Though Texas has long been a big consumer of bourbon, since around 2010 the state has been on a meteoric rise in bourbon production, with its own unique approach to America’s native spirit. The Lone Star State now has over a hundred whiskey distilleries, the Texas Whiskey Association (TXWA) and a number of outstanding distilleries that are working to define what a Texas bourbon is. Though generally big, bold and intense, Texan bourbons can be as diverse as the massive state itself.
“We think of bourbon as the nectar of the gods,” says Dan Garrison, the founder and proprietor of Garrison Brothers, located about an hour outside of Austin in Texas hill country. Its first bourbon was Young Gun, released on March 2 (Texas Independence Day), 2010. The expression is no longer available today, but the distillery puts out a number of craft whiskeys, from a straight bourbon that retails for around $80 to $90 to the flagship product, Cowboy. Retailing at $200 to $250, the uncut, unfiltered bourbon comes from a blend of the distillers’ favorite barrels.
Balcones narrowly beat Garrison to the shelves with Baby Blue ($40), a delicate and fruit-forward corn whiskey that was released in 2009. The brand released its pot-still bourbon ($30) earlier this year. Balcones is a founding member of the Texas Whiskey Association, and its head distiller, Jared Himstedt, serves as its president. The organization works to promote education and awareness of Texas whiskeys and certifies the distilleries that are making a true Texas whiskey from grain to glass, rather than buying bulk whiskey from out-of-state, finishing it and bottling it as many other distilleries do. Not every distillery making a true Texas bourbon is part of the organization, but every member is certified 100% Texas made.
There’s no requirement to use Texas corn to be considered a Texas bourbon, yet many distilleries do. Balcones sources its corn from west Texas, some of it heirloom hybrids it cultivated. Garrison Brothers uses 100% food-grade Texas corn rather than feed-grade.
Ranger Creek, a TXWA founder in San Antonio, also sources its corn locally. Its .36 straight Texas bourbon ($50), named for a handgun used by Texas Rangers, is wild and unsubdued, with a pleasant warmth and sweetness. Yellow Rose, a distillery located in Houston, makes its Outlaw bourbon ($55) out of 100% Texas yellow corn, while Forth Worth distillery Firestone & Robertson even uses a proprietary wild Texas yeast it cultivates from almonds for its TX straight bourbon ($50). Treaty Oak, the fourth legal distillery founded in Texas and another founder of the TXWA, uses Texas corn and wheat in its Ghost Hill bourbon ($50) and has even started using Texan oak for its barrels. “The wood tells so much of the story of what bourbon is and where it comes from,” says founder Daniel Barnes.
Another key feature of Texas whiskey is the state’s temperature. Texas is famously hot and often has dramatic temperature fluctuations in summer. This leads to rapid maturation in the barrels and intense evaporation, or angel’s share, often twice or more of that of Kentucky bourbon. Full barrels might end up losing 30% of their volume after just a few years in a barrel, and a two-year-old Texas bourbon can taste as rich and mature as a four year old, or older, whiskey from another state. Most Texas bourbons are younger than their profile would suggest, but with that youth comes a certain boldness. “What [Texas bourbon] lacks in the expected maturity it makes up with the grain being interesting,” says Balcones’ Himstedt. “There’s a lot of fun in something young. You might have some things that aren’t quite as mature, as well as really interesting things you don’t normally experience.”
All of that invests these bourbons with terroir, a term normally reserved for winemaking but one that Texan distillers often use to describe their products. Like the state itself, Texas bourbons tend to be big. “The Texas whiskey identity is forming and growing,” says Ranger Creek co-founder Dennis Rylander. “But there’s boldness of character, since it’s aged for a shorter period of time, and an intensity of sweeter notes.” Yellow Rose head distiller Houston Farris describes it this way:“It’s like Texas food: big flavors, like the smokiness of barbecue and the spiciness of Tex-Mex.”
However, there’s also huge variation in Texas bourbons based on where it’s made. “It’s a big state,” says Firestone & Robertson head distiller Rob Arnold. “And you’ll see more diversity in general coming up soon. We’re all still exploring.” His bourbon is made with a Kentucky-style still, which lends a more mellow, familiar flavor with honey and straw.
Furthermore, while the angel’s share may be high across the state, in drier climates like San Antonio or Austin, it’s mostly water that’s evaporating, meaning that the proof rises as the whiskey matures. In places like Houston, where Yellow Rose’s Outlaw bourbon is made, it’s mostly equal evaporation. “We tend to see the barrel go in at a certain proof and come out at a similar proof,” says Farris. “So it gives a nice concentration of flavors with the barrel not going out of control.” The 100%corn bourbon has plenty of heat and robustness but is more reserved than many other Texan bourbons, with subtle sweetness and gentle aromatics.
Like whiskey everywhere, Texas whiskey is growing rapidly year by year. And while Texas distillers have deference for the whiskey makers that preceded them in Kentucky and other regions, they’re looking to define themselves as a state. “A lot of folks are pushing themselves to make a high-quality product by being both respectful of what has been done before but willing to challenge and push for something new,” says Barnes. “That, to me, is representative of what’s going on in Texas: people who have paid their dues and really know what’s going on but are willing to do something different.”