The Battle of Texas' Whiskey Makers and Fakers

Texas' craft-booze industry is booming, but can it stave off the "Made in Texas" fakers?

Still, more than 100 years later, the origins of a bottle of whiskey can still be a bit murky, and a bit controversial.

Take the whiskey called 1835, which is bottled by North Texas Distillers in Lewisville. The name is a salute to the year settlers in Gonzales stood their ground against Mexican troops in what is historically considered the start of the Texas Revolution. The label also reads, "Come and take it," on both the back and front, along with a picture of the iconic cannon that was the seed of the conflict. The words "Texas Made" are printed front and center on the label.

It's unlikely that a single speck of Texas, much less the battle of 1835, is actually in any of those bottles. Stretching the term "Made in Texas," the drink is a blend of whiskeys, most or all of them likely from Kentucky, and is only bottled in Texas. The highly astute label reader or whiskey aficionado would be able to discern this, but the average consumer might not. Despite all the Texas banter, the label lacks one key word that is all-telling: "distilled."

Dan Garrison of Garrison Brothers Distillery in Hye.
Courtesy of Garrison Brothers
Dan Garrison of Garrison Brothers Distillery in Hye.
Following tradition, Herman Marshall Whiskey's mash is fermented in open-top cypress tanks before its trip to the still.
Can Turkyilmaz
Following tradition, Herman Marshall Whiskey's mash is fermented in open-top cypress tanks before its trip to the still.

Federal regulations tell a whiskey maker what it can and can't put on its labels. The most important line in the pages and pages of codes unequivocally explains that distillers can use the word "distilled" on a bottle only if they physically distilled the product in its entirety at their facility. If a company does anything else — bottle, blend, package, produce or lovingly coddle — but does not actually create original whiskey from the corn up, they are not allowed to use the verb "distilled" on the label.

Texas Silver Star Spirit Whiskey is another blend from Lewisville, also bottled by North Texas Distillers. It contains 20-percent grain neutral spirits. The back label explains the whiskey is "a tribute to the Texas cowboy of the Chisholm Trail and is meticulously hand-crafted using nothing but the finest ingredients and aged to perfection."

There's no way to know where it's actually distilled.

"There's certainly nothing wrong, per se, with buying a spirit from another producer whether you blend or just bottle," says Charles Cowdery, author of Bourbon, Straight: The Uncut and Unfiltered Story of American Whiskey. "Most of the talk about blending is itself a smokescreen. Most people who resell spirits made by someone else do little more than put it in a bottle."

Cowdery doesn't see anything wrong with these bottlers, as long as they're forthcoming.

"People who make anything from scratch will usually say so straight out. Anyone who doesn't, or who weasel-words it, probably does not," he says.

While some are obviously weasel-wording by romanticizing Texas history, others shoot straight. Leonard Firestone and Troy Robertson of Firestone and Robertson Distilling Co. in Fort Worth met through their kids' playgroup, then spent years researching craft distilling. They traveled the world, studying different methods and dissecting flavor profiles. When they got serious, they had a proprietary wild yeast strain developed by their head distiller, Rob Arnold, who holds a master's degree in biochemistry with a concentration in microbial fermentation and analytical chemistry.

For now, Firestone and Robertson are patiently waiting for their house-made craft whiskey, which was barreled two years ago, to mature. In the meantime, they created a blend called TX Blended Whiskey, which won double gold medals and Best in Class in the category of American Craft Whiskey at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition this year. The back of the label of reads: "We value two things: true craftsmanship and excellent whiskey. That's why we blend and bottle ..."

Cameron, of Rebecca Creek in San Antonio, defends his product's provenance, and says the amount of GNS mixed into his spirit "is far less than many of the major whiskey brands that are currently sold in Texas. The majority of all whiskey producers use GNS for back blending, so the practice is not uncommon." (Says Cowdery, "There is no GNS in straight bourbon nor in any other straight whiskey. Ever. None. Not a drop.")

Besides, Cameron says, it all comes down to taste. "Does it taste good? Do consumers enjoy drinking Rebecca Creek Spirit Whiskey? Is Rebecca Creek Spirit Whiskey reasonably priced? The answer to all three of these questions is, 'Absolutely.' We are selling every bottle we can make and it's now available in five states."

But the state's distillers are watching closely to make sure the blenders follow the law to the letter.

"If there's anything but the exact letters 'distilled by,' then they didn't make it," says Tate of Balcones. "They bought it, maybe they blended it, then a lot of times they hire a guy like me to help them with it. It's a branding opportunity. Does that piss me off as a craft distiller? Yeah. I can't think of a person I've told that they weren't like, 'What?' People actually do care."


Dallas County's first distillery was born out of a chance meeting at a Starbucks 12 years ago. Marshall Louis had a long history in the fine spirits business. Herman Beckley — scientist, historian and distiller — had always been a whiskey geek. They discovered their shared passion by chance, and have quietly been making whiskey ever since. Recently, they finally decided to roll out their products at the retail level, after their Texas Bourbon Whiskey won a silver medal at the American Distilling Institute Competition in the category of straight bourbon.

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8 comments
Steve
Steve

Are you seriously using the word "fakers" at all in this piece?

Wade Woodard
Wade Woodard

Lauren you did a great job with this article.  The fakers have long been one of my pet peeves.  Part of the problem lies with the TTB; our federal government has laws about labeling and technical if whiskey is distilled one state and bottled in another, then both states are to be listed on the label.  The enforcement of said law is spotty at best.  Liquor labels also have to be approved by the State of Texas as well to be sold here, so I also blame our State.

My other pet peeve is Spirit Awards.  IMHO, these competitions are nothing but pay for play advertising.  The largest of the bunch is the San Francisco World Spirits Competition.  The last 'award' list from them was 38 pages long and had more winners than products competing (some products entered in multiple categories).  

Tito's is still bragging in commercials about an award they 'won' back in 2001 at the San Francisco Spirits Competition. He fails to mention that 2 other Vodkas also 'won' double gold at same award show and another Vodka was named best.  Speaking of Fakers, has anybody been to Tito's and seen his fermenting tanks?  If you are not fermenting your product, exactly how does one have anything to distill?

mcdavid1
mcdavid1

Great article, Lauren.  Cheers to the Dallas Observer for having the guts to call out the fakers.  Texans are too proud of their state to put up with inauthentic marketers parading around as whiskey makers.  Drink local, and educate yourself about what you're drinking!  Thanks for helping Texans get more educated.

scottindallas
scottindallas topcommenter

"6 score and several hangovers..."  120+ years?  if you wanna make cute turns of phrase, at least know what you're saying

gmit
gmit

@Wade Woodard  

I was wondering how so suddenly we had all these "Texas" Spirits on the shelves, now given that more than half are fakes I know, and sounds like these spirit makers are just following the lead of some of the bogus "Texas" winemakers & specifically the GO TEXAN branding, which has been discussed at length on that other DFW food blog.

Localism is getting turned into modern day snake oil, Hey I was offered "local coffee" at the CM, LOCAL COFFEE !!!!!  My cotton T-shirt is more local than my coffee 

   

khaslbauer
khaslbauer

@scottindallas - I think the point was that 120+ hangovers were endured in the process of coming up with the unique spirits offered by Balcones Distilling. I hate to be this guy, but if you want to snark about cute turns of phrase, at least polish up your reading comprehension skills first.

scottindallas
scottindallas topcommenter

This was a fine article, the cutesy "6 score" added nothing but confusion.  Again, good reporting and writing, save the one silly and pointless sin

Wade Woodard
Wade Woodard

@gmit I'll give some credit to the true Texas craft distillers, the ones who products are grain to glass (fermentation, distillation, aging, bottling) all done in state - Balcones, Garrison Brothers, Railean, Ranger Creek, and Bone Spirits (Fitch's Goat).  These companies have never sold anything they did not truly make themselves.

 
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