Austin’s Fierce Whiskers Distillery works with the climate.

­Project Fierce Whiskers Distillery
Location Austin
Client Fierce Whiskers Distillery
Architect Overland Partners
Design Team Adam Bush, AIA, John Douglas Burleson, Charles Schneider, AIA, Jakob Hyde, Ramiro Guardiola, Anagisel Toscano Ramos, Rui Xiong
Contractors Sabre Commercial (Distillery), IE2 Construction (Tasting Room)
Structural Engineer Datum Engineers
MEP Engineer EEA Consulting Engineers
Civil Engineer Southwest Engineers
Life Safety Consultant Austin Permit Service
Interior Design – Tasting Room Brand Bureau
Solar Array One80 Solar
Photographer Casey Dunn Photography

“Austin is an inconsiderable village with large expectations … full of discharged ‘Rangers’ … costumes of every variety … fierce whiskers, gaming, and drinking very abounding in all quarters.”
—Rutherford B. Hayes, 1849

Whiskey-making, at least in the popular imagination, has historically been a rowdy business: Picture moonshiners in the Ozarks and Appalachians hiding from the taxman and the lawman, or Jed Clampett unloading a homemade still in front of his Beverly Hills mansion, much to the dismay of his neighbors. But distilling is also a craft, built on centuries of refining combinations of grain, water, and heat with wood, air, and time. Likewise, Austin may be famous for its drinkers, but it’s also home to optimistic data nerds looking for ways to improve the city’s quality of life by measuring and reducing the negative impact of commerce and construction. Fierce Whiskers, an Austin distillery cofounded by friends Tim Penney and Tri Vo, has room for all of it. 

Designed by Overland Partners of San Antonio, the distillery is a newly built compound occupying the edge of an industrial park in South Austin. Two custom metal buildings form an L-shape around a generous lawn. One holds the distillery and tasting room; the other serves as a rickhouse, where the whiskey is aged in barrels on racks, or “ricks.” Sloping down to the greenbelt, the lawn allows space for weddings, disc golf, and plenty in between. The building broke ground in 2018 and produced its first barrel in 2020—which means, in whiskey time, that Fierce Whiskers is just getting started. 

Penney and Vo started the project in 2015, setting big goals for their new enterprise: to be the premier whiskey distillery in Texas and to be as resource- and energy-efficient as possible. They were proactive about their design from the beginning, selecting a six-acre site located between downtown Austin and the airport (to make it easily accessible for visitors) and near Interstate 35 and State Highway 71 (for future distribution). “This is a space that’s purposely built for creating a premium experience and product,” says Adam Bush, Overland’s president and principal in charge for the project. “As opposed to, let’s go find a warehouse and try to figure out how to make the space work for the process.”

Initially, Vo—who, in addition to being a self-described “whiskey nerd,” is also the president of CarbonBetter, a consulting firm that helps organizations measure, report, reduce, and offset carbon emissions—had hoped that the building would reach net-zero energy. Unfortunately, the delta between the amount of energy required to power a distillation process running 24/7 and the amount of energy produced by rooftop solar panels was too large to meet this goal, but, Bush notes, there were many other design possibilities to consider: “How efficient can you make the process—fewer materials, less energy, more efficient workflows, and enhanced employee well-being? What’s the positive human impact? If it’s going to be a sustainable place, you have to consider all of that. In the end, that’s more important than how many solar panels we have.” 

Because the owners set their performance and sustainability goals early on, they were able to identify opportunities for conservation and responsible sourcing at each stage of the design process. Some of these opportunities are what Bush refers to as “pragmatic sustainability,” pointing to simple but effective approaches like capturing daylight and natural breezes. The lawn is seeded in native grasses that require less watering, and the operations team is looking at rainwater catchment as the next phase of improvement. Other approaches lean more heavily on technology and data: the fermentation process, while overseen by humans, is automated for efficiency and quality control. The still itself—a sculptural piece of equipment with steampunk appeal—has one of the highest efficiency ratings in the industry. The barrels, made by Kelvin Cooperage in Louisville, Kentucky (yes, there are craft barrel makers for craft whiskeys), are made from American white oak. A CarbonBetter case study notes the percentage of logs used in barrel production (100%) and the growth-to-harvest rate (170%). 

The team has also been weighing the water and carbon impact of the grains they source. For instance, initially, Fierce Whiskers’ grain was mostly sourced from West Texas farms. Grain grown in Amarillo requires water from the over-stressed Ogallala Aquifer, but importing grains from further away means a bigger carbon impact from transportation. More recently, they have been able to move much of their grain sourcing to Central Texas, significantly reducing the mileage for transport. For Vo, the sourcing of every component is part of the craft: “There’s this famous story about a tennis ball, where one ball takes like twenty-seven different places to make because each part is made somewhere else. And that’s one tennis ball. Imagine how bad that is for the climate. So, we optimized for knowing where our stuff is coming from. We have to see if we can figure things out.”

In the distillery area, each piece of equipment is right-sized and carefully placed, reducing the amount of human and machine movement required between each phase. First, the grain is funneled from the silos into the grinder (this part can spontaneously combust, so it gets its own fire-proofed room). Then it moves on to a boiler, then to the fermentation tanks, and then to the still. Once distilled, the liquor is put into barrels and moved to the rickhouse, where the temperature and humidity of the barrels is carefully monitored as they age.  

While the production zone is as clean and practical as a laboratory, the rickhouse distills the science and lore of whiskey making into something poetic. Sited to capture prevailing winds, the rickhouse has four stories above ground and one below. Inside, it’s a dim space lined with row upon row of barrels on wooden supports. The air smells of oak and caramel. Manually operated louvers on each side of the building can capture or block airflow, while grilles at either end double as circulation zones. The black metal siding on the exterior was a practical choice, as the dark color helps to absorb heat (for comparison, some Texas distilleries age their barrels in shipping containers). But the color is also a byproduct of “the angel’s share”—the whiskey that evaporates into the air as it ages—which blackens the rickhouse in sooty smears. 

The ideal result of sustainable design is not a sustainable building. The ideal result is a better quality of life for more people. For Vo, Fierce Whiskers is succeeding in that—even for those without a drink in hand. “We did it,” he says. “We made a place that feels magical.”   

Jessie Temple is an architect and writer in Austin.

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