The number of craft breweries in San Antonio and surrounding areas, well over a dozen at last count, continues to burgeon at a rate that might someday give us back "Brewing Center of Texas" bragging rights. The investment in time and equipment required to get a craft spirit out the door makes distilling an industry unlikely to catch up. But that hasn't stopped three visionary (or lunatic, take your pick), enterprises from giving it a go (and I recently learned that the folks at Real Ale in Blanco have begun distilling whiskey and gin). One started logically with beer; the other two simply threw caution to the wind. Support them for, on the one hand, they know not what they do, and on the other they have come to know quite a lot.
Alamo Premium Distillery
Noel Burns and Anthony Caplinger are the latest loonies to take the plunge. Burns, with a background in chemistry, and Caplinger, coming out of the liquor retail business, opened Alamo Premium distillery about five months ago, and they already have product on shelves around the state. Starting with un-aged spirits — a corn and grain-based moonshine and a rum made with Texan sugar — made sense from an economic and learning-curve standpoint, but the two are hard at work (around the clock if the folding bed in the office is any indication) on an aged dark rum and two whiskies — one's a "Texas craft original." Their spotless space near the airport is convertible from column- to pot-style, so they can easily select the kind of distillation required for each spirit. But the rest is all experimentation. The dark rum, for example, is maturing in plastic containers with hand-cut staves of fallen, local live oak. (Some think maturation not in white oak barrels is heresy, but the proof is in the taste — already impressive, and in the hyper-local appeal of native oak.) Start looking for the new products in 2016. "Our goal is to turn out high-quality, high-volume at a moderate price," says Burns. So far, so good.
Dorcol Distilling Company
Boyan Kalusevic and Chris Mobley, the partners behind Dorcol Distilling and makers of Kinsman rakia, are also among the caution-to-the-wind contingent. Not only did the duo build a distillery from the ground-up on South Flores, but their first product was an un-aged, apricot-based brandy — time-honored in Kalusevic's native Serbia but unknown here. Somehow, though, the enterprise has not only survived but thrived. Kinsman took home Best American Brandy honors at a 2014 Chicago competition, and it can be found on shelves and in bars not only all over San Antonio but in hot spots such as The Townsend in Austin and Anvil Bar and Refuge in Houston. Accordingly, the guys have been inspired to develop new products. Currently in the works is an apricot rakia aging in used sherry barrels from La Cruz de Comal Wines and a new, Muscat-based brandy from grapes sourced at Bending Branch Winery. The Dorcol guys launched their new line of High Wheel beers at a recent second anniversary party – complete with an actual, and gorgeous, high-wheel bike. I tasted all four and came away favoring the profound porter for its deep coffee/chocolate flavors coupled to a light body and the IPA for its just-hoppy-enough zing married to pretty citrus notes. The pale ale was crisp, refreshing and eminently, year 'round quaffable. As for the saison, despite its seasonality is not a favorite of mine, but I await spring. Must be the clove and bubblegum. For now they'll be available only at the brewery in kegs and on tap at the adjacent bar. Now that there's grain in the mix, who knows what might logically follow on the distillation side. Cycle on down.
Ranger Creek Brewing & Distilling
"We're jockeying with Garrison Brothers [in Hye] for the oldest Texas bourbon in current release," says Mark McDavid. "Right now, ours is the oldest at four years seven months." That's almost as old as the Ranger Creek "brewstillery" operation, which just celebrated its five-year anniversary. McDavid and his active partner T.J. Miller began their operation as a brewery with complementary spirits firmly in mind, and with eagerly awaited seasonal beer releases and best-of-show and best-in-class national spirits awards won in 2014 and 2015, both aspects of the business seem to be doing very well. The partners initially did some of their distilling experimentation in small barrels for faster results, but "this year was spent distilling in large barrels," says McDavid. The intent is to also produce straight bourbon with two to four years of age as a year-round, — and more popularly priced — complement to the longer-aged whiskeys. But specialty products won't be ignored: they're also playing with at-the-distillery-only spirits that may coincide with those seasonal beer profiles — one with coffee bean, vanilla and chicory being currently used in cocktails, (think Manhattan) at the tasting bar Saturdays from 5-9 p.m. "We plan to keep experimenting ... we might find a gem [for regular production]," days McDavid. We suspect they might.