Tate spent a year jerry-rigging a 2,500-square-foot former welding facility, fabricating his own copper stills. Two years on, the crowded room still has a ragtag feel: Tate's cell phone number is scribbled on a cooling tube, and rods from his weight benches are used as supports. A barrel filler is wrapped in aluminum foil.

Tate's distillery, tucked in the back corner of a dead-end service road, has become an obligatory stop for whiskey pilgrims.

"I think what people like is the show is not a show," Tate says. "We say, 'This is not the Jack Daniel's tour. Enter at your own risk. We're burning alcohol.'"

Ranger Creek founders (from top) Mark McDavid, TJ Miller and Dennis Rylander: Like all makers of aged whiskey, the men have a business plan that requires skill, patience and optimism.
Josh Huskin
Ranger Creek founders (from top) Mark McDavid, TJ Miller and Dennis Rylander: Like all makers of aged whiskey, the men have a business plan that requires skill, patience and optimism.
Ranger Creek brews beer now, but the
distillery's heart is the bourbon aging in oak barrels like this one. The bourbon won't begin flowing until 2013 at the earliest.
Josh Huskin
Ranger Creek brews beer now, but the distillery's heart is the bourbon aging in oak barrels like this one. The bourbon won't begin flowing until 2013 at the earliest.

The distillery's readying to move to a nearby 61,000-square-foot factory that will allow Balcones to meet the towering demand for its whiskeys. Just after Christmas, Balcones received an order from its distributor for eight pallets, or about 5,000 bottles. "And January's supposed to be dead," Tate says, shaking his head.

Paul Pacult, a spirits writer whose reviews are closely watched in the whiskey industry, last year awarded Balcones' Baby Blue his highest rating. "There's an entire universe of flavors," he raved in his Spirits Journal. "A craft distilling revelation!"

Tate, seated at a table set with dozens of barrel samples for taste testing, says: "I don't want fans. I want apostles."

"We're trying to create things that are new innovations within tradition," he continues. "We're trying to make a unique spirit for Texas."

That same creative spark flickers down at Ranger Creek, which is hoping to release a few small-barrel experiments later this year. "Mesquite-smoked porter whiskey gets us pretty jazzed up," says McDavid, who sees intriguing barrel possibilities in nearly every native Texas tree. But McDavid, 32, is bothered by the prospect of the state's distilling scene devolving into a constellation of mad liquor scientists sequestered in their own still houses. He believes the state's distillers need to band together for the sake of Texas whiskey.

That strategy has worked elsewhere. The Kentucky Distillers Association was formed in 1880, when 32 distillers convened in Louisville to fight "needless and obstructive laws" requiring them to pay higher taxes. Collegiality has been a hallmark of the bourbon industry ever since, Gregory says.

"While they're competitors, they're friends," Gregory says. "If one of their parts breaks down, they call the distillery down the road."

That fraternal ethos hasn't migrated to Texas, Owens says.

"The guys down in Texas are a little more competitive," he says.

Micro-distilling is forever being compared to microbrewing, which didn't exist until the 1980s. Like brewing, traditional distilling was decimated by Prohibition. Hundreds of distilleries that couldn't squeeze through the narrow loopholes carved out for makers of medicinal and sacramental spirits were shut down, but the survivors still produced high-quality goods, which wasn't necessarily the case with beer. When Samuel Adams and Sierra Nevada entered the beer market, the newcomers could pitch their ales as alternatives to Blatz and Miller Lite. Craft whiskey distillers have to contend with critically acclaimed bourbons such as Pappy Van Winkle.

"The big whiskey guys aren't making shit," McDavid says. "Their stuff is really good."

Microbrewers also had the advantage of being able to puzzle out better beers without alerting the authorities. "I've never met a brewer who wasn't a home brewer first," says Cathy Clark, organizer of Dallas Beer Week and Houston Beer Week. Home distilling is illegal, however, which makes it hard for amateurs to develop their skills.

Yet the most striking difference between the two genres is the secrecy which prevails in micro-distilling—particularly in Texas.

"The distilling industry doesn't seem as open and collegial as the brewing industry," McDavid says. "Look at yeast, for example. Brewers share yeast all the time. Distillers keep it under lock and key."

Texas whiskey makers are so cagey that none of them have visited all the other whiskey distilleries in the state, which meant most of them subtly pressed me for information I might have picked up along the Texas whiskey trail. "Dan blends, right?" one distiller said nonchalantly after learning I'd visited Garrison Brothers.

Perhaps it's because Ranger Creek doesn't yet have a product on the market or any trade secrets to protect, but its owners have been aggressive in reaching out to fellow whiskey makers. They downplay the sense of competition that pulses at other distilleries.

"Garrison's doing wheated bourbon, we're doing rye, and we've all got our own little niche, so it's working out great," McDavid says.

McDavid realizes collegiality has greater implications than the length of the distillery's Christmas card list. The tight-knit Kentucky bourbon community has successfully fought off crippling laws—including Prohibition—and created the phenomenally successful Kentucky Bourbon Trail, which attracts more than a quarter-million visitors annually. As McDavid points out, all of Texas' whiskey distilleries are within 90 miles of Austin. The state's wine sites annually collect $380 million from visitors, but tourist dollars could prove elusive for the craft liquor industry if distillers don't collaborate.

"We had two guys from Balcones down here," McDavid says. "We want to be more collaborative. If everyone takes the right collegial mentality, I think we're all going to be OK."

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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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