Traveling up the dusty road from Dripping Springs to Crowded Barrel Whiskey Co. it feels like stepping into a whiskey wonderland, full of experimental liquors, yeasty smells, and gothic-style architecture. And what makes this Texas distillery special is that everything is decided by its Patreon members. It’s this crowdfunding community spirit that shows how the internet can bring people together to collectively create fun booze.
Crowded Barrel, which opened in 2018, is a judgment-free space for people to engage with whiskey in person and virtually, as co-founders Rex Williams and Daniel Whittington intended. Every decision — from the layout of the facilities to the types of aging barrels — is voted on by its nearly 3,000 Patreon subscribers. Although everyone gets a vote, there are additional perks such as merchandise and bottles of whiskey for different levels of contribution.
The guiding principle of Williams and Whittington is to keep whiskey fun. Austin Transplants came up with the idea to open Crowded after cultivating a following through their two successful whiskey YouTube channels. They turned those successes into Whiskey Tribe Patreon finance the distillery through subscriptions.
Crowded’s creative decisions are made collectively by the members. At the end of each themed episode, they are asked to vote on a related action item. During an episode about types of whiskey cask wood, viewers decided which wood would be used for a whiskey being made.
But before Crowded, the two launched the Whiskey Cult show in 2015 (now called whiskey chest), with tastings and comments. The second is whiskey tribe in 2017, where they seek to demystify whiskey and celebrate its cooperative nature within 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 meant to be just resources, but instead the duo found that people were hungry for connections and wanted to hear them talk about whiskeys and be able to participate in those conversations in an unassuming way. “That joke was apparently just what whiskey critics needed,” Williams says. “People absolutely loved it because it more accurately reflected the kind of whiskey experiences they wanted to have.”
The opening of a real whiskey distillery was the logical next step. The Patreon was an instant hit, grossing over $30,000 in its first month in 2017. The land was donated by Williams’ father, Roy, an entrepreneur who had bought the land in 2000 to set up his school of non-profit business. wizarding academy, residing in a Gothic tower straight out of a Harry Potter book. In fact, Williams came into contact with Whittington when he hired him to shoot videos for the whiskey school he went through Wizard Academy (although they had known each other before). They originally launched Whiskey Vault as part of the business school.
Soon after, they opened Crowded in August 2018, taking over a building that was once a gardener’s store. And recently they built a dedicated whiskey tasting room, fang and feather.
As well as distilling Crowded’s own whiskey, the distillery is a laboratory for experimenting with existing whiskey brands, where they distill, add flavor components and blend. Head distiller Kyle Wells runs around like a mad scientist, fermenting flavor concoctions from everything from durian to cherry juice. It helps co-organizers come up with new ideas for members to vote on and execute. The recent batch of Errant Barrel was created by aging a newly made Scottish Island malt for five months in new oak casks, discarding the casks, proofing them, then aging them for 14 months in a Buffalo Trace cask.
The team tends to have more fun with the process while waiting for their own whiskeys to age. The first one they distilled four years ago took just over six months from grain to barrel. Through several episodes of Patreon, it has become a semi-peated grain single malt. Members voted to use white oak barrels for the aging portion.
Given the vast reach of the members of the Whiskey Tribe, not everyone can actually taste the results of whiskey; Williams and Whittington serve as on-site tasters who relay their thoughts. However, aficionados 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 at a party. Later that week there was a rum episode. “It’s fun to be part of something and it’s even more fun to taste the experiences that come from the process,” he wrote on social media.
Whittington and Williams have created a veritable whiskey hub. “Before people created these online communities, it was like, ‘Bad luck, go pursue your interest [in whiskey] alone,” Williams says. But now they’ve built a devoted following who enjoy drinking with the two through computer screens just as much as those lucky enough to walk to the distillery sipping with them in real life (one of them is usually there on Fridays). It’s like being in a huge club of insiders, where members recognize each other. 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 gets better by sharing it with good company, whether in person or online, and even if Whiskey Tribe members can’t make it to Crowded Barrel, the open-minded community of Crowded Barrel means no one really drinks alone. . “We watch [whiskey] like a catalyst, an excuse to gather around your favorite people,” says Williams. “Yeah there’s the nerdness, the knowledge, but also let’s just be people and hang out and have fun.”