Lightning in a Bottle: In Conversation with Amanda and Nick Swift

Owners of Swift Distillery, Austin, TX

Life on the go (and on the rocks) with the founders of an intricately handmade Texas single malt. 

 By: Amy Sheehan | Photos: Thompson Chan


Since the day that Nick and Amanda Swift decided to quit their jobs and open a distillery, life has been pretty neat. Fresh off a leap of faith, the newly-married couple travelled the world to learn as much about their craft as possible – from Japan to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. Sampling traditional scotch and whisky all day may not sound like taxing research, but it’s clear that to the Swifts, no detail is too small.

The charm of the Swift’s singular product lies in their unrelenting passion for mastering it – and according to Wine Mag’s latest designation of 95 points, it seems that Swift Single Malt Whiskey was well worth the risk.

Without staff or investors, this intrepid duo set out to build their business from the Texas dirt, up. We stopped in at the Swift Distillery headquarters in the outer foothills of Austin to hear more about their love of quality ingredients and to find out how a trip to Ireland inspired these hard-working high school sweethearts to step out on their own.

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Kit and Ace: How did Swift Distillery become a reality?

Amanda Swift: Right after we were married we took a trip to Ireland, just to visit and have fun. I threw a hissy fit about not wanting to go on the Guinness Beer tour – I'll blame it on my jet lag. Nick got me there, and I thought, "Wow, this is the coolest thing ever." I have a science background and it was completely that blend of science and cooking, which are two of our favourite things.

Nick Swift: And we were really disappointed in what they had back home. Craft brands will buy from somewhere else and rebottle it.

: It's something we decided we would never want to participate in. We got this property in 2012 and we've been out here ever since. We make single malt whiskey, which is akin to scotch in Texas – you just can't legally call it scotch in Texas. Our grain comes from Scotland, and then everything else is done here, completely by hand.

How would you describe Swift single malt?

NS: It’s malty with citrus tones and vanilla with a chocolate aftertaste. There's also a floral note from the Spanish Oloroso sherry casks we use.

Why did you choose to have the noble red fox on your label?

AS: We have foxes on our property here. Grey foxes are arboreal, so they live in the big tree behind our office. Every year, they have babies. The first year they had two or three. The next year, they had five. We made our label a red fox to reflect the copper stills we use, the amber tone of the whisky, and maybe a little for my hair colour.

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You two have travelled the world. Are you always learning more about your craft?

AS: We like to travel and learn from the best, and then bring it back here.

NS: It was quite a long time spent researching – staying over at Glenfiddich in Scotland and going over to Kentucky, visiting every distillery and bringing staves and barrels back to test our product. We went to Japan too because they were winning all the awards for scotch. There's no point in making a product if it's not going to be good.

Obviously, the handmade component is important to you guys. Was that a big focus for you from the start?

NS: Every day you’ll see us working. Amanda just milled a few hundred pounds of grain early this morning and it's all in there cooking right now. It's how we start each day, and it's all done from scratch. The grain even comes whole.

Doing this all by hand means there is a lot of science involved. How did your backgrounds play a part in creating your product?

AS: Well, I’m a biologist. Nick has his master's in liberal arts and he loves to research things. He'll tell me something crazy, like, "This is a glycol chilling system, usually chilled to about 40 degrees, which is very close to the temperature of the River Spey in Scotland ­– the water they use when cooling their own stills." So he comes to me and says, "Can we make ours 40 degrees somehow?"

NS: Originally we tried different sea salts from all around the world, but it tasted pretty bad because it harms the yeast when you're fermenting. When we went to Japan, we learned that you have to atomize seawater and we're experimenting with that right now. I come up with this crazy stuff and Amanda figures out how to do it – I get more glory than I deserve.

AS: We’re really geeky. We love the details. Everything for us is in the details.

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Running Swift Distillery sounds more like running a marathon every day than making whisky.

AS: It's like weightlifting. We don't have any automation, so we're lifting 55 pound bags of grain and dumping them in things. Nick is taking it and walking up stairs. Everything is done by hand.

NS: I tell people that sometimes you have to sit down at night to brush your teeth, because you're so tired. 

AS: It's funny, we do this all day, then I'll go for a run. That's just to get out of my own head.

How do you best enjoy your whisky? Set the scene for us.

NS: This is kind of cheesy Texas, but I like to marinate my own fajitas and grill while I'm drinking on our back porch. Is that too cheesy?

AS: Our crazy conversations, a glass of whisky and cooking dinner together – that is my ideal.