It’s tough to define Texas whiskey.
We’re proud of our state and the things produced here, which means we should have some criteria in hand when identifying a beverage as beloved as whiskey by the place where it originates. But that’s where it gets tricky.
Distillers here aren’t limited to distilling a certain type of fermented grain — corn, barley, rye and wheat are all in use — and even the barrels the whiskey is aged in can vary. Simply put, the distillers don’t have the long, storied legacies of whiskey strongholds like Kentucky and Scotland to follow, so they’re taking their spirits in playful knows-no-bounds directions. This creativity is one hallmark of our whiskey.
Another defining marker is how it gets into the bottle. Among the whiskey producers in Texas, as with elsewhere, are those who don’t make their own spirit, instead choosing to bottle one already mass-produced from another state.
“The term ‘whiskey’ is such a broad category that it could mean nearly anything, especially in Texas where people are doing so many different kinds of whiskey,” Dan Garrison, owner of bourbon-focused Garrison Brothers Distillery in Hye, says.
But for people like Garrison and Winston Edwards of Balcones Distilling, making these distinctions is important. Garrison Brothers produces some of the most sought-after hooch in the state, and Garrison sells it by pointing out that it’s “100 percent authentic. Don’t believe it? Come see us.” Edwards, for his part, has a more specific definition of Texas whiskey: It’s “something you make from start to finish in Texas,” he says.
Producing whiskey authentically — “from grain to glass,” as many distillers put it — seems to be a good benchmark recognized by many in the industry, so here are several from this region that could fit the bill and also squeeze into your stocking:
- Balcones Texas Single Malt Whisky, $70: Finding a bottle can take some legwork, but the effort is well worth it. The Waco distillery’s single malt is a silky spirit with notes of stone fruit, honey and citrus on the nose and a lingering finish full of toast and burnt sugar. Come spring, it won’t be so hard to find; Balcones is in the process of moving into a much larger building up the street that will “automatically quadruple our output,” Edwards, the distillery’s ambassador, says.
- Banner Texas Wheat Whiskey, $35: Banner Distilling’s two co-founders are finally getting to make what they wanted to all along: a whiskey made from all Texas-grown ingredients, including wheat from farms near the Manor facility. The whiskey is joining Banner’s vodka on the bar shelf as a complex aged spirit with notes of toasted cherry and black pepper. The wheat, co-founder Anthony Jimenez says, contributes a flavor “impossible to mask. It’s (akin) to sipping on a glass of freshly baked bread with a sweet, peppery finish.”
- Bone Bourbon, $38: Smithville’s Bone Spirits Distillery has been producing all manner of different boozy beverages, including an upcoming aquavit. But the bourbon, released for the first time this summer, is a particular prize for distillery founder Jeff Peace. Aged for more than two years with a mash bill of majority corn and a surprising amount of rye, Bone Bourbon draws you in with aromas of walnut, cinnamon and cherry and keeps you captivated with a striking mix of vanilla and pepper on your tongue.
- Garrison Brothers Texas Straight Bourbon Whiskey, $79 to $89: Garrison makes some bold promises about how much you’re going to like this whiskey — and he gets away with them because they’re probably true. You’ll notice notes of cinnamon, white chocolate and brown sugar in it, but it’s the rich finish and syrupy mouthfeel you’ll really like, which Garrison says no other bourbon has thanks to the Texas heat. “The heat causes the bourbon to expand deeper into the barrel, extracting more of the sugars,” he says. The resulting finish “is the mark of a mature-aged bourbon.”
- Swift Single Malt Whiskey, $55: Local couple Nick and Amanda Swift started making Swift Single Malt Whiskey in a Dripping Springs distillery together as a way of staying close. Doing every step of the process — including aging the whiskey in bourbon barrels and a Spanish sherry cask, a Scotch tradition — on their own hasn’t been easy, but they certainly have produced a good whiskey. It’s a buttery spirit with notes of ripe peaches, rose and chocolate; the toasted vanilla notes of a more heavily oaked whiskey aren’t as present and, Nick Swift says, don’t need to be.
- Treaty Oak Red-Handed Bourbon, $35: Treaty Oak Distillery founder Daniel Barnes is the first to tell you that his Red-Handed Bourbon isn’t Texas-made — which cheekily accounts for the branding of the whiskey: it’s “a bourbon worth stealing.” But now, with the move into a sprawling Dripping Springs ranch space and the arrival of wooden whiskey fermenters, Treaty Oak will have a new house whiskey in another year or so. In the meantime, Red-Handed, no matter its provenance, is still a fine blended bourbon, with cherry and green apple crispness and a spiciness from the high rye content.
- Another whiskey worth a mention: Kooper Family Rye, $43, is a solid local whiskey that its producers, Troy and Michelle Kooper, hope to one day make entirely in their Dripping Springs facility once more funding is in hand. They get unaged distillate from Chicago’s Koval Distillery and barrel, blend and bottle it themselves for a 100 percent rye whiskey. It’s got rye’s characteristic spice at the forefront in a delightful tug-of-war between black pepper and cinnamon. “We want to eventually get our rye distillery going so we don’t have to rely on anyone else,” Troy Kooper says. “We want our rye as Texas as we can get it.”