An American whiskey is having a moment
For the sake of preserving the Lone Star State’s divine-given bragging rights, it is a fact the first Bourbon arrived on the coast of Texas around 1685, some 150 years before anyone in Kentucky was sipping the stuff.
It was kind of an accident. The planned port of call was supposed to be the mouth of the Mississippi River, some 400 miles to the east, but start mixing bourbons and sailing and, well, these things can happen.
OK, to be factually clear, the Bourbon that came to Texas was Robert Cavelier de La Salle, a Bourbon in name only by his representation of the royal family of France at the time — that long line of Louies. The name of the corn whiskey has its origins from the same family, via an area of land named after them, but by the time it was first created in Kentucky around 1830, its namesakes had been cut off, so to speak.
Thus, while both the family and the drink are known to have an effect on heads — one being an ache, the other missing entirely — only the drink is sitting on the throne in 2014.
The popularity of bourbon right now is hitting almost historic proportions. In 2013, distilleries in Kentucky — bourbon is produced in other states, including Texas, but about 95 percent still calls the Blue Grass State its place of birth — started aging more than 1 million barrels, and, according to the Kentucky Distillers’ Association, inventory has gone beyond 5 million barrels, the first time since 1977. And production is up 150 percent in the past 15 years, according to an Associated Press report.
There may be droughts in California, jobless in the Midwest and warming around the globe, but bourbon is aplenty. To paraphrase one Marie Antoinette, “Let them drink juleps.”
“Bourbon is the big thing,” said Claude Chmielewski, owner of Medicinal Purposes Bar & Grill, 712 Seventh St., in Galveston. “I’ve had meetings with my sales rep to bring in three or four new Texas bourbons, in addition to all the other ones (Kentucky and Texas) we already carry.”
The interest in bourbons started heating up during the past year and has continued to grow, Chmielewski said. The bar has even created a specialty drink called the Buffalo Stampede — a cocktail combining Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, pomegranate liqueur, bitters and soda.
It was tourists and nonresidents who brought their thirst for bourbon to the Texas coast, which opened the way for the current trend. So, it’s no surprise the local hotels have cleared space on their bar shelves to make room.
“Bourbon is the biggest thing,” declares Steve Ratier, food and beverage manager at the Hotel Galvez & Spa, 2024 Seawall Blvd. in Galveston.
The rise of the bourbons comes on the heels of a similar romance with clear alcohols, particularly vodka. As the passion for those cooled, a new interest in whiskey heated up, Chmielewski and other experts note.
“Even last year, everything was about flavored vodkas, but that’s gone out,” he said.
Gone, too, is the clichéd, white-suited Kentucky colonel sipping his bourbon on his expansive Southern portico. Jimmy’s cracked corn is now being gulped — to the tune of $8 billion in global sales — in Europe, Australia, China, and, in great quantities, in Japan, whose businessmen have been shopping for U.S. distillers.
Oh, and that colonel is not necessarily male.
“More women are drinking bourbon than ever before,” said Irena Karliuk, head bartender at 21, a bar at 2102 Postoffice St. in the island’s downtown.“More young people are interested as well. Last year we first noticed how the sales were increasing. Now we see it grow every month.”
While younger people are more apt to try some of the older bourbon cocktails, women are more apt to sip it straight.
“With no ice.”
This is all good news for the United States and even Texas. That’s because bourbon is an American drink, officially. In 1964, the United States government set the standards for what can be called bourbon. These include the requirements it be a minimum of 51 percent corn — the better the bourbon, the higher the percentage — and it must be aged in new American charred oak barrels. To be a straight bourbon it must be aged at least two years, and it is not a blended whiskey.
The soaring number of sippers swamped Kentucky distillers, who are just now seeing a point of filling the demand. After all, making bourbon isn’t an overnight thing. But the surge of buyers did not go overlooked by any number of Texas entrepreneurs who are now making Lone Star mash.
Texas Monthly in April listed Dallas Distilleries in Garland; Garrison Brothers Distillery in Hye; Ranger Creek Brewing & Distilling in San Antonio; Balcones Distilling in Waco; Treaty Oak Distilling in Austin; and Firestone & Robertson Distilleries in Fort Worth. Others include distillers in College Station, Smithville, Red Rock, Forney and Lewisville. Houston is home to newly arrived Yellow Rose Distilling, just north of the Katy Freeway west of Loop 610 and Whitmeyer’s Distilling Co. in northeast Harris County.
But while Texas may have gotten the first bourbon in the flesh over Kentucky, does the state’s bourbon in the glass match up?
“Absolutely,” Chmielewski said without hesitation. “They do better than hold their own.”
He speaks particularly well of an 1845 blend produced by the Witherspoon Distillery in Lewisville, Texas.
Island establishment 21 has a healthy sampling of both Texas and Kentucky originals. Some patrons initially were a little wary of the Texas brands. But that didn’t last long. Both sell well, Karliuk said.
What also makes bourbon fun is that it doesn’t pay attention to the calendar, Karliuk said.
“It doesn’t depend on the season anymore,” she said. “You know it used to be vodka and those kind of drinks were for summer and bourbon and scotch were for cooler months. People are drinking bourbon all year round now.”
Long live the king.
Sweet Bourbon Stampede
1 ounces Buffalo Trace Bourbon
ounce Pama Pomegranate Liqueur
1 shake Angostura bitters
Build in rocks glass, add ice and top with soda. Garnish with cherry.