"We don't have to do anything to it," he says, beaming.

Ranger Creek's McDavid and Miller are equally fond of Texas water, but suspect Texas bourbon's success will turn on more abstract concepts. They dismiss bourbon from northern states on the grounds that it just doesn't sound right.

"When you hear about New York bourbon, it doesn't worry you," McDavid says.

Dozens of samples from different barrels are drawn for tasting and testing before blending.
Mike Mezeul
Dozens of samples from different barrels are drawn for tasting and testing before blending.
A copper still (top) towers inside the Ranger Creek Distillery in San Antonio.
Josh Huskin
A copper still (top) towers inside the Ranger Creek Distillery in San Antonio.

"North Dakota bourbon doesn't resonate," Miller adds.

Yet Texas bourbon has a ring to it. Bourbon has never been produced in Texas, according to Veach's archives, but the state is yoked to whiskey in the popular imagination. As far back as 1880, the Boston Post mocked Texans' whiskey-drinking ways.

"A mean man put sixteen hornets in a whiskey bottle and gave it to a Texas man, in the dark, to take a drink," the paper recounted. "Though the hornets got their work in as they went down, the Texan remarked that it wasn't real Texas whiskey, as it lacked fire."

Contemporary Texans may not swagger about in cowboy boots, six-shooters pinned to their hips, but they're still among the top buyers of Kentucky bourbon. When McDavid and Miller toured Kentucky distilleries on a reconnaissance trip, their guides all tipped their hats to the Lone Star State. Texans are a thirsty bunch, and just like that hornet-guzzling forefather, they often put Texas pride before their taste buds.

"The loyalty we have here is unmatched," says Mike Cameron, co-founder and president of Rebecca Creek Distillery, which plans to release a single malt whiskey next spring. "It's just the way we are, we're so prideful. Look, 95 percent of Texas wine is drunk in Texas. That tells you that whether it's good or bad, we're going to drink it."

That alone might worry established bourbon producers, who have millions of Texas customers. What's perhaps more daunting is how well Texas' leading whiskey distillers—unified by little more than a collective lack of experience in the liquor industry and a propensity to adorn their bottles with Texas stars—have arrayed themselves to take advantage of the situation.

According to a discredited legend, a Baptist minister inadvertently invented bourbon in the 1790s when his distillery burned down. Elijah Craig was too thrifty to discard his charred barrel staves, so he turned their toasted sides inward. The whiskey he stored in the barrels was so sweet and smooth when it reached New Orleans that charring became accepted whiskey-making procedure.

The story's hogwash, but it sums up the importance of ingenuity in whiskey making. Generations of distillers have toyed with grain mixtures, stave curvature and still-house design. Good whiskey demands creativity.

In Texas, the resident fount of new ideas is Chip Tate, a highly regarded whiskey distiller in Waco who doesn't make bourbon. (In fleeting moments of pique, though, he's thought about doing so just to show he could.) A few whiskey drinkers speculate certain bottlings of his blue corn whiskey could be classified as bourbon if he sought the designation, but that wouldn't suit his contrarian streak.

"We got a bunch of corn samples," Tate says, recalling how blue corn came to be Balcones Distilling's house grain. "You start with 2,000 to 3,000 pounds of corn and bake them in bread. It's pretty indicative of what you're going to get. I was almost disappointed it was blue corn, because blue corn's so sexy. I wanted to say, 'Screw y'all with your fancy corn. I use Jiffy Pop.'"

Instead, Tate ended up with a traditional Hopi product that "brings out a whole different depth of corn." Balcones' signature Baby Blue whiskey is so rich that first-time tasters often ask Tate where he gets his butter. The distillery also produces True Blue, an uncut, cask-strength whiskey; Rumble, a genteel-tasting aged blend of sugar, honey and figs; and a pair of single malts.

"At our size you've got to be different," Tate says. "I'm not saying I won't ever do bourbon, but the whole genesis was to do an anti-bourbon. It's interesting how little bourbon has to do with the corn that goes into it."

Tate's products don't fit neatly into any of the alcohol categories delineated in the U.S. Federal Code, and he frequently corrects drinkers who refer to his whiskeys as bourbon or moonshine.

"It takes them a long time to accept the concept," he admits. "We're trying to do something that will appeal to the traditional spirits drinker, but also be different. It's like the color purple."

Tate frequently lapses into artistic metaphors, damning corporate-made whiskeys as the alcoholic equivalent of Thomas Kinkade paintings and explaining he doesn't use a column still—the lanky still popular with vodka makers—because "it's like trying to paint with a razor. For a straight line, it's precise, but for texture, you need a brush." But the artist in his household is his wife, a college math instructor who paints nudes. Tate worked in nuclear engineering before he moved to Waco and decided to open a distillery under a bridge.

"I was hellbent," Tate says. "There were about three weeks between getting serious about it and doing it."

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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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