Texas Craft Liquor Makers Belly Up to the Bar to Challenge Kentucky Bourbon.
The dozen or so drinkers who show up for Ranger Creek Brewing and Distilling's free Saturday afternoon tours in northeast San Antonio don't have much in common, save the ability to find the industrial park building that looks as if it might house a sports trophy warehouse or screen-printing operation. The group almost always includes a home brewer or two, twitchy with excitement over the giant vats of malt. They're joined by locals entertaining houseguests who refuse to do the Alamo again, Hill Country antique hunters who've promised their haggard husbands a beer-themed stop and wayward wine trail followers who figure one spirituous substance is as interesting as another.
Many of the tour-goers don't realize Ranger Creek is in business to make bourbon. Although the whiskey won't be flowing until 2013 at the soonest, it's the emotional centerpiece of the tour, which opens with an account of Ranger Creek's vision to make a bourbon befitting Texas. The beer the company brews is a meantime beverage, co-founder TJ Miller tells visitors.
Before Miller can lay out Ranger Creek's ambitious plans, he first has to conduct an elementary bourbon tutorial for his guests. Bourbon didn't exist in its current form until 1964, when the federal government, thirsty for tax revenue, committed the drink's definition to code.
The rules are precise. Bourbon may inspire sloppy behavior, but the drink doesn't see any recklessness on its way into the bottle. Stringent laws dictate how much corn is included in a bourbon's mash bill, the type of barrels in which it's aged and its alcoholic strength throughout the distillation process. Distillers who do more or less than what the law requires—the moonshiners who fill their Mason jars from backyard stills and the Tennessee whiskey makers who charcoal filter their hooch—aren't making bourbon. Neither are well-intentioned distillers in Canada and Mexico, no matter how closely they hew to the standards. That's because what's labeled bourbon can be made only in the United States.
By this point in Miller's spiel, a few tour-goers are getting antsy. They're ready to see the grain milling closet, to ogle bubbly yeast. But Miller's building to a crescendo that enfolds the beer drinkers, the wine drinkers and the teetotalers busy calculating how much River Walk browsing time they've wasted.
Bourbon doesn't belong to Kentucky, Miller says. It's legal to make bourbon in any state. So why should Texans have to rely on what comes from a state where honorary colonels in seersucker suits sip mint juleps? Texas whiskey drinkers deserve a bourbon made from Texas corn and Texas water, which is why Ranger Creek is setting out to make one of the first Texas bourbons.
The response usually comes from somewhere in the back of the crowd: "Hell, yeah!"
By the American Distilling Institute's count, 301 craft distilleries operate nationwide. Unlike "bourbon," "craft" is an inexact term: It's typically used to refer to the underfunded upstarts in unexpected places who give up jobs as IT consultants and graphic designers to make liquor. There are craft distillers who are devout in their methods, and craft distillers who buy secondhand spirits from established distilleries to put in bottles with pretty labels. Much to the chagrin of distillers who consider themselves members of the former group—and consumers who spy romance and populism in a pricey fifth of garage gin—there's a good amount of swill being sold under the craft banner, largely because self-regulation and education can't keep pace with the eye-popping growth of micro-distilling.
A decade ago, the United States was home to so few distilleries that if every head distiller in the country got together for dinner, they could probably have nabbed a table at most restaurants without a reservation. But once states got wise to the revenue potential of liquor production and relaxed restrictions adopted nearly a century ago, when the Anti-Saloon League had a choke-hold on legislatures, hundreds of rookie distillers rushed to replicate the grassroots renaissance that has invigorated the nation's beer and wine industries. While laws still bear the scars of Carrie Nation's infamous hatchet, homespun liquor's reputation has been rehabilitated so convincingly that Bill Owens, founder of the American Distilling Institute, recently took a call from a presumably sensible FedEx pilot who wanted to make spirits.
"All kinds of people are coming out of the woodwork," says Owens, a former brewpub owner whose wardrobe consists primarily of T-shirts advertising craft liquors.
Owens has counseled a young Midwestern distiller who's making whiskey from hay and advised a 72-year-old liquor enthusiast to sink his retirement savings into a still.
"I said, 'What are you going to do? Play golf? Stay home with your wife all day?'" Owens says. "Get out in life and do something!"
Owens' rippling enthusiasm doesn't extend to bourbon.
"I tell people don't even go there because that category's owned by giant corporations," Owens says, spitting out the last two words with the anti-imperialist fervor he nurtured as a student activist in 1970s California.
Bourbon is studiously avoided by all but the gutsiest micro-distillers. Dan Garrison of Garrison Brothers Distilling in Hye, a speck of a town west of Austin, estimates he's one of just seven craft distillers messing with bourbon. That makes bourbon one of the least-produced categories tracked by the American Distilling Institute, trailing only Asian liquors soju and baijiu.
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."
"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.
"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.
"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."
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.'"
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."
McDavid is a genuinely nice guy: When he discusses the quality standards Ranger Creek's aiming to meet, he says, "We wouldn't release anything before we'd serve it to our parents." But he recognizes Texas whiskey won't rise on a wave of good feelings. There's a plaque on the distillery wall with the names of its investors, a clear reminder of how little whiskey makers can accomplish without solid business plans and stacks of money.
Diageo, the spirits conglomerate behind Bulleit bourbon, collects about $16 billion in annual revenue. Rebecca Creek Distillery in San Antonio is considerably smaller, but its backers don't expect it to stay that way.
"We're hoping to be the largest whiskey producer in North America," co-founder Mike Cameron says. "All of our investment group is very passionate about that."
Rebecca Creek has scads of money, and isn't shy about showing it. The distillery, which last year released Enchanted Rock vodka, has a branded tour bus that it uses for promotions (including a Texas distilling event for which the bus was strategically parked to obscure signs advertising other distillers). Rebecca Creek's whiskey isn't ready for drinking, but there are soy candles and polo shirts for sale in the gift shop. There's also vodka.
"The purpose of the vodka was to generate revenue," Cameron says. "We produced and sold 10,000 cases in the first four months. It's a record for any distillery I've ever heard of. We could just rest on vodka, but we have a lot of whiskey drinkers in our investment group."
The flavor profile of Rebecca Creek's forthcoming whiskey was decided by committee, with investors providing specific instructions to distiller Jeff Murphy.
"We covered color, we covered taste, we covered finish," Cameron says. "We already did a batch in California, and it's fantastic. I can't wait to bring it to the masses."
"We're planning on half a million cases of vodka a year, but whiskey, we've been told, could be bigger," Cameron says. "No one seems to have cracked the nut yet on Texas whiskey. You've got Chip Tate under the bridge."
Cameron was a tractor salesman before a college friend recruited him to "get into some business related to alcohol." The pair planned to open a distributorship, but then settled on distilling.
"The point was to get fantastic whiskey to the masses, but we've talked about doing a rum, doing a gin," Cameron says. "The sky's the limit."
Dan Garrison's equally ambitious, although he has no desire to distill anything but bourbon or sell so many cases he'd risk violating the "corn to cork philosophy" that girds his operation. Garrison has turned down offers to distribute in California, New York and New Zealand.
"We're staying here. If you look at the size of the business, I don't have ambitions to make it much larger," he says.
Still, Garrison's influence is immense. He personifies the creativity, vision and drive needed for the Texas craft spirits industry to succeed in dispelling the misconception that good whiskey comes only from Kentucky.
Tom Herbruck, an applejack maker from Cleveland, was supposed to be in Fort Worth for a conference. But he couldn't resist detouring to visit Garrison Brothers Distillery.
"Everybody knows Dan, if you're in distilling," Herbruck explains. "It's hard for micro-distilleries to make a really good product. It's not like bread, where it tastes great just because you made it at home."
Garrison's dedication is apparent even to drinkers who can't find—or can't afford—an $80 bottle of Garrison Brothers bourbon. His distillery, seated down a gravel road lined with oaks, is so pretty that he's preparing to promote the barrel house as a wedding rehearsal dinner venue for couples marrying at nearby vineyards. The buildings' tidy interiors, all wood and natural light, hum with bourbon heritage. The Kentucky homage is intentional.
"I love the history of what the spirit is," Garrison's wife, Nancy, says. "We really have a responsibility for what's come before us. I can't imagine us making any other spirit. It has extra meaning to me."
Garrison, a former software marketer, was running a nonprofit foundation when he came across a newspaper story about a craft vodka maker.
"I said to my wife, 'Why doesn't someone make something that tastes good?'" Garrison says. He opened the distillery in 2008.
Garrison takes obvious pleasure in linking his project to the legacy of whiskey making. He's acquired a distillery dog—"I told my wife now that I was a glorified moonshiner, I had to have a Bassett hound"—and cultivated relationships with the distillery's neighbors. He annually enters a float in the Peach Festival parade, and employs as many locals as he can.
"The town of Fredericksburg is cute and quaint, but you talk about tough people, these Germans are badasses," Garrison says. "I mean, first, they're all sold a pack of lies by the Kaiser, then they have to spend years and years removing rocks and being attacked by Apaches. The locals aren't that quaint."
Stubborn as his 19th-century heroes, Garrison grows his own soft red winter wheat, collects rainwater for proofing his whiskey and insists on making a straight bourbon, which calls for a full two years of aging. State legislators have grown accustomed to seeing Garrison bound through the halls of the Capitol, bourbon barrels balanced on each shoulder.
"From the first day, we were going to do it right," Garrison says. "That's what I'm most proud of."
Garrison's perfectionism has made him a darling of the state's whiskey drinkers, who pounced on the opportunity to help him bottle bourbon last month.
"We sat down and had a management meeting, Fred, Donnis and me," Garrison says, referring to his operations staff. "We were all bleary-eyed and Donnis said, 'How many bottles do you want to bottle? How in the hell are we going to bottle all that bourbon?' I said, 'Well, let's ask people to come join up.' I sent out a blog and damn if we didn't get flooded. We have a waiting list for November. I guess it's novel: It gives them ownership of bourbon."
Work duty also gave volunteers the chance to sample bourbon, which was doled out by the shot every few hours. Garrison delivered a different toast each time, praising whiskey, Texas and Willie Nelson.
Garrison Brothers bourbon is startlingly dark and satiny as a Tootsie roll.
"Isn't that pretty?" said a retiree who stumbled upon the distillery during bottling week and was treated to a drink.
"I could sip that," her husband said. "We drink some mixed drinks, but very seldom do we drink spirits straight."
"We don't drink straight, and we don't have friends that do," the woman confirmed. "Well, maybe Jack."
Garrison, who was across the room checking bottles for stray wax trails, jumped in: "You can mix it with ketchup, but please don't tell me about it."
"Well, it's such a pretty color," the tourist said.
"And I think because it's from Texas, it's going to grow fast," her husband added.
Garrison nodded: "Too fast. Too fast."
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