Thanks to loosening laws, Texas-made bourbon and rye flow freely
The state of Texas walks into a saloon and says, “Gimme a whiskey.”
Two hours later, the bartender is still listing the options — and these are just for the ones made in Texas.
The loosening of laws regarding the distillation of liquor have left the Lone Star State awash in all kinds of whiskey, including both bourbon and rye.
Yes, in a state where bourbon and branch was considered a fancy cocktail and where whiskey was more likely to have turpentine, molasses and laudanum than good taste, whiskey has not only hit a high mark, the places making it are doing it legally and in great numbers.
In one sitting, a Texas whiskey lover can sip rye malt whiskey from Grapevine, single-malt whiskey from San Antonio, straight-wheat whiskey from Forney, more single- malt from Blanco, small-batch bourbon from Fort Worth, a slew of bourbons from Hye, moonshine from Nacogdoches and another single-malt whiskey from Pflugerville.
One doesn’t have to drive far to visit a whiskey distillery. There’s Texas Tail Distillery, 4116 Seawall Blvd., in Galveston and Railean Distillers in San Leon. In the Houston area, one can find the Yellow Rose Distillery in Spring Branch, Gulf Coast Distillers in Denver Harbor, the Old Humble Distilling Company in Humble, Whitmeyer’s Distilling in Houston and Semper Fi Big Stick Bourbon in Katy.
According to the Texas Distilled Spirits Association, in just five years, Texas’ craft distilling community has become the third largest in the country, just behind California and Florida. It’s quite a leap for a state that didn’t exactly sprint to restart what Prohibition ended when the 18th Amendment to the Constitution went into effect in 1920. The amendment was repealed in 1933, but obviously wanting to make sure the repeal would stick, Texas waited 76 years before allowing whiskey to be produced in the state again. The first bottle of whiskey to fill that void came from the Balcones Distillery in Waco. Yes, that same Waco where one of Prohibition’s strongest cheerleaders was president of the university there. Garrison Brothers Distillery in Hye lays claim to releasing the first bottle of Texas-made bourbon.
Today, Texas has a number of whiskey organizations for both social and political interests, there are driving trails for distillery tours and even an annual Texas Whiskey Festival, which was just held in Austin in early March.
So, should all of this surge in making whiskey make Kentucky nervous? Maybe a little, experts say. It’s tapping into one of Kentucky’s largest whiskey-drinking markets. Others point out, however, that because making whiskey is such an art, good ones are all different. People don’t quit drinking one favorite just because there’s another that also tastes really good.
“Texas is such a unique state for making whiskey,” said Nick Droege, co-founder of Texas Tail Distillery in Galveston. “Each region has its own character. The Hill Country bourbons might be closer to Kentucky with its longer season and low humidity, but even there, they are using Texas products to make the whiskey that Kentucky doesn’t use.”
One thing most whiskey makers in the state do have in common is a determination to put Texas in a bottle, which sounds vaguely like an old Jim Croce song.
Bourbon-maker Garrison Brothers Distillery in Hye, for example, acquires all its corn from the Panhandle and grows its own wheat. Still Austin Whiskey Co. in Austin is a solid example of using only Texas products. It uses an indigenous Aztec Black, and “Butcher Blood” red corn from Hondo, Texas, white Tomahawk wheat and barley from Brady and red winter wheat from Travis County.
The demand has become so strong that a company in Denton, MBS Seed Inc., which was founded more than 25 years ago, has created a special sales division handling Texas grains for Texas distillers.
Firestone & Robertson, distillers in Fort Worth, actually went to a lab at Texas Christian University to find a Texas yeast to make its bourbon. It now uses a strain from pecan trees in North Texas. Another source of yeast is the Mexican paintbrush flower, abundant around the state near bluebonnet season. Balcones began its production using a Texas blue cornmeal. Rebecca Creek Distillery in San Antonio claims the state’s water, specifically the limestone-filtered water from the Edwards Aquifer, makes the state’s whiskeys like no other.
There’s also another home-grown element that goes into every drop of Texas whiskey, one which most would prefer to do without, but, as every person who ever lived in Texas knows, there’s no way to get around it. That’s this thing called summer.
Scorching heat can cause the whiskey to become oversaturated with the flavor of the wood, as well as cause problems with the barrels it’s in. For a distiller, it’s compared to knowing how long to leave a tea bag in hot water before the tea is ruined.
When Garrison first started, ambitions and summer collided with disastrous results, according to its website. In a barn where the temperatures were reaching 130 degrees, the barrels holding aging bourbons began to leak and even burst. Hundreds of gallons were lost. Eventually, the company was able to find a cooperage to construct custom-made barrels that could withstand the pressure.
In this area of the state, the heat brings another problem called humidity.
“We struggle with humidity every day,” Droege said.
It accelerates the evaporation, a loss referred to in the industry as the “angel’s share.” In the climate here, this affects the quality and the aging process.
“This can really affect the quality,” Droege said. “For us to have a five-year product would be a struggle.”
But all the distillers, like Garrison and Texas Tail, have learned new methods to work with Texas’ climate. In fact, the company will introduce a new rye whiskey this summer and has plans to add a traditional bourbon later on, Droege said.
All in all, Texas whiskey has come a long, long way in the past decade, and it has all the signs of not only expanding but reaching levels of quality that will put it high up on the international stage. As one national spirits writer said, “It tastes of grass and earth and spice, and of leather and smoke and char. And, increasingly, whiskey is starting to taste like Texas.”
That’s something worth taking to the branch.
The Honey Hole
This is a summer bourbon cocktail created at the Texas Tail Distillery for its whiskey.
1½ ounces Coastline Whiskey
2-3 tablespoons Texas honey
½ ounce sweet and sour mix
Add the first three ingredients into a cocktail shaker with ice and mix thoroughly. Strain over ice into an old-fashioned glass. Top with Sprite. For a garnish, wrap the moonshine cherry in the orange wheel and secure with a cocktail stick or toothpick.
*Note: Moonshine cherries are maraschino cherries soaked in moonshine. They can be purchased or made at home.