Longform

The Battle of Texas' Whiskey Makers and Fakers

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"Nothing against Canada, but let's do something from Texas," co-owner Mike Cameron told the San Antonio Express-News in 2011. "It's a Texas-based company."

His whiskey is a blend of an 8-year bourbon purchased from another distiller and, per a mandatory statement on the back label, 31-percent grain neutral spirit (GNS, vodka), along with a younger whiskey Cameron says they distill. Blenders, or spirit makers, aren't in any way obligated to spill the booze on their recipes. Cameron says that they produce and distill the "majority" of what goes into each bottle, which might include the GNS, since they also distill vodka at their facilities.

So long as distillers have been producing whiskey, other businesses have seized the opportunity to rectify, mix or blend it. By the 1890s, rectifiers were so incessantly passing off blends as "aged Kentucky bourbon" that miffed distillers lobbied for the Bottle-in-Bond Act, which was passed in 1897 and established certain regulations that required bonded spirits to be the product of one distiller at one distillery in one season, writes Michael Veach in his book Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey: An American Heritage.

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."

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.")

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Lauren Drewes Daniels is the Dallas Observer's food editor. She started writing about local restaurants, chefs, beer and kouign-amanns in 2011. She's driven through two dirt devils and is certain they were both some type of cosmic force.