The Lone Star State is breathing new fire into its existing distillery boom.
Texas is a landmass tough to define. Large enough to contain several small countries, it’s geography morphs from bayous and islands, humidity, and crocodiles along the coast to central plains, hot, dusty desert valleys, and bright red plateaus. The lush, green Hill Country cities are fed by underground springs, and in the northernmost towns, a winter snap might bring a dusting of light snow. Texas is a staggering 266,807 square miles. It has three primary climates, more than a dozen secondary climates, and 50-degree temperature differences from summer to
A decade ago, someone stood and pondered the heat and the river-fed soil, the crashing ocean waves and that smell of salt and brine wafting on humid air. They didn’t think of farming, of rodeos or of cowboys. They thought of whiskey.
If you were to stand in Speyside, on a sunny day in Scotland, you’d find some striking similarities. Texas as a landmass is tough to define, but it sure as Hell can provide the climates needed to make a fine bottle of single malt. More than 15 distillers have discovered that fact over the last decade, and from wheat and rye, mash and fermentation, all the way to bottling, there are plenty of delectable, slow-sipping bottles coming right out of the Lone Star State.
These whiskies are so fine, in fact, you can now visit a brand-new Texas Whiskey Trail.
“The Texas Whiskey Association came first,” explains Whiskey Trail CEO (and Executive Director of the Association), Spencer Whelan. “We formed the Association last year, and the trail followed, as a wholly owned subsidiary. We had a pre-sale for membership in January, but we opened officially on Memorial Day 2019.”
There are 15 distillers currently, but by next year, more are set to join. To become an official member, a distiller must have at least one “certified” Texas whiskey. “You have to start with the grain, where you mill and mash, you must ferment and distill and bottle … all in Texas,” explains Whelan. “Every member must have at least one whiskey in their portfolio that meets these requirements, either in production or already for sale on the shelves. Every other spirit they make must be labeled to the highest TTB compliance. Because Texas is such an iconic place, because the state is in-and-of-itself a wonderous brand, we see a lot of distillers bottling outside of the state, bringing a spirit in and slapping a ‘Texas’ label on it. We want this trail and our association and our state to have the same kind of strict laws for quality and for origin that you would find in Kentucky on the Bourbon Trail.”
The Bourbon Trail is certainly easier to navigate in a few days. Given the size of Texas, the Association decided it was best to sub-group the participating distillers into three regions along the journey:
The Hill Country Trail features the most concentrated amount of distilleries. “It’s kind of the Speyside of Texas,” laughs Whelan. “You’ve got Garrison Brothers, Andalusia Whiskey Co., Crowded Barrel, and Ranger Creek, to name a few.” There are eight distilleries in this region, as well as the city of Austin, making it an eager choice for those looking to pop over for a weekend of whiskey and great music.
The North Texas Trail has another five distillers, including the large, long-running Balcones and Deep Elum. Dallas makes entry and departure a breeze, but you can get off the beaten track at places like Lone Elm, in Forney, Texas, where they harvest a unique, red winter wheat for fermentation.
“It’s important to us to show the rest of the world what Texas has to offer in spirits,” says Brandon Choate of Lone Elm Whiskey. “It shows everyone that Texas is the next geographical region for every spirit out there. Being part of an association where you can collaborate with your colleagues is important for us. Being part of an organization that allows the consumer to taste Texas from rain to grain shows the compassion we have towards our craft. We all just want to share Texas with the rest of the world.”
The Gulf Coast is the Trail’s southernmost and emerging region and Gulf Coast Distillers is set to be the largest distillery west of the Mississippi river. “We have a lot of on-coming members in that region,” says Whelan, who expects this to be the new destination for the coming year. Add in the fact that you can sleep off the hangover on a sugar-sand beach, and it’s a pretty appealing choice, too.
Distilling in the state is around 12 years old, post-Prohibition. The first to enter the serious, Texas-true whiskey game were Garrison Brothers and Balcones. Balcones is part of the North Texas Trail, and they came out with a corn whiskey as far back as 2007. Located in Waco, it gives visitors a chance to taste the state’s flagship single malt. It’s a category rife with options now. Garrison Brothers is in the Hill Country, and their Balmorhea Bourbon was named the Best Micro Whiskey of the Year by the prestigious Jim Murray’s Whiskey Bible for 2019.
But can you take to the trail in a single visit, stopping off at every distillery along the way? It’s answered in the affirmative. “My wife and I did the whole thing in 10 days,” says Whelan, “and it’s about 1,500 miles. There was another whiskey expert from YouTube who did it on a motorcycle. We are just about to have our first members complete the trail at this point, and one of our goals––beyond elevating our state’s amazing whiskey selection––is to give visitors completion bonuses.”
When you sign up to visit the Whiskey Trail, you can join certain tiers. The “Free Rider,” is, you guessed it, free. Yet, the Association awards you points for each place you visit, as well as those “completion bonuses,” and enough points can earn you fun swag, from hats to t-shirts, all the way up to limited-edition bottles. The second tier is The Maverick. It will set you back $55 annually, but you get twice the points and invites to special events. You also get free tours at this level at every distillery. For those truly in love with whiskey, The Trailblazer is a $110 annual commitment, but the points triple, as do the perks. You’ll receive a welcome pack, invites in your inbox, and distillery exclusives and private access.
“Our central Texas heat could mean a distiller loses most of a barrel to evaporation. That warm, moist, salty air from the Gulf creates unique spirits, just like it does in Scotland on the islands,” Whelan concludes. “This state makes whiskey that is so flavorful. It has high complexity, and it’s intense. When you come here and you taste it, you’ll understand why our favorite way to describe it is simply, ‘unabashedly Texan.’”
1. IRONROOT REPUBLIC
Prior to opening the distillery, the founders of IronRoot trained for years learning different styles of distilling before they fell in love with a French tradition. Part of that tradition is called elevage, the process of raising the spirits. After a barrel turns one year old, they begin tasting it every four to six months to analyze each barrel’s unique flavor until they decide it’s ready for bottling. Coincidentally, the city the distillery is located in, Denison, is the sister city to Cognac, France, and was hometown to viticulturist T.V. Munson. Munson famously helped save the French wine industry from being wiped out by phylloxera after supplying a hybrid grapevine with disease resistant Texas roots.
2. TAHWAHKARO DISTILLING CO.
Tahwahkaro is a family business. There isn’t a single person who works at the distillery who isn’t family. All take pride in making the finest whiskey out there. They mill, mash, ferment, distill, barrel, and bottle all under their roof. Not a single part of that process is farmed out to a third party. Smaller in size, they don’t have a grand tasting room, and they don’t have tour guides. This is exactly why you want to stop by. They treat their guests as family. When you visit, the head distiller, Justin Jackson will likely be tending to the still, but he always has time to step away and make new friends.
3. DEEP ELLUM DISTILLERY
Still aging whiskey and bottling it, Deep Ellum Distillery is about to debut their first whiskey with notes of chocolate and vanilla. Deep Ellum is dedicated to both the history of whiskey and Dallas. Deep Ellum is one of Dallas’ oldest neighborhoods and is known for its contributions to jazz and street art. By using locally grown Texas grain and traditional processes, they are creating whiskey that pays tribute to the history of the neighborhood. Visiting the distillery puts you right in the middle of one of the most vibrant areas in Dallas. Tours currently include vodka tastings, a local history lesson, and even your very own Glencairn glass.
4. LONE ELM
When it comes to whiskey, Bill Wofford and Brandon Choate know a thing or two. Located in Forney, Texas, Lone Elm produces its straight wheat whiskey from rain to grain. They bottle two impressive Texas spirits: a small batch, which is an everyday whiskey that is a dry-yet-fruity medium to full-bodied whiskey with an earthy finish and the highly sought after single barrel, which is a straight-from-the-barrel, thicker, chewier, higher-proof (cask strength) whiskey with hints of chocolate, dried fruit, black cherry, and black pepper. Stop by their family run distillery for a true country feel, and enjoy a glass in their copper laden tasting room.
5. BALCONES DISTILLING
Balcones’ head distiller, Jared Himstedt, has created a one of a kind flavor of honey, sweet cream, candied pecans, sandalwood, and leather with the distillery’s Texas Pot Still Bourbon. Every detail has been thoughtfully considered, from the flavor dense down to the way they filter the whiskey. With a list of ingredients featuring roasted Texas blue corn, Texas wheat, Texas rye, and Golden Promise malted barley, Balcones is delivering unexpected flavor complexity within a familiar bourbon taste profile. Stop by the distillery to see stills unlike any others on the planet. Texas-sized pot stills with other-worldly-looking coils reaching up three floors. It’s a sight to see.
6. TREATY OAK DISTILLING
The idea of Treaty Oak was born in 2005 when there were only three distilleries in Texas and less than 60 in the country. Founder Daniel Barnes saw a huge opportunity to create grain-to-glass products using ingredients from Texas and using techniques that are tried and true and some that are innovative. The distillery is a sight to see; set up on 28 acres of beautiful hill country terrain. Treat Oak Distillery is not only a distillery, but also a brewery, winery, event center, and restaurant. The restaurant features one of the top pit masters in Central Texas with a modern take on smoked meats and pickled sides. Family and pets are encouraged to visit. Also, enjoy live music on Saturdays.
7. GARRISON BROTHERS DISTILLERY
Garrison Brothers was the first legal whiskey distillery in Texas—breaking the misconception that bourbon is a Kentucky-specific product. Bourbon can be made anywhere in the USA, and why not in Texas? Their Texas roots have always been paramount at the distillery and that’s why everything from the rainwater used to proof the bourbon to each grain used in their mash bill is unapologetically Texan. Their distillery tour gives you a behind-the-scenes look at everything that goes into making bourbon, from selecting the grains to bottling. The best part is you get to meet the team, as well as sample bourbon, at every single step in the process including the ultra-alcoholic white-dog if you dare.
8. CROWDED BARREL WHISKEY CO.
Located in Austin, the distillery sits next to the Wizard Academy. It’s a tiny hamlet with a massive tribe of followers. As a matter of fact, it is the first crowd-sourced whiskey distillery. In a manner that is true to keeping Austin weird, the distillers respond eloquently when asked to describe their craft. “This whiskey kicks open the door like a roughneck wearing boots of black molasses. Sliding up to the bar a coin spins across the wood and buys a bottle. Patiently, a sip. Barrel char bitter and a worn leather satchel tug on memories of better days. “She was the best of me.” Silence falls over the room as it rises and fills a glass for everyone at the bar. Bottle empty, it glides out the door on a trail of mesquite-black and honey-gold.”
9. STILL AUSTIN WHISKEY CO.
Still is Austin’s urban whiskey distillery. Tour Still, and you will see a grain-to-glass distillery. They do it all in house: milling, mashing, fermenting, distilling, barreling, and bottling—all with the environment in mind. They conserve and reuse water, save energy with a specially designed still, and eliminate waste. One hundred percent of their spent grains go back to farms to be used as feed. Likewise, with their barrels, they’ve figured out how to use the weather to their advantage. The high heat, humidity, and shifting temperatures encourage spirits to move in and out of the oak, which are kept in a rickhouse in the country where they can benefit from the clean air. The result of all this care? Whiskey as consistent as its makers.
10. ANDALUSIA WHISKEY CO.
Celebrating Scottish and Irish distilling traditions, Andalusia distills their whiskey from grain to glass in Texas. Adding a touch of Texas, the distillers built a walk-in smokehouse where they smoke malted barley with peat or hardwoods such as oak, mesquite, peach, and applewood. The distillery sits on the formerly named Andalusia Ranch, a still-working sheep/cattle ranch in the picturesque Hill Country. Grab a cocktail, a leather chair, and settle in with a book in the onsite library. Or you can bring your furry friend and enjoy games on the outdoor covered patio. This distillery pairs perfectly with a backyard BBQ or a warm campfire and is a “must-stop” on the trail.
11. REAL SPIRITS DISTILLING CO.
Brad Farbstein, owner of Real Ale Brewing and Real Spirits Distilling, has always had a passion for whiskey as well as beer. So after 19 years of brewing some of the best beers found in Texas, he finally felt compelled to take the next step by making some of the best whiskey as well. He uses the same mash bills as Real Ale beers to make the whiskey. “The brewers make the beer the way they normally would minus the hops, and we then distill those beer mashes into whiskey,” says Farbstein. The beer and whiskey enjoy a symbiotic relationship mingling to create notes of vanilla, caramel, toffee, and cinnamon. Also, when you visit the distillery you will have the opportunity to tour the brewery as well.
12. RANGER CREEK BREWING AND DISTILLING
As San Antonio’s award-winning “brewstillery,” Ranger Creek handcrafts beer and whiskey made with lots of attention to detail and loaded with Texas attitude. It offers an award-winning Texas bourbon, single malt and rye whiskey, all grain-to-glass spirits made in small batches using Texas ingredients. The popular brewstillery tour is essentially two tours in one. You’ll learn how they make beer and bourbon. This intimate, immersive experience includes a detailed guided tour, a souvenir pint glass, and three samples. In addition, Ranger Creek offers a Whiskey Club, where the inner circle of Texas Whiskey enthusiasts can enjoy innovative whiskey releases every quarter.
13. BEN MILAM DISTILLERY
Milam & Greene is for whiskey fans as serious about taste as they are about the people who create it. The team openly embraces the lost, yet magnificent, art of blending, batching, finishing, and maturing. While some distillers shy away from blending, Milam & Greene love it. It’s a craft in and of itself. They promise to deliver the very best of the total American whiskey experience: American grains, exquisite limestone filtered water, pristine casks, a passionate team, and a dash of the wild Texas climate. Visitors to the distillery can meet Master Distiller Marlene Holmes, who spent 27 years working in the most powerful Kentucky whiskey houses. She’ll share with you what makes Texas such a special place for making whiskey.
14. MKT DISTILLERY
MKT Distillery embraces the long history of Katy, Texas, and brings that flavor profile to its whiskeys. The distillery is built in old local rice dryers, preserving the history of Katy for the future. They use only Texas-grown corn and barley and add locally grown Katy rice to the mix. Additionally, the use of local Katy filtered water to proof down their spirits gives their whiskeys a flavor that can only come from Katy. Open to enthusiasts and families alike, the distillery hosts local musicians, sodas for the kids, welcomes pets, and features games for all. Another unique addition is their cigar lounge set comfortably under vintage metal rice dryers. Visit MKT, and create a history of your own.
15. GULF COAST
With a mash bill of ingredients carefully developed by David Pickerell, Gulf Coast guarantees to distill world-class whiskey. Using the hot south Texas air to “hot box” their whiskey for six months followed by a cooler and much longer aging process in concrete warehouses, the distillery produces bold whiskies with strong personalities. Rich in patriotic history, the distillery was originally the first Uncle Ben’s rice mill facility in the mid 1940s and sent rice to feed soldiers fighting during WW2. Gulf Coast is now focused on creating the largest distillery in Texas giving their customers an authentic Texan whiskey, for the right price, that delivers an adventure of flavors.
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