When President Jimmy Carter made home brewing legal in 1978 the newly legitimated hobby spawned fledgling brewmasters across the country. Some got stars in their eyes, and the American micro-brewing industry was born. Inspired by the new brewers, the first craft distillers opened shop a dozen years later. The Texas trend didn’t begin until 1997, when San Antonio native Tito Beveridge initiated production at the Mockingbird Distillery in Austin, the first legal distillery in the state. Tito’s Handmade Vodka now competes with Dripping Springs and San Antonio’s Enchanted Rock and Cinco vodkas; Texas rum is made in San Leon, Austin, and Pflugerville. While whiskey was late to the party, two San Antonio distillers released new brands just last month. Ranger Creek Brewing & Distilling and Rebecca Creek Distillery share something in their names, but these hometown companies are radically different tributaries of the mighty whiskey river.
Unlike commercial distilleries obsessed with consistency above all else, the Ranger Creek “brewstillery” brings a craft brewer’s experimental nature to their distilling venture. In November, Ranger Creek .36 (named after the gun favored by the Texas Rangers) was released — the first offering in their Small Caliber Series. Taking advantage of the hot days and warm nights that mature Texas whiskey much faster than in Kentucky or Scotland, Ranger Creek speeds the process even more by using five- and seven-gallon barrels that have a greater percentage of surface area than the standard 53-gallon cask, putting more wood flavoring and coloring agents in contact with the still’s product, called white dog. Vatted from barrels aged only seven to 11 months, the result is remarkable — offering a complex profile favoring caramel and vanilla notes with hints of black cherry in the finish. The .36 is sour mashed and distilled twice. But while Ranger Creek’s large-barrel bourbon ages for a few years, they’re experimenting with triple-distillation, too, and with different char-levels in barrels they are trying out, sourced from three different cooperages. “Some people just pick a barrel and go with it, even though it imparts 70 to 80 percent of the flavor.” said Ranger Creek co-owner and distiller TJ Miller. “We use the barrel as an ingredient.”
Rebecca Creek is aging a single malt whiskey for a planned June 2012 release. In the meantime, they’re producing Enchanted Rock Vodka with a 700 gallon still, the largest that Christian Karl, the German manufacturer, has ever sent to North America. Last month the distillery added Rebecca Creek Fine Texas Spirit Whiskey to their line. They intend to need that high-capacity still (and their in-house bottling line); both products are targeted for popular consumption, and seem to be on their way. “Our vodka is the fastest-growing new liquor brand in Texas,” said Rebecca Creek co-owner Mike Cameron. He and Steve Ison, Rebecca Creek’s other owner, know what they want for their whiskey, too. “The number one selling whiskey in Texas is Crown Royal,” says Cameron. “Grabbing the bottle and going to the hunting-lease, or picking up some Crown for Christmas, is very typical.” The spirit whiskey is a proprietary blend that, claims Cameron, “has an eight-year old bourbon in it.” This ultra-smooth whiskey offers a new choice for the Canadian blend drinker.
Garrison Brothers opened the first legal Texas whiskey distillery in 2007 on a ranch near Hye, a tiny spot between Fredericksburg and Johnson City. They released their first batch of Garrison Brothers Straight Texas Bourbon Whiskey last year — a full-bodied, oaky, all-organic, all-Texas whiskey. Garrison grows their own soft red winter wheat on 65 acres of the Blanco County ranch, and they buy their corn from farms in Dalhart and Muleshoe up on the Panhandle. Part of what goes into the bottle comes from the sky — the distillery has a 65,000-gallon catchment system to collect rainwater. (“It got scary a month ago,” said proprietor Dan Garrison, “because we hadn’t had rain for 18 months.”)
Garrison released their fourth batch recently when the rains returned. Like the other distilleries, they do weekly tours, and the trip is worth the drive, Garrison says. “The entire ranch smells like cornbread cooking all the time, its quite the tactile experience.”
Waco’s Balcones Distillery has wowed the experts with four whiskies, and has been featured in Playboy, Saveur, and Smithsonian Magazine.
Their nutty Baby Blue Corn Whiskey, made from Hopi heritage cornmeal, took Double Gold awards at the 2010 San Francisco International World Spirits Competition. Their newest project, Balcones Single Malt Whiskey, entered stores in September and has already fared well with the critics. “We were trying to decide if it was ready to release,” Balcones co-owner Stephen Germer said. “Just in fun, we sent a bottle to the New York World Spirits Competition. A few months later they called back and said, ‘You’ve won a Double Gold and Best in Show for the whole competition.’ Well, I guess it’s ready.”
The Single Malt gets its balanced flavor profile from the different yeasts that introduce hints of banana, apricot, and pear while fermenting the mash, which is made from Scottish Golden Promise barley. Balcones whiskies also include True Blue, a cask-strength version of the corn whiskey, and Brimstone, a smoky whiskey made with scrub oak. Balcones also distills Rumble, reminiscent of Armagnac and grappa, the distinct spirit is made from Texas wildflower honey, mission figs, and Turbinado sugar from Sugar Land. All their spirits are made in Balcones’ handmade still, constructed by founder and head distiller Chip Tate (the former assistant dean at Baylor University has a background in space engineering). “We started on a shoestring,” Germer, Balcones’ business manager recalls. “When we sat down and designed everything on a napkin, I asked Chip, ‘What do you need?’ And he said, ‘a tig welder and a whole lot of copper.’ He grew up in a nuclear lab with his dad.”
Though Balcones’ and Ranger Creek’s free-form style contrasts with the firm, measured approach taken by Rebecca Creek and Garrison Brothers, the new Texas whiskey industry is by necessity an experiment — the legendary corn whiskey that defined the frontier is long gone. “We see our relationship with Balcones and Garrison as making Texas whiskey, though we are all doing something different,” said Ranger Creek co-owner Mark McDavid. “No one knows what Texas whiskey tastes like. We’re going to have this conversation with consumers and all figure it out together.” D
Texas whiskies are available at Spec’s, Twin Liquors, selected Gabriel’s and independent liquor stores, and can be tasted at fine drinking establishments including the Esquire Tavern, Bohanans, and the JW Marriott Hill Country.