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The Bold Places and People Shaping Texas Whiskey

Worn leather cowboy boots, cream-colored Stetson hats, and wide-open desert space dappled with cacti—these are visions of Texas in the mind’s eye. But there’s much more to the Lone Star State, including a dynamic whiskey scene. The ties to whiskey are not deep, as distilling arrived here just over 15 years ago. Yet even as a newcomer, Texas is rapidly building its whiskey credentials as distilleries become firmly rooted across the state, creating a colorful patchwork of styles and flavors.

A key part of the picture in Texas is its multifaceted climate. Roughly the same size as France, it has a landscape that’s nearly as varied. In Texas Hill Country west of Austin, dense forests, wildflower fields, and sparkling blue lakes see extreme temperature swings—daily averages can vary from 42°F to 95°F over the course of a year. In the southern reaches of Texas, sweltering humidity creates tropical conditions all year, thanks to proximity to the Gulf of Mexico. By the northern borders, you’ll find cooler temperatures, more rainfall, and grassy plains. Desert land stretches for miles in the west, while the eastern terrain features piney forests and swamps. But one constant everywhere is heat—the coolest parts of the state are still far more scorching than nearly any other whiskey-producing region in America.

Beyond the climate factors, sheer creativity and a mindset for the big and the bold—the Texan way—are at the forefront of this exploding whiskey scene. Experimentation with mashbills, barrel sizes, and finishes is vibrant across the state. Overall, it’s safe to say Texas is making whiskey as spiritedly as it does everything else.

Leaning Into the Heat

Because of that intense heat, maturation times in Texas are far shorter than elsewhere. Moreover, the temperature swings from day to night can vary by as much as 50 degrees. In the town of Hye, nestled in Hill Country, Garrison Brothers Distillery contends with such temperature shifts every day. Founded in 2006, Garrison Brothers launched its first whiskey in 2010. Head distiller Donnis Todd has been there since the early days, and says the learning curve was steep. “It took me about a decade to really understand how different the liquid in the barrel can taste because of how much we lose to the angels’ share,” he notes. “We had to figure out how to reel in the liquid and determine its profile and sweet spot. Each barrel size does have a dedicated sweet spot, and at a certain point you’ll start getting a negative return.”

For Garrison Brothers, the maturation sweet spot for its flagship Small Batch bourbon is about 3 years, though the blend does contain some older whiskey. At 47% alcohol by volume (ABV), Small Batch packs a heated punch, and its dark amber color foreshadows the rich aromas that follow on the nose. But Todd believes the potential for just how long Texas whiskeys can age remains to be explored, and Garrison Brothers recently climbed the age ladder with the release of an 8 year old bourbon.

At Treaty Oak Distilling, a Hill Country distillery located 20 miles west of Austin, palletizing barrels has proven effective in mitigating intense heat. In the distillery’s 5,000-square-foot metal storage building, there is no climate control in place—just big bay doors on either end of the warehouse. Around 3,000 barrels of the distillery’s Ghost Hill bourbon are resting here, standing on wooden pallets and stored vertically. “Palletizing has created this thermal mass—on an 85º day, you can walk into the rickhouse and it’ll be 15 to 20 degrees cooler,” says Jamie Biel, Treaty Oak’s director of science and sustainability. “So, instead of the burying-underground method, we’ve created this massive pool of liquid with that super-high specific heat, and it’s reduced the angels’ share from 24% to closer to 12%, or even 10% loss.” Such concentrated heat lends itself to concentrated flavors, with a bouquet of aromas wafting from a glass of Ghost Hill.

About 100 miles north of Austin is Waco, home to a familiar name in Texas whiskey: Balcones. Founded in 2008, Balcones Distilling was an early mover in the state’s whiskey story—and is perhaps its most creative player, using ingredients like blue corn and Texas-grown malted barley, as well as techniques like smoking whiskey with Texas scrub oak (for its Brimstone label). Head distiller Jared Himstedt has long studied how the Waco climate impacts his whiskeys. “Temperature swing has always been an issue—whether to dig into it or combat it,” Himstedt says. “Some people choose to refrigerate, or climate control and humidify [their warehouses]. But we’ve chosen not to treat [the heat] like a problem. We’ve put in the time to understand what it does to our whiskey, so we can partner with [the climate] in the best way possible.”

Balcones Distillery in Waco, Texas.

Diageo’s purchase of Davos Brands, which has a partnership with Balcones, may result in changes down the road for the Waco, Texas-based distillery. (Photo courtesy of Balcones Distilling)

The Balcones warehouse and distillery are right in downtown Waco, in the old Texas Fireproof Storage Co. building—a landmark site that was wholly redesigned between 2015 and 2016 to better house state-of-the-art equipment, a blending room, and more. While the distillery stores a vast number of standard 53-gallon barrels within its rickhouse, experimentation with new techniques, like aging in larger barrels, has consequently added some diversity to the maturation mix. In May, the distillery filled its first round of 500-liter (132 gallons) virgin oak barrels with bourbon and rye as part of an experiment to determine whether 8, 10, or 12 year old whiskeys can be made in Texas, even amid the intense heat and humidity.

Down south, in the balmier Houston metro area, sea breezes from the Gulf Coast offer mild reprieves from sweltering heat and humidity, but certainly don’t spare the aging whiskey from critical evaporation. Yet the region’s few distillers are grateful for their climate. “The extreme evaporation that occurs here accelerates what kind of chemical reactions, like oxidation, can happen inside the barrel,” says Houston Farris, head distiller at Yellow Rose. “As the volume in the barrel goes down, we get an increased surface area for oxidization, and we get earlier access to developing flavors than a cooler climate would.” Yellow Rose’s flagship bourbon, Outlaw, loses around 15% of its volume to the angels’ share per year; the flavors of the whiskey are heavily influenced by this, creating rich notes of dessert-like sweetness.

Still Austin Whiskey Co., located in Austin proper, has been making whiskey since 2016. With the help of master blender and consultant Nancy Fraley, the distillery developed a “slow water reduction” technique, wherein small amounts of water are added to the barrels during the maturation process. “This process has helped us work with our weather, which tends to speed up maturation. Instead we can slow it down, which gives us more time to bring out everything that our region and weather can do and create in the barrel,” says Still Austin CEO and co-founder Chris Seals. “We’re working with our weather—a lot of other distilleries mature their barrels in our region, but don’t have a proactive, hands-on approach like this.”

Still Austin uses “slow water reduction,” wherein small amounts of water are added to the barrels during the maturation process.

Field-to-Glass

While distillers apply various techniques in dealing with the Texas climate, one element the distillers do control is the grain they take from the soil. For some, the crops of choice have helped narrow the focus on what whiskeys to make—bourbon is a no-brainer, thanks to the wealth of corn grown throughout the state, though single malts, wheat whiskeys, and ryes also abound.

At Ironroot Republic Distilling, 70 miles north of Dallas, heirloom corn is used for much of the output, which includes corn whiskeys, bourbons, and American whiskeys. “We’ve distilled well over 17 [corn] varietals, and our Harbinger bourbon has at least three different heirloom corns in every blend,” says president and co-founder Robert Likarish. The latest release includes four types of corn—purple, Bloody Butcher, flint, and non-GMO yellow dent—as well as rye. Given that Harbinger’s mashbill has a higher percentage of corn, the bourbon’s flavor profile is more honeyed, with notes of maple syrup and marmalade. Ironroot has also played around with plenty of single barrels that spotlight specific heirloom corn varietals, like Oaxacan green and Black Aztec.

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Also in North Texas, Five Points Distilling’s Lone Elm whiskeys are focused on another category entirely: wheat. “We didn’t want to copy Kentucky and make bourbon; we wanted to make something that was uniquely Texas,” says co-owner and head distiller Bill Wofford. Lone Elm wheat whiskeys are heavy in cherry, chocolate, and vanilla flavors, and are the “antithesis of corn bourbon,” argues Wofford. The distillery gets all of its wheat from local farmers, supplementing its blends with Texas-grown rye and corn as well.

Elsewhere in North Texas, Tahwahkaro Distilling Company—whose unusual name is inspired by an indigenous term meaning “bend in the river”—sets its bourbon apart with a four-grain mashbill. “When we started the distillery, we wanted to make a solid bourbon, but with a difference,” says co-owner Justin Jackson. “One of my partners likes smooth wheated whiskey or scotch, and I like high-rye whiskeys. I wanted to blend those two palates together, and that’s where the four-grain mashbill came about, with equal portions of wheat and rye.” Tahwahkaro’s bourbon also includes rye malt, which Jackson notes changes the flavor profile completely. “It makes it a lot more savory and complex, with dark chocolate notes and a delicious breadiness,” he adds.

At Tahwahkaro Distilling Co. (co-owner Justin Jackson pictured), bourbon is made with a four-grain mashbill.

The Texas Way

Beyond Mother Nature’s influence, conversations about what really defines the state’s whiskeys continue. Does it simply have to have a Texas name stamped on the bottle, or should it be entirely farm-to-glass? The Texas Whisky Association states that those whiskeys must all be mashed, fermented, distilled, aged, and bottled in Texas. The grains can come from elsewhere (though these days, more distillers are choosing to source most, if not all grains from within the state), but all aspects of production must be done exclusively in Texas.

“The most exciting part of Texas whiskey right now is the significant collaboration that’s happening among all us Texas distillers; we’ve created a standard for quality and a standard for identification of the whiskey,” says Carlos de Aldecoa, CEO and president of Houston-based Gulf Coast Distillers. “We’re all looking at this long-term, to protect our whiskeys and be sure that people know that true Texas-made products have extremely high quality standards.” Gulf Coast not only has its own range of whiskeys, including Longhorn bourbon and rye, but it also contract distills whiskey for other producers in the state, enabling it to keep production wholly Texas-based.

While this definition has helped cement a clearer idea of what Texas whiskey is, distillers are still free to apply creativity by tapping into Lone Star terroir, like using mesquite-smoked grains or proprietary yeast strains. Visit Andalusia Whiskey Co. in Blanco, and aside from the familiar smells of a farm—the distillery is based on what was once called Andalusia Ranches, and is still a working ranch today—you’ll likely get a whiff of something smoky, with hints of mesquite, apple, oak, and charcoal. That’s from the distillery’s smokehouse, which was built on-site after years of experimentation with how to best smoke whiskey. Andalusia focuses on single malt whiskeys, an homage to Scotland, but the distillery’s Stryker label is an entirely Texas take on the style.

“We’re taking a classic style of whisky—smoky scotch—and bringing it home to Texas,” says Ty Phelps, head distiller. Instead of peat smoke, we’re using barbecue woods, and it’s aged in new barrels, which plays toward the American palate.” While Stryker is the smokiest of Andalusia’s whiskeys, Phelps is looking forward to the release of an even smokier version. Where the flagship Stryker features only 10% smoked malt, making it moderately smoky (though far more than anything else the distillery offers), the new release will be made with a mashbill of 60% smoked malt—good news for smoke lovers.

Mesquite smoking at Ranger Creek Brewing and Distilling.

Within an industrial park in downtown San Antonio, the scent of smoldering grains sometimes emanates from Ranger Creek Brewing and Distilling’s smokehouse, housed within a 20-foot shipping container. Like Andalusia’s Stryker, Ranger Creek’s smoky whiskey, Rimfire, is a single malt featuring mesquite-smoked grains. Over the course of a week, the distillery will smoke a few thousand pounds of grain, repeating the process every three months. “If I think about Texas whiskey, Rimfire is really it,” says Ranger Creek co-founder Dennis Rylander. “The Texas mesquite gives it a lighter hand of smoke, compared to heavily peated scotch. It’s balanced with chocolate and coffee malt flavors, and it’s uniquely Texas.”

There are still other ways Texans are putting their stamp on whiskey. “We really wanted to have a wild Texas yeast to make our bourbon and ryes with,” says Firestone & Robertson head distiller Rob Arnold. “In Kentucky, the heritage brands have proprietary strains that were isolated by their founders decades ago, in some cases even pre-Prohibition. We wanted to tap into that idea.” So, the distillery ended up with a wild yeast that came from a pecan Rob found beneath a tree on a ranch in Glen Rose, Texas.

“From the beginning, the idea was to tap into local ingredients and see what the surrounding land could provide for flavor,” adds Arnold. The distillery, like many of its peers, sources all its grains from a single farmer—John Sawyer of Sawyer Farms in Hill Country—bypassing the commodity market. By doing so, they’ve been able to work with grains that aren’t so common in the state—namely barley and rye. That has allowed them to run the gamut of whiskey styles, though the focus is largely on bourbon.

Having been in the game since the beginning, Balcones is now well-versed in experimentation and stretching the bounds of what Texas whiskey can be. Himstedt is exploring open and spontaneous fermentations, different barrel finishes, new grain varietals, and more. Some of the distillery’s latest releases—Lineage included, which was No. 17 in Whisky Advocate’s 2020 Top 20—are finding fans from all whisky walks of life, and Himstedt looks forward to the future. “There’s a fun aspect to the culture of whiskey making here,” he says. “It sounds clichéd to throw these words out because we’re talking about Texas whiskey, but there is a kind of trailblazing, a ‘make your own way’ mentality. Most people aren’t keen on doing something that’s been done before, and everyone wants to put their own stamp on it.”

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