Longform

The Battle of Texas' Whiskey Makers and Fakers

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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.

The Herman Marshall distillery is located in an industrial pocket of Garland, amidst a lumberyard and stale factory buildings. We're not in show business, the owners like to say, so the aesthetics don't matter much. They're happy to fly under the radar and over the bar. Read their bottles closely and you'll find that magic word: "Distilled and bottled by Dallas Distilleries."

Beckley is a student of both the science and history of distilling. He built two 500-gallon cypress tanks for open-top fermentation as a nod to the old traditions of making whiskey in the United States.

"Prohibition destroyed the whiskey industry," Beckley says. "We lost that knowledge about the craft in America. I've tried to bring back that original process as much as possible."

Along with the cypress tanks where the mash comes alive in a soft bubble, Beckley also heats the 400-gallon copper stills with steam, which is another nod to his forefathers. Plus, there's the all-important proprietary yeast strain, and the distillery's water is sourced from a spring in East Texas — a secret spot they like to keep between them and the whiskey.

The trail ahead for Herman Marshall, and for the rest of Texas' whiskey cowboys, is dusty but exciting. A handful of craft distilleries around the state are either rediscovering a lost craft or creating a new one. Will Texans reach for a bottle because of a price-to-flavor value, or will they align themselves with a bottle rich in art, history and Texas ingredients?

Tate has faith, but he sometimes fears it will get off course. Recently, when all the pieces of the new copper still at Balcones were finished and welded together, one of the last steps required Tate to get inside the assembled pot and weld down imperfections in the copper so that every inch of surface space is completely smooth. It was the rough equivalent of crawling down a manhole into a dark small orb, in which he could only crouch. With a burning torch.

"We're trying to create new styles of Texas whiskey, not just recreate," Tate says. "I think when you look at a lot of craft distillers, there is a lot of innovation. You can pull influence from different places. That's art. You're either innovating or imitating. You need to add something to it, or otherwise you're redoing."

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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.