on my own. Uh , then I had the opportunity to work with a distiller here and uh, really learned the process. And now here I am the head distiller making decisions that affect a global distribution now.

Justice:

So did you go off to moonshine? University? [inaudible] university was a great program.

Speaker 3:

Um , I've been there now three times. Uh, learning from experts in the field, getting to meet other distillers that are all about my same age. Some are older, some younger , uh, and they are all just trying to make their way. And this , this craft spirits world. Uh, it was ma moonshine university. I can't speak. Uh, I , I can't speak anything bad about their programs. They , they do everything so well and such a high level. Uh, definitely worth the money and experience and I hope to go back.

Justice:

That's really cool. Yeah. So speaking of process, that's why we're here today to talk about the craft process. You're the head distiller. Most people probably have a general understanding of the distilling process. Well , we really want to know is as the head distiller, what are you doing at each step of the grain to crook glass process, the decisions that you're making that are impacting the flavor of the whisking . So let's just get started. I'll start with grain, right? So the sourcing of the grain, the outlaw bourbon is 100% yellow corn. I mean, how do you go about picking that variety? I'm going to different producers. What is that process for selecting grain?

Speaker 3:

Yeah , so , um , outlaw bourbon predates me with yellow Rose . So that's the product we've been making sense that an absolute day one , uh, it's probably not on camera, but our original is sitting right behind me. It's a 40 gallon all copper still. And we were making a bourbon the not the hard way, like the almost impossible to be successful way. Uh, and but we, we were somehow , uh, so we had started off by , um, finding whoever was available. There wasn't really any , uh, big outfits that were distributing grain to, to Texas distillers because there weren't really Texas distillers or they're pretty, pretty new to the , uh, to the field. Uh , at that point there was probably only other, only three other whiskey distilleries in the state. Uh, and so we went with what we had available. It was good enough and got the job done. Uh, we have since experiment experimented with , uh, uh, different varieties of yellow corn as well as white corn , uh , with the exact same recipe. And some people have a preference for white over yellow. I think the yellow actually has , uh , better results, kind of what we're looking for. Uh , and so we did a series of test batches to figure that out , uh , and really hone down what we were going to do for the future. And that was definitely stick with the yellow corn. And now we have a great supplier. Uh, I'll mention it by name because I love what they do. Uh , they supply many other Texas breweries and distilleries in the state, and , uh, that's tech smelled up in , uh, the Fort worth area. And , uh , they provide the absolute highest quality grain that I could ask for. And , uh, all from Texas farms. So , uh, it's pretty important to us that we're sourcing. Uh, I wouldn't say as necessarily a local, but as local as Texas can be. So speaking of quality, what does quality corn look like? I mean, when you're on the dock there and the shipment comes in, it's not green. It doesn't have all these white splotches on it. Now . Well , there's also a lot of other things. Uh , uh , yellow corn needs to be yellow. Uh , we actually get ours milled , uh, to save us a lot of , uh , headaches here. And so when it comes in, it needs to be clean. It needs to be this nice, powdery , uh, almost flower like consistency and a , we do a very simple smell test. Uh, I take a little cup, I get it a little wet with the corn, stick it in the microwave, and it better won't smell like corn if it smells like mothballs who smells moldy, if it smells anything that is not , uh , you know , just correct the good corn popcorn type flavors. Uh , type of promos , it's gone. Uh, and we've never had that issue with our current supplier. Tech small dude . They do a great job vetting their farmers, vetting their sources, and uh, they, they wouldn't give us anything that was not at the highest quality. So season to season, is there any variance in the corn that's coming in or anything like that? No, not really. Everything seems very consistent and uh, these are big batches of , of corn that they're dealing with. And so , uh, when , uh , when corn is sitting in a silo, it can sit there for months or even years and still be good. Uh, and so , uh, everything seems when they get all combined with different harvest , uh, to be very consistent, very clean, very good quality whiskey. And I think we're making some of the best Outwell that we've ever made because of the very fact that we're getting the most high quality corn that we can get. That's great. So you've got your, you've got your corn, you've got your Graeme , you're , you're now gonna do your fermentation process and you're going to make your distiller's beer at that point, right? Yes . What is your, what's the, what's impacting the flavor profile during the fermenting process? Just before the fermentation. You've got to cook the grain. Okay . All right . A lot of places will end up overcooking their corn , uh, or any of their other grains by taking the water up to high. Uh, so a lot of places will boil their , their corn and , uh , that does a job that, that helps break down the starches with the enzymes that are all in there and the sugar content. Uh, but we want to, we want to treat our , our grain with some respect , uh, if it gets over cooked , a lot of those flavors that we want Mikey cooked out might get denatured. And so we want to preserve them. And so we're very careful with our cooking process. Uh, we try to be consistent with every single step of the process because if we're not consistent, we're not professionals. Uh, and so every, every mash has to be the same, yield, the same , uh, the same flavor , uh, cause we can taste it coming off. It's nice and sweet and nice and , uh , a good , uh, oatmeal type quality to it. Uh, and so if we don't have that, then we don't have anything good coming from after that. Yeah . So , and then when we get to the fermentation process , uh, things that are very important is keeping the equipment clean. Anything that is going to , uh, touch the mash, touch the beer, and eventually turn into whiskey. It has to be sanitized. If there's bacteria growing on it , uh, if you have , uh , just other contaminants, you're going to end up with wild flavors that are, are gonna either cause hangovers to people or just mess up your, your entire whiskey on down the road. Uh, and so we wanna make sure that we maintain very clean practices when it comes to our equipment. Uh , but also temperature wise, we want to make sure that , uh, we're not going outside the range of the yeast because when yeast are not happy, they decided to quit working or they decide to pee out flavors that aren't good. And so we, I'm going to make them happy and so we keep them nice and warm. Uh, we firm it around 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Okay . Which is a lot warmer than beer producers now. And a lot of other whiskey distillers , uh , don't ferment , uh , quite that warm. Uh, but we get some very good, good flavors, good yields, and good times. We ferment for about three to days and , uh, we get everything that we want out of it and end up with a 10 to 11% alcohol by volume beer. Okay . Uh , we also had some nutrients in there to help make the yeast happy. But in the, in the case of outlaw bourbon being a hundred percent corn, corn is actually very nutrient deficient. And so it functions more like, like a rum type mash cause it's basically all sugar and there's not a lot of vitamins and minerals that corn have. Uh, and so , uh, we try to keep them happy , uh , and give them some junk food.

Speaker 4:

Gotcha. Now, speed . So speaking of that Uson , you know, how much, how much experimentation have you guys done? The yeast strains and things like that?

Speaker 3:

Yeah, so a part of the moonshine university education was, I had a lot of hands on experience with different yeast strains , uh, produced by our current supplier of yeast. I'm not gonna save who that is right now. Um, but you could probably guess if you do some Google searches. Um, the, it was very important for us to create , uh, create a whiskey that had a lot of bold flavors to it. Uh, and that comes down to the yeast selection. And so the yeast that we were using prior to , um, let's say my tenure here at yellow Rose , uh, uh, was a very different yeast that was more akin to like a scotch whiskey use. Um, and not so much something that was basically bred and born to make bourbon. Uh, we want with bourbon, we went a whole wide range of esters , whereas , uh, Scott, you just want some different stuff. Uh, so with our, with our bourbon, we want spiciness, we want fruitiness, we want , uh, just want some complexity. And so , uh, the yeast that we ended up going with does a job very quickly, gives us a lot of alcohol, gives a lot of flavor, and is very successful for us. So that's the yeast that we're going to be using for all of our products going forward.

Speaker 4:

Gotcha. So you're using the same one, that same yeast strain for the single malt as you do then for the bourbon. Okay. Absolutely.

Speaker 3:

So in , in the case of the bottles that are right in front of us , uh, the, the single malt there is a , is a different style of ease , but going forward, aim fish , a single malt is going to be , uh , the exact same strain that we used . Okay . Yeah. Well, next, I guess let's get into the distilling phase. So is there anything unique about the design of your still that impacts the flavor? Well, so if you go across , uh, to , uh , across the state and, and tour other distilleries, you'll see a lot of stills that have a short column on top. And whether they have those, the plates in the column activated or not , uh, it's still going to affect their flavor . So you have plates activated. That means that you get more distillation, more purification , uh, make for a lighter whiskey you make for a , uh, uh , I guess less complex whiskey. Uh, and so , uh, we don't have that. Uh, we wanted something that was going to be very simple and preserve a lot of big, bold flavors that we like in our whiskey . So , uh, in the case of like our outlaw bourbon, you tasted it , you would never describe it as being a light flavored whiskey. It's like in your face. There's a lot of lot of robust , uh, uh, aspects to it. And so , uh, that comes from our, our simple potstill design. Uh, we just do a simple double distillation , uh, vapors, rise up, come across, hit the copper, hit the, hit the condenser, and then , uh, come out with the , uh, more purity, but still preserving a lot of corn flavor and a lot of the flavors of the yeast we're creating in that, that important complexity. Okay . Yeah .

Justice:

So obviously you've got to make all your cuts. So what is your role in that? And I mean, art versus science on that.

Speaker 3:

How does that work? Yeah, so because, because we're not doing a big industrial process and we are still very, very intimately connected to our , our, our product. Uh, I mean, I'm not even like not even looking at a computer screen while I'm doing it and it's , I'm not pushing buttons saying this is going to happen now. This is going to happen now. So there's going to be some kind of variations between every single mash, every single fermentation, every single strip, every single spirit run. And so , uh, it really is gonna come down to not so much the numbers. Like I'm not looking at a spreadsheet, let's say , right , this proof, this temperature, make your cut. Uh, it really is gonna come down to , uh , good old smell and taste. Uh, if it, if it does not hit the , uh, the expectations that I have for our product, then it is not going to be kept as our product.

Justice:

So how long do you think it took for your nose to get trained and fine tuned to , to master that process? Um,

Speaker 3:

it had to get started on day one like I had. There is no, they're there . When I was being supervised, I suppose with the single malt, which was what I originally learned a distillation on , uh, I, I had to make a like a judgment call and say, Hey, what do you think about this? And then he would approve and say, yes, okay , that's a good call. Uh, and then after that I became more and more accustomed to it. And , uh, it really just comes down to , uh, having an expectation for your product , uh, knowing what your product is and knowing what you want your product to be. Uh , and so just having the experience day in, day out every single week, tasting the whiskey as it comes off the still, and that means that you're tasting whiskey at 157 proof. Um, I spent a lot , uh, so , uh, cause I still gotta work the rest of the day. Uh, that it really comes down to just, just doing it. That's the simplest answer is to do it and keep revisiting your work every single time and realize that yeah, maybe you're going to make bad calls or calls that , that are not up to , uh , what you had hoped. But that , that's part of being a craft distiller is that you make those, make those decisions, you stand by them and then you learn from whatever you know , you might not have been proud of last time. That's a good life lesson.

Speaker 4:

That's really negative. All right , so you've , you've got a distillate now you got a barrel, you gotta put it into what goes into your , your barrel selection process. Yeah . So , um, we originally started yellow Rose

Speaker 3:

putting whiskey into tiny, tiny barrels. I heard rumors that we were doing like one gallon barrels at a time, but uh , having done test batches in one gallon barrels, I don't envy the kind of work that they were putting in cause that was a pain. Uh, yeah. Uh , then we moved to the three gallons, five gallons, 10 gallon barrels. Uh , at this point , um , under my supervision, we've now moved to exclusively 30 gallon and 53 gallon barrel . So the decisions have largely been let's get bigger because that's cheaper for us and cheaper for the consumer. Uh, and it's also gonna allow us to let it sit in the barrel longer and , uh, develop better flavors over time. And so we were targeting a longer aging time. Now just great for us. Uh, we want that barrel to be flawless, beautiful on the outside, nice and sanded. No Russ on the barrels , uh , on the, on the the barrel hoops. Uh, we also want it to be , uh , an American white Oak, very traditional for, for a classic American bourbon. Uh, it has all those spiciness, that sweetness, that vanilla, that caramel, that coconut flavor all in there. Uh, so we're not experimenting right now with different types of wood, but maybe in the future.

Speaker 4:

So you're , this is of East Texas. It's kind of the , the pine country. You wouldn't do pine barrels in just to really make it bring it home that way. You don't want to pay for 10 per dollar with no. Well there's nobody. There's nobody currently making a barrels with that. That'd be horrible. That would thing probably those little maybe two resonate or something tar in there. Yeah . We also want that ,

Speaker 3:

uh , that barrel to hold and not leak. We at one point, we had a supplier that gave us barrels that ended up leaking half the batch. They were fine. We filled them up and then come about a month. Then we just lost half the whiskey. Uh, it was a , it was a nightmare. Uh, so we, we want professional, we want quality , uh, and we want a very good number four char. Gotcha. Yeah. Get that, get that nice a smokey flavor that we like. Uh , outlaw picks that up very readily because it doesn't have the other flavory grains that get in the way of that sculpture. And so outlaw picks up a lot of smoke. Uh, but it also gives a lot of spiciness and uh , some really good deep color too. That's not so much a flavor aspect, but it looks real nice. It does . What proof does it go into the barrel and yeah, that's a great question. So the industry standard 125, right. Okay. We don't do that. Uh, we,

Justice:

because you haven't done anything else the way everybody else did . Um , so for outlaw it goes in

Speaker 3:

at a one 14. Okay. Uh, so , uh, when you add more water to your distillet before it goes into the barrel , uh, you are going to be able to extract flavors that are more water-soluble than alcohol soil. And a lot of times those flavors that are water soluble are sweeter flavors. And so it's one of the reasons why outlaw is, is as sweet as it can be. A not so much because of the corn, because the corn sugar doesn't travel through into the whiskey. It's pulling that from the barrel and we rely very heavily on the barrel for our outlaw because it doesn't have those flavor and gain that flavor. And grains as well. We are currently aging a nother , a grain to glass bourbon, different recipe. It's a high rye bourbon , uh, and that goes into the barrel at one Oh four. Wow. Because I was expecting, I'm expecting the , uh, the high ride to be very spicy, but I want that spiciness to be balanced by a good sweetness. And so took it down to one Oh four.

Justice:

And then what's it coming out at? What's your, that outlaw specifically? What does that cover ? It depends on how long

Speaker 3:

it sits in the barrel and for what season. Um, but uh, this most recent batch that we don't , uh, which sat for about 14, 15 months , uh , we ended up going in at one 14 coming out at one 14. Wow. Yep . It helped me exactly. We lost, we lost some volume, about 14% over that time. Uh, but uh, held proof and uh , mixed very well. Some great stuff coming, coming out real soon. Great. Well [inaudible]

Justice:

so a lot of people are throwing around the word terroir now with, with whiskey. What is an the Texas terroir. What, what do you think Texas, the Texas whiskey terroir is and, and what is driving it? The grains that the barrels, the location in the state. How do you make sense of that? A lot of , a lot of times people

Speaker 3:

just assumed that to me that it's the land or, or the, the climate. But I think a lot of times it's the people , uh, that are behind it too . Uh, and so we, we do things very, very differently here in Texas than I think anywhere else in the world because we're not trying to imitate another product like Japanese whiskey. They got their start trying to imitate scotch. Right? Uh, you had the early American immigrants trying to make the whiskey like they did back home. Uh, we're not trying to be Kentucky. We're not trying to be anywhere else in the , in the country. We're trying to make a unique Texas product. That being said, the climate has a huge impact on it. Not so much where the grain is coming from, but where we put those barrels , uh , our warehouse can be very warm and be very humid, especially here in Houston, right ? The time , uh, when the barrels age and colder climates , uh , they can go dormant and actually not do anything for a good number of months. Once it gets below about 40 degrees , uh, it didn't get below 40 degrees hardly at all in our warehouse this past year. Uh, and so we've had our barrels doing their whole cycle in and out process , uh , all year long. Uh, and then when it comes to this time of year and going into the summer, it's only gonna get more active. And so , uh, I'm pretty excited where we're , uh, where we're able to get our product to be , uh , after, you know, this unique climate. Does it sane . So what do you think is this has the strongest impact on the flavor? What one component? I think it's the climate. The climate. Yeah. I just think that we can't, it can't be imitated anywhere else in the world. I mean, maybe, maybe if you wanted to take Texas corn, go take it all the way to India, you might be able to imitate it. But , uh, just Houston climate, Houston weather, Texas weather, no place else can come close to it. So you mentioned awry heavy whiskey. What else have you got in the works shoes ? What's, what's kind of , what are you working on now? Yeah, well at the money guys, let me do it. I want to make a wrong, but I'm not doing that right now. Um, so currently we have , uh, 11 unique whiskey glass mash bills that were made here at our distillery. I mean , uh , and they were sitting for two years , uh, and we , we put them into 30 gallon barrels because we didn't make a huge volume of it. We made basically one batch at a time of it. And , uh, it's everything from the outlaw bourbon, but with white corn versus the yellow corn , uh, uh, high rye with yellow corn, white corn, and we make , we've made a 95%, 5% of rye whiskey , uh , which was the biggest pain to make while ever. I don't ever want to do that ever again because it is sticky rise , real sticky. And so it froze up my mash tone . I couldn't cool it down. I couldn't heat it up, I couldn't transfer it, but it worked. I got whiskey out of it and the whiskey is pretty darn good. Uh, and so we're gonna let that sit for another year now and then see what we get out of it. Uh , we also made some single malt variations , uh, with , uh, Mesquite smoked malt , uh, peach wood smoked mall , and then my personal favorite was a pecan wood smoked malt while , and so we've got all these different varieties that are coming out and , um , maybe they might be one of the new products of the future here. Uh, but at the very least, there'll be available here at our distillery for our 10 year anniversary, which is in 2020. That's huge. Yeah. Looking forward to it. Hopefully be barrel proof. Uh, and then they're having to experiment with some , uh , toasted barrels and all that kind of stuff. So we're having a little bit of fun, but a lot of my days end up being making the same old, same old, doing the exact same thing and being consistent. Yup . Yup . Yup . Well, that's great. Well,

Justice:

we really appreciate you having us out today. Um, help out the, the Texas whiskey nation, our listeners, where can they reach you on social media?

Speaker 3:

Yeah. So you can reach out to , uh, the distillery. Uh , I've actually taken a little bit break from social media. Uh, you can find me, I guess on Instagram at Y R. D. dot. Distiller , uh , look at my pictures from the past couple of years. Uh, don't expect any new homes anytime soon unless the boss says I have to . Uh, but there's also , um, uh , yellow Rose distilling, right? Yeah, yeah. On Instagram, we also have a Facebook page and everything's mirrored there. So take a look for us on either of those platforms and , uh , see what we do around here. Great . Perfect. Perfect.

Justice:

Well , uh , Hey folks, if you enjoyed the show today, make sure that you subscribe to us on a Texas whiskey experience on YouTube and iTunes and follow us on social media. We're on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and a , if you're ever in the Houston area, you need to get down to yellow Rose distilling and be a part of the Texas whiskey experience. Thanks.