Walking up the dusty Dripping Springs road to Crowded Barrel Whiskey Co. feels like entering a whiskey wonderland, full of experimental liquors, yeasty baking smells, and Gothic-style architecture. And what makes this Texas distillery special is that everything is decided by its Patreon members. It’s this communal crowdfunded spirit that shows how the internet can bring people together to collectively create fun, boozy libations.
Crowded Barrel, which opened in 2018, is a judgment-free space for people to nerd out about whiskey in person and virtually, as intended by co-founders Rex Williams and Daniel Whittington. Every decision — from the facility layout to the types of aging barrels — is voted on by its nearly 3,000 Patreon subscribers. While each gets one vote, there are additional perks such as merchandise and bottles of whiskey for different contributing levels.
Williams and Whittington’s guiding principle is to keep whiskey fun. The Austin transplants came up with the idea of opening Crowded after cultivating a following through their two hit whiskey YouTube channels. They parlayed those successes into the Whiskey Tribe Patreon to finance the distillery through subscriptions.
Crowded’s creative decisions are made collectively by members. At the end of each themed episode, they’re asked to vote on a related action item. During an episode about whiskey barrel wood types, viewers decided on what wood would be used for a current in-process whiskey.
But before Crowded, the two launched the Whiskey Cult show in 2015 (now called Whiskey Vault), with tastings and reviews. The second is Whiskey Tribe in 2017, where they seek to demystify whiskey and celebrate its cooperative nature amidst an industry full of venerable traditions and trade secrets. They educate on everything from how to talk about whiskeys to proper glassware. Recently, former bartender Brianna Nicola joined as a co-host.
The channels were supposed to be simply resources, but instead, the duo discovered people were hungry for connections and wanted to hear them talk about whiskeys and be able to participate in those conversations in unpretentious ways. “That banter was exactly what whiskey reviews needed,” Williams says. “People absolutely loved it, because it more closely mirrored the kinds of experiences they want to have around whiskey.”
Opening an actual whiskey distillery was the logical next step. The Patreon was an instant hit, bringing in over $30,000 during its first month in 2017. The land was donated by Williams’s father, Roy, an entrepreneur who had purchased the plot back in 2000 to set up his nonprofit business school Wizard Academy, residing in a gothic tower straight out of a Harry Potter book. Williams connected with Whittington when he hired him to film videos for the whiskey school he ran through the Wizard Academy (though they had known each other before). They originally launched Whiskey Vault under the business school.
Soon after, they opened Crowded in August 2018, taking over a building that used to be a groundskeeper’s shop. And recently, they built out a dedicated whiskey tasting room, the Fang and Feather.
Along with distilling Crowded’s whiskey, the distillery is a laboratory to experiment with existing whiskey brands, where they re-distill, add flavor components, and blend. Head distiller Kyle Wells runs around like a mad scientist, fermenting flavor concoctions out of everything from durian to cherry juice. He helps the co-hosts come up with novel ideas for members to vote on and executes those. The recent Errant Barrel batch was created by aging a Scottish Island new make malt for five months in new oak barrels, dumping the barrels, proofing, and then re-aging for 14 months in a Buffalo Trace barrel.
The team tends to have more fun with the processes as they wait for their whiskeys to age. The first one they distilled four years ago took a little over six months from grain to barrel. Through several Patreon episodes, it became a single-malt with half-peated grain. Members voted to use white oak barrels for the aging portion.
Given the widespread reach of Whiskey Tribe members, every person can’t taste the whiskey results; Williams and Whittington serve as the on-site tasters who relay their thoughts. However, fans can try the whiskeys at the distillery or order online, although many bottles are only available at the distillery; most sell out immediately.
Christian Hedegaard-Schou, a knight-level member and Austinite, frequently visits Crowded. He remembers when Williams overheard his conversation about rum with tasting room manager Richard Amiro during a party. Later that week, there was a rum episode. “It’s fun being a part of something and it’s even more fun to taste the experiments that come out of the process,” he writes over social media messaging.
Whittington and Williams created a true whiskey hub. “Back before people were building these online communities, it was like, ‘Tough luck, go pursue your interest [in whiskey] alone,” says Williams. But now, they’ve built a devoted following who appreciate drinking with the two through computer screens just as much as those lucky enough to make the trek out to the distillery enjoying sipping with them in real life (one of them is usually there on Fridays). It’s like being in a huge in-the-know club, where members recognize others. Williams recalls the story of a cop who didn’t write a speeding ticket for a member because the driver was wearing his Whiskey Tribe shirt.
The best whiskey is made better by sharing with good company, whether it’s in person or online, and even if Whiskey Tribe members can’t make a trip out to Crowded Barrel, the open spirit of Crowded Barrel’s community means that no one really drinks alone. “We look at [whiskey] like a catalyst, an excuse to gather around your favorite people,” Williams says. “Yes, there’s the nerdiness, the knowledge, but also let’s just be people and hang out and have fun.”