Texas Whisky: Witness the making of a new American category

Texas Whisky: Witness the making of a new American category

With an ever-growing number of distilleries and award-winning whiskeys coming out of Texas, producers in the Lone Star State are looking to certify the category

Regional Focus | 28 Apr 2023 | Issue 190 | By Kevin Gray

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Across the United States and the world, Texas enjoys a larger-than-life reputation. Its physical size and association with cowboy culture continue to dominate much of the discourse, especially from those outside the state, but Texas today is diverse in people and landscapes, with mega metropolises coexisting alongside rugged ranchlands. All that open space has long accommodated cattle and crops, and a growing population has exhibited a thirst for whiskey, ranking second in consumption behind more populous California, according to data from Beverage Information Group.

The first wave of Texas whiskey distilleries sprang to life in the mid-aughts, as small operations began to distil spirits and lay them down in barrels. As recently as 2010, the state counted only two whiskey distilleries among its ranks: Garrison Brothers in the Hill Country town of Hye, and Balcones in Waco. Since the beginning, in-state distillers have faced an uphill battle, fighting against more established players in Kentucky and Tennessee, consumer awareness (or unawareness), and well-meaning but often reductive concerns about how the hot climate in Texas impacts a spirit’s ability to mature and develop flavours.

If numbers are an indication, Texas is winning the battle. Dozens of whiskey distillers now call Texas home, and consumers both within the state and outside it are beginning to ask for Texas whiskeys. Perhaps most telling of all is that the industry is no longer content with simply growing its ranks, as associations look to certify grain-to-glass operations that are truly Texan.

With its earliest whiskey brands barely 15 years old, and more players entering the market each year, Texas whiskey is still in its infancy. Distillers are excited about the opportunities this affords, especially as the rest of the world, from consumers to conglomerates, begins to pay attention to what is happening in the state.

Jared Himstedt, head distiller at Balcones, takes a sample from a cask

“If you want to grasp how fast it’s all changing, just look at who’s buying who,” says Nico Martini, the author of Texas Whiskey and a staunch supporter of in-state spirits. “We now have massive corporations like Diageo and Pernod Ricard coming into the state and buying up distilleries. They know how huge the market is here, and how we’ve not even scratched the surface yet.”

Before international interlopers entered the conversation, Garrison Brothers and Balcones applied for permits and broke ground on their distilleries in the mid-2000s. Balcones was first to market in 2009 with a five-week-old corn whiskey called Baby Blue, followed shortly after by Garrison’s one-year-old bourbon in 2010. Both makers have since become craft spirit darlings, winning awards and garnering praise from critics, and Balcones was purchased by Diageo in November 2022. But the early years were lean. Garrison began with three employees and one expression, and they faced an uphill battle convincing drinkers that bourbon can legally come from anywhere in the United States, not just Kentucky. Founder Dan Garrison embraced the challenge and realised that not being entrenched in tradition provided them with freedom to experiment.

“Being young and fresh means we are not stuck in old patterns,” he explains. “Every day we try to make better bourbon than we did the day before. We are nimble, creative, and quick.”

Garrison Brothers has grown into a 90-person company making nine expressions and selling its products in 40 states and six countries. The flagship bourbon is still made in small batches, but now every barrel that goes into the batch is at least three years old. The distillery also produces a variety of limited-release bourbons, including the double-aged Balmorhea, the port-finished Guadalupe, and the uncut and unfiltered Cowboy Bourbon (the 2022 edition clocks in at 134.8 proof).

“We get bored easily,” says Garrison. “We must continue to create. Unusual wood finishes, different proofs, and wood barrel complexity keep us interested and excited about our craft.”

The Firestone & Robertson Whiskey Ranch in Forth Worth, Texas

By 2012, more distilleries joined the fray, including Fort Worth-based Firestone & Robertson, which debuted with TX Blended Whiskey, a sourced expression, before creating its homegrown TX Bourbon. Grains come from a local partner, and a proprietary yeast strain is derived from a Texan pecan. These facts may have been lost on the brand’s first customers, but now they’re selling points.

“Texas whiskey has shifted from a scarce, almost novelty category to a legitimate brand of its own,” says Ken Graham, vice president of operations at Firestone & Robertson. He credits the growing category and increased consumer awareness of Texas whiskey, alongside the renewed interest in brown spirits that’s taken off across the country over the past 15 years. And the awards certainly haven’t hurt, as Texas distilleries have collected accolades that give brands wider credibility among drinkers. Retailers have also played a role, with many in the state giving Texas whiskeys their own shelf space, rather than lumping them in with Kentucky bourbons or other American whiskeys.

Since its 2012 launch, TX Whiskey has become one of the state’s best-selling brands. Pernod Ricard took note and acquired Firestone & Robertson in 2019. Graham says the deep-pocketed parent allowed the distillery to improve its operations, marketing, and distribution channels, but they were never challenged to change the product or their identity.

A decade ago, small barrels were the norm. Texas distillers weren’t making enough whiskey to warrant buying expensive full-size barrels, and they needed to recoup their investments, so whiskey was often put into 10- or 15-gallon barrels and emerged one to two years later for bottling.

“Today, people know what works and what doesn’t,” says Martini, who compares ageing whiskey in Texas to cooking over an open fire. “In the early days, everyone was using small barrels, and then they realised they needed to fight the ageing, not speed it up. You can make brilliant spirits here, but you better pay attention. You can’t just set it and forget it.”

That shift is evident at Houston’s Yellow Rose Distilling, which released its first bourbon in 2012. It began with 10- and 15-gallon barrels before eventually moving to 30-gallon and then 53-gallon barrels.

Michael Langan, head of distillery at Yellow Rose

“Texas whiskey is bold, and lots of flavour extraction comes from the barrel,” explains Yellow Rose’s head of distillery Michael Langan. “But there’s a paradoxical belief that the whiskey ages faster because it’s so hot, when it’s really more about the intensity of the extraction. The smaller the barrel, the shorter your window to catch the whiskey at its peak. We need more time in barrel for things to settle down.”

Whiskey produced in North Texas ages differently than it does in the Texas Hill Country or down in Houston, where the environment exhibits Caribbean-like heat and humidity. Langan found that four and a half to six years in 53-gallon barrels is the sweet spot for Yellow Rose bourbons, which see an angel’s share as high as eight per cent per year.

Langan came to Texas from California about four and a half years ago and was surprised at how advanced the Texas whiskey scene was when he arrived. He noted that it mirrored a lot of what he was seeing in California, in terms of regional sourcing and reputation. He thinks part of that reputation is driven by the movement toward grain-to-glass whiskeys and the understanding of how Texas-aged products differ from those aged in other states.

“It’s amazing what the consumer knows today versus a decade ago,” says Langan. “Consumers know what comes from where; they want to buy authentic products.” There are still plenty more people to reach in Texas, but increasingly, those consumers are coming from outside the state.

In 2017, the Spanish wine and spirits firm Zamora Company bought an equity stake in Yellow Rose, which opened doors to international markets. Currently, 40 per cent of the distillery’s products go overseas. South Korea accounts for the brand’s largest international market, with Spain and Germany leading the charge in Europe.

Head north to Denison, Texas, near the Oklahoma border, and you’ll find Ironroot, named for the hearty local vines that helped to save the French wine and Cognac industry from phylloxera-induced destruction in the late 1800s. Founded by brothers Robert and Jonathan Likarish, the distillery opened in 2014. From the beginning, they made whiskey on site using heirloom and non-GMO corn from local farms, and today the brand’s portfolio includes a core bourbon line- up – Harbinger XC, Harbinger 115, and Promethean – augmented by a handful of limited releases.

When Ironroot started, it was common to see Texas whiskeys released after just six to 18 months in barrel, but Robert Likarish says age statements are going up across the state. As the reputation for local whiskey grows, distillers are incentivised to increase age and embrace grain-to-glass production methods. But they are eschewing a one-size-fits-all template, pushing boundaries and experimenting with what Texas whiskey can be.

Ironroot Republic was founded by the Likarish family

“Distillers come to Texas from all over the world and with all different backgrounds, so almost every style is made here,” says Likarish. This means unique mash bills, still types, and maturation processes, plus an ability to harness the diverse Texas weather, which varies greatly from the Panhandle to the Gulf coast. Consumers are taking note and realising that all Texas whiskeys aren’t the same.

Time matters, says Likarish, who notes how much the industry has changed in the last decade. “The recognition of Texas as a region is multitudes larger than it was when we got started, and investment in the state is growing. We’re just starting to see what this region can do.”

Compared to the relative old-guard Texas whiskey brands, Still Austin Whiskey Co. is a newer operation. The first distillery to open in Austin’s city limits, it began distilling less than six years ago. It turns Texas grains into bourbon, cask-strength bourbon and straight rye using a custom 42-foot Forsyth column still, and utilises a “slow water reduction” process, in which water is added incrementally during barrel ageing to balance out the flavour profile as the whiskey ages.

Still Austin’s chief operating officer Brandon Joldersma says these distinctions matter and help the brand to differentiate itself from the growing field of Texas whiskey makers. There’s room in the market for all types of products, but consumers are getting wiser and are interested in authenticity.

A closer look at Still Austin"s rye whiskey

“We have an opportunity like no other state to truly differentiate ourselves and to make Texas its own meaningful geographic whiskey region,” says Joldersma. “The grains are different here than those grown in other climates, and the way barrels age is noticeably different.”

Three miles away, Fierce Whiskers is preparing to enter the fray. The distillery put spirits into barrels in 2020 and will release its first straight rye whiskey in June 2023 followed by a straight bourbon in 2024. It will have to compete for shelf space with 100-plus Texas whiskeys, but will also benefit from the groundwork that’s already been laid.

Fierce Whiskers co-founder Tri Vo acknowledges the hard work that has built up the Texas whiskey category and is excited to help tell this regional story to the world. The distillery will do so with a tasting room, an outdoor space where visitors can hang out, and a five-storey rickhouse.

Despite the category becoming more crowded every day, Texas distillers show a unified belief that they’ve not yet scratched the surface. “The sky’s the limit for where we can go,” says Langan of Yellow Rose, noting how many distilleries are packed into Kentucky, a much smaller state.
Texas whiskeys have already proven they deserve a place at the table. The next step is codifying what, exactly, constitutes Texas whiskey. The Texas Whiskey Association is a member-established group that sprang forth as a way for local distillers to promote the category, educate consumers, and encourage truth and transparency in labelling. Part of that mission includes a certification seal. To earn the Certified Texas Whiskey status, a whiskey must be mashed, fermented, distilled, aged and bottled within the state.

Fierce Whiskers" bourbon and rye whiskeys

Members say that, until legal regulations set standards for what can and cannot be called Texas whiskey, this voluntary measure will help to separate the wheat from the chaff – or the compliant, Texas-made products from brands that are based in the state but produced elsewhere.

The Texas Whiskey Association also formed the Texas Whiskey Trail, which promotes distilleries across the state, with regional trails in North Texas, South Texas, the Hill Country and the Gulf Coast. It’s all part of the effort to further distinguish Texas whiskey as a category independent from other American whiskeys, one that’s represented by a diverse line-up of whiskey makers producing whiskey across a variety of styles, from bourbon and rye to single malts.

“We have a lot of eyeballs on us right now,” says Martini. “Consumers are realising that Texas whiskey is not the same as what’s made in Kentucky, and it’s not trying to be.”

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