Troy and Michelle Kooper didn’t grow up in Austin, but they swear they got here as fast as they could. When the couple finally arrived in 2011, they didn’t know a soul and didn’t have jobs lined up. But it didn’t take long for them to settle in with their five-year-old son, Phoenix, make new friends, land some freelance gigs and…start making whiskey?
Yes, the couple were admitted bootstrappers by necessity back then, but also, that’s just the way they’re wired. “Michelle was making her own dish soap, laundry detergent and toothpaste, and we were gardening,” says Troy. And after a long day’s work, they often found themselves dreaming about their next venture while sipping rye whiskey. “So we decided to make that, too.” Why rye? When the couple met in the Bay Area years ago, Michelle was working in the restaurant business. “Back then, she got me into red wine,” says Troy. “That was our first big thing. Then we started drinking scotch; that was our first whiskey. But once we were getting into scotch and really liking it, we tried some rye and we thought, ‘Wow! This is so much better than scotch.’” Michelle agrees. “It’s a very smooth, mellow, even spirit,” she says. “And there’s not a lot of burn, so you can sip it.”
Enamored of the taste of rye, they started brewing and mashing at home, trying to perfect their own recipe. In order to be labeled American rye whiskey, it must be made with at least 51 percent rye, but the Koopers were after a smooth, palatable, 100-percent rye whiskey. As with all things related to whiskey, this took time—and a lot of trial and error. “A LOT of error,” Troy says with a laugh. “Each time you mash, it takes eight hours—an eight-hour day with Phoenix running around getting into everything. And then, we would ferment for a week, and then distill—that’s another eight hours.” Troy admits that in the beginning, 70 percent of the time they would screw up, but that they learned something each time.
All that learning eventually paid off. In 2015—after the birth of their daughter, Olympia, and a lot of research and stints training at a small distillery in Chicago to learn the ins-and-outs of a more scalable operation—they started selling their first batch of Kooper Family Rye. It’s the aging process that makes Kooper Family Rye distinctly Texan and truly tasty. Their barrels are made from American white oak that’s been left outside for two years in all the elements to remove the tannins. Then, once the barrels are filled with the whiskey, it ages in the warehouse/tasting room in Dripping Springs. “We sit on a limestone shelf and all those wonderful minerals contribute to the complexity of our whiskey,” says Michelle. “And the climate—the humidity and heat—gives it the depth of flavor. We’re really lucky. Texas is in our barrels.”
With the boom in local craft spirits in recent years, it may come as a surprise that Kooper Family Rye is one of only a few local rye whiskeys on the Central Texas scene. Perhaps fueled by the rising popularity of mixology, the cultural taste for the spirit is making a meteoric comeback on the national stage after a slow decline that began just after the end of Prohibition. But in fact, rye was the first style of whiskey distilled in the U.S. and has deep roots in our national history. George Washington had his own distillery at Mount Vernon and Alexander Hamilton, treasury secretary after the Revolution, imposed a tax on the popular and ubiquitous spirit in an effort to reduce the national debt. This, of course, resulted in the Whiskey Rebellion. “It’s the whiskey of defiance,” says Troy. “Rye helped fuel a lot of rebellions.”
Fitting then, that the label on each bottle of Kooper Family Rye features a boxer with fists up, ready to rumble. And it turns out, that fighting spirit is in both of the Koopers’ blood: Troy’s grandfather was the U.S. Armed Forces light-heavyweight champion in 1944, and Michelle’s cousin was the WBC welterweight champion of the world from 1976 to 1979. Lucky for us, both families’ penchant for pugilism is now channeled into the couple’s pure love for rye whiskey and the place where it’s aged, bottled and enjoyed. Not only did their whiskey recently win a gold medal at the 2016 San Francisco World Spirits Competition, arguably the most influential spirits competition in the world, but it has also quickly become a favorite among local bartenders and mixologists. The Driskill Hotel, for example, has created two signature cocktails that highlight Kooper Family Rye, including The Driskill Julep to celebrate the hotel’s 130th anniversary. “Austin is so great,” says Troy. “There’s no way we could have done this anywhere else. We wouldn’t have had the courage to try.”
For more information about where to find Kooper Family Rye, visit kooperfamily.com or call 512-934-7685.
While the Koopers—and many bartenders in Austin—believe their rye whiskey is best sipped straight, they have a few tricks up their sleeves when making the perfect old-school rye whiskey cocktails.
by Anne Marie Hampshire • Photography by Melanie Grizzel