Distillers who equate "craft" with "creative" sometimes claim the regulations governing bourbon are too confining, but the decision to forgo bourbon usually comes down to money. Even a modest bourbon distilling set-up costs more than a decent college education. A single empty barrel, for example, retails for about $250.

The economics of bourbon tend to confound potential investors, who shrink from waiting years for profits while the whiskey ages. Once bourbon's in the barrel, distilleries can't do much but sell souvenir shot glasses, dabble in an alternate alcohol such as beer or vodka and hope whatever comes out when the barrels are tapped will sell. Banks aren't enticed by the bourbon business either: Since laws forbid them from taking possession of liquor, they can't collateralize a distillery's tens of thousands of dollars worth of mellowing bourbon whiskey. With their cash flow effectively dammed, bourbon makers get in the habit of calling their accountants before writing checks.

"That's an interesting scheme," an inquisitive visitor to Garrison Brothers told Dan Garrison after he outlined how long it takes to put a bourbon on the shelf. "You work six years indentured."

Balcones founder Chip Tate, highly regarded in the whiskey industry for creativity, doesn't do bourbon.
"We're trying to do something that will appeal to the
traditional spirits drinker, but also be different. It's like the color purple," he says.
Mike Mezeul
Balcones founder Chip Tate, highly regarded in the whiskey industry for creativity, doesn't do bourbon. "We're trying to do something that will appeal to the traditional spirits drinker, but also be different. It's like the color purple," he says.
Employee at Waco’s Balcones Distilling plant tests a whiskey sample.
MIKE MEZEUL
Employee at Waco’s Balcones Distilling plant tests a whiskey sample.

"Everyone told me my business plan was insane," Garrison replies with a laugh.

Yet Garrison pressed ahead with plans to make bourbon: Garrison Brothers last fall released its 2008 vintage, selling out its entire 300-case run from Fredericksburg-area liquor stores in less than two weeks. The distillery this spring bottled another 728 cases, set to go on sale around Austin and San Antonio this week.

Garrison was quick to snap up the "first and oldest legal whiskey distillery in Texas" slogan, but he's not alone in the statewide bourbon arena. Ranger Creek's already distilling and the makers of Treaty Oak Platinum Rum in Austin have announced plans to release a bourbon in 2015.

"We believe bourbon is the right whiskey for Texas," Ranger Creek co-founder Mark McDavid says. "Our goal isn't to get people to stop drinking Kentucky bourbon. We drink the heck out of it. Our goal is to figure out what Texas bourbon should be."

Despite Owens' warnings, craft distillers are developing bourbons in other states too. In Wyoming, Bourbon Hall of Famer and former Maker's Mark master distiller Steve Nally is in charge of the Wyoming Whiskey project. Washington is home to Woodinville Whiskey, a distillery that has secured the consulting services of Dave Pickerell, another former Maker's Mark master distiller. But Texas is emerging as a regional center of craft aged whiskey-making—and perhaps the only significant bourbon scene that doesn't trace its lineage to Kentucky.

"Texas is a leader, that's all," Owens says. "These guys are role models."

Corporate distilleries so thoroughly dominate the liquor trade that Owens' grandest ambition is for craft spirits of all styles to capture 1 percent of the $46 billion industry. Nobody has yet compiled statistics on craft spirit sales, but the major players don't appear worried. When asked whether Kentucky distillers were concerned about out-of-state competition, Eric Gregory, president of the Kentucky Distillers Association, gave a hearty tycoon's laugh.

"We are the birthplace of bourbon," Gregory pronounced proudly. "Ninety-five percent of bourbon comes from Kentucky. We have a heritage we don't think anyone can replicate."

The vast majority of American whiskey is still made at 13 Southeastern distilleries owned by eight international conglomerates. According to custom, bourbon comes from Kentucky outfits with company histories dating back decades.

But Texas bourbon makers believe the state is uniquely positioned to challenge Kentucky's liquor cabinet supremacy. While McDavid's contention that Texas will eventually take a spot alongside Ireland, Scotland and Canada on the world's list of great whiskey-making regions may sound preposterous now, Texas has advantages that bolster its standing as the site of an incipient whiskey rebellion.

Bourbon is made from grain and water, but the drink's most important ingredient is time. As the weather changes, barreled whiskey cycles in and out of the wood surrounding it, a process that creates color and flavor. In Kentucky, where it's cold in winter and warm in summer, whiskey spends more time sitting than cycling. But the schedule is different in Texas, where a day's high and low temperatures might be separated by 40 degrees. The Texas climate fast-forwards whiskey aging so profoundly that Garrison claims he can reproduce the character of a 12-year Kentucky bourbon in two years. He supplements the weather's natural rhythms by using 15-gallon barrels instead of the standard 53-gallon. The undersized barrels increase the area where whiskey touches wood.

"You get a lot of flavor," agrees Mike Veach, a member of the Bourbon Hall of Fame and the nation's only professional bourbon historian. "And then you spend four or five years trying to get rid of it. A friend of mine describes it as small-barrel bourbon. It has a lot of wood tannins, but it doesn't have the caramels and vanillas you get with time."

Texas doesn't have the monopoly on weather extremes, but it does possess a healthy corn crop, making the state one of the few places where distilleries can fashion a "local" product from homegrown corn and erratic weather.

Another Lone Star advantage is water from the state's limestone aquifers, similar to Kentucky's. The same minerals that account for the notorious thickness of Hill Country coffee make good bourbon, Garrison explains.

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6 comments
Fawleyjude
Fawleyjude

Well, you can drink a whiskey just because it comes from Texas if you want to, but I'm not going to pay inflated prices or settle for inferior product just to satisfy someone's notion of "Texas pride". If some local guys come up with something that's compelling enough to draw me away from the Van Winkle, then I'll consider it. But they've barely gotten started, hardly enough of a track record to justify all the bragging.

busterkeaton
busterkeaton

Ancient Age, is the best bourbon for the money(very little dinero needed)! So, take that bourbon snobs!

Catbird
Catbird

Take my word for it T.J. Miller ( Ranger Creek) comes from a family heritage full of West Virginia moonshiners. It must be in the blood.

Scott Campbell
Scott Campbell

Without ever tasting a drop I drove to Austin to get a bottle of Garrison Brothers Bourbon last week just after it was released. In fact, the store had not even put it on the shelves and would only sell me 1 bottle. It was worth it.

Fawleyjude
Fawleyjude

It's not bad for the price. You might want to give Buffalo Trace a try sometime--same price range, same distillery, good stuff, but different character.

 
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