Updated February 2017
The craft distillery boom has come to Texas in a big way. All across the state, entrepreneurs are trying their hands at everything from bourbon to brandy. Although some Texas distilleries are brand new and others have achieved national success, there are clear threads that unite them – hard work, commitment to a hand-crafted product, and desire to be the best at what they do.
In addition to making great products, many Texas distilleries are opening their doors to share their process with local fans. Often, for less than the price of a cocktail, you can meet the owners and distillers to see first-hand everything that goes into making their special sauce.
When it comes to alcohol, I fall somewhere between a total novice (in that I’m new to realizing I like dark spirits) and an aficionado (in that I like to drink). My recent road trip through North and Central Texas was a great opportunity to try out five distilleries, each of which has its own unique character and flavorful offerings.
Ironroot Republic Distillery
Near the Texas-Oklahoma border in the small city of Denison, Texas, brothers Robert and Jonathan Likarish are adding their Ironroot Republic Distillery to a list of experts in an area proud of its viticulture heritage. Opened in November 2014, the distillery is the city’s first, complimenting a growing number of wineries and breweries nearby.
The first thing that struck me upon arriving at Ironroot Republic Distillery was the size. A former boat dealership, this 15,000-square-foot space houses the whole distillery operation, a large bar for enjoying the products, and a generous seating area. The space allows for multiple stills to produce the liquors, including a glass still dedicated to making the components of their upcoming gin. If I lived in Denison, I would probably spend way too much time here.
An area this large is helpful because Ironroot Republic prides itself on doing everything from scratch – their “grain to glass philosophy.” All the grain comes from within 60 miles, and they use non-GMO and organic ingredients whenever possible. The grains are mashed and fermented in-house before being distilled in the large stills that dominate the front room. The spirits age in various types of barrels in the back of the facility. During the aging process, Robert and Jonathan test each one every 4-6 weeks to ensure that the products are progressing as planned. When needed, they move the liquid to different barrels to draw out unique characteristics from the wood. You can get the full story during the tours they offer on Saturdays.
And about that viticulture heritage… the name Ironroot pays homage to a local hero, of sorts. Thomas Volney Munson was a Denison resident whose knowledge of grapes is something we should all be grateful for. In the late 1800s, Munson developed a hybrid grape rootstock that was resistant to a fungus that had ravaged 80 percent of vines in France. After years of fighting the fungus, when the French grape-growers received the resistant rootstock from Texas, they were slowly able to rebuild the vineyards. Munson’s grapes are still grown at a local college as part of a program focused on the grape and wine industry. Ironroot Republic plans to use some of these grapes as they make new French-style brandies.
Ironroot Republic Distillery has six products available now. Blue Norther Vodka is a smooth vodka with tropical notes followed by a caramel flavor. Carpenter’s Bluff Moonshine (named after a nearby bridge that carried moonshine across the Red River) has a taste similar to tequila, so it works well in margaritas and other cocktails that include citrus. Texas Drought Gin has the expected notes of juniper and citrus but with a hint of vanilla. There are also three whiskeys released since my visit to the distillery–Hubris (a corn whiskey) and Harbinger and Promethean (two varieties of bourbon whiskey). After the sneak preview I had from the barrels, I’m sure they live up to the awards they’ve won so far. Other liqueurs and brandies are also in the works.
“If you like yours less than 100 proof, you just add water and go on with your sissy self!” he says to the laughing crowd. Quentin Witherspoon – the owner of Witherspoon Distillery and our slightly irreverent tour guide – is talking about the straight bourbon whiskey he launched in 2013. Despite its strength, I soon found out that the Texas bourbon (which smells like caramel and tastes like oaky vanilla and cinnamon) is so smooth that no water is necessary, even for a novice like me.
Five times each weekend, Witherspoon gives these tours of his North Texas facility, walking visitors through the history of distilling and explaining how his products are made (before the delicious tasting, of course). His expertise as a master distiller is apparent since he’s steadily been honing his craft for 20 years. A former Marine, Witherspoon began distilling almost out of necessity when he was stationed in the Central African Republic (if necessity means a distinct lack of liquor) and gained further knowledge about whiskey in the South and rum in the Caribbean. Witherspoon’s skill is clearly punctuated with a sense of humor in his presentation and in the facility itself – the stills he and his father built are named Porgy and Bess, and he warns you to keep an eye out for the distillery’s cat, Mr. Waffles.
In addition to the straight bourbon whiskey, Witherspoon Distillery makes three other core products. River Rum, Witherspoon’s original product, is a smooth white rum distilled from sugar cane and molasses. Its butterscotch and vanilla notes made me want to settle onto a beach somewhere in the Caribbean, rum cocktail in hand. Bonfire is a cinnamon-infused rum (no subtle flavors here) sure to warm you up on a cold day. During my visit, it was being featured in the “candied fire-apple cocktail” at the bar. Heaven in a glass…or so I heard. Witherspoon Distillery’s Single Malt Whiskey is their premium product. While not included in the tasting and tour, it’s absolutely worth a few extra dollars for a taste (or more). Earthy and delicate, this smooth liquor drinks like a scotch, and its complexity and sweetness develop in the glass.
Turning under the 17th Street Bridge in Waco, Texas, you would never believe that you’re approaching one of the best craft distilleries in Texas (and likely the country). In a rusted, cramped 1880s welding shop, Balcones Distilling is turning out a portfolio of liquors that have won numerous accolades throughout the distilling industry.
Started in 2008, Balcones Distilling was founded by two partners whose experience grew out of homebrewing. They plunged headlong into distilling, outfitting their entire 2000-square-foot space with equipment they made themselves, including condensers, stills, and heat exchangers. The same level of care and intensity they applied to the equipment is found in the hand-crafted Balcones product line of whiskeys (though they prefer the alternate spelling “whisky”) and other spirits. From the constant taste-testing and monitoring to the innovative use of small barrels to impart more flavor to the spirits faster, every aspect of product development is carefully monitored.
The careful crafting of remarkable spirits has led to an explosion in demand for Balcones Distilling’s products. On one of their weekly tours, it’s easy to see that every inch of the relatively small space is being used and staff members fly from one task to the next. Until recently Balcones has only been able to meet a small percentage of the market demand. This is changing, though, as they have just opened a new, much larger facility a few streets away in Waco (this facility–not the one on 17th street–will be the home of future tours).
Balcones launched with two products in September 2009 – Rumble and True Blue. Rumble is an unclassified spirit made from all-Texas ingredients – honey, mission figs, and turbinado sugar. It has brandy and rum-like qualities, so although it doesn’t fit within either category, it’s as delicious as you would imagine with notes of honey, fruit, cinnamon, and spice. Baby Blue was the first Texas whiskey sold since Prohibition and the first blue corn whiskey made anywhere in the world, which helps explain why I’d never heard of a blue corn whiskey before visiting the distillery. Made from 100% roasted Hopi blue corn, Baby Blue smells like buttered corn and had a slightly nutty taste. It was my favorite of the products I had a chance to taste at Balcones.
The other two products currently available for tasting at the distillery are the Texas Single Malt Whisky and Brimstone, another type of corn whiskey. The flagship product of the Balcones Distilling franchise is its Texas Single Malt Whisky. This smooth spirit smells like banana bread and honey and tastes like toasted bread with a hint of spice and sweetness. The single malt is responsible for many of Balcones awards and helped propel the distillery to US and worldwide recognition. Brimstone, another 100% blue corn whiskey, undergoes a secret smoking process with Texas scrub oak after it is distilled. It has notes of wood smoke with a bit of corn and spice.
Crystal Creek Moonshine
For Crystal Creek Moonshine co-founders Shane Berber and Sam Wakefield, making moonshine is an all-consuming labor of love that requires more than a little elbow grease. The two-man operation makes a 1920-style moonshine, a clear whiskey that does not get aged in barrels, with all locally-sourced ingredients. Though the core components are simple – corn, sugar, honey, yeast and water – the process of arriving at the recipe was not. While testing the 110 versions of the recipe it ultimately required, the friends moved their operation to a local cave. Now that they have a more hospitable space, they host tours and tastings four days a week in addition to periodic moonshine infusion workshops.
The childhood friends now in their early 20s often work around the clock in their warehouse space, sleeping in shifts when it’s time to distill. Most of the operation is contained in one large room, so they work together babysitting the moonshine, labeling bottles, and doing anything else that’s needed (including making their own tools) to bring their products to the public. But it’s not all serious – they encourage their customers to win prizes by posting pictures from the distillery or with the moonshine (with the creative #MooningInPublic).
One of the newer Texas distilleries, Crystal Creek Moonshine opened their doors in late 2014. Since then, they have developed four varieties of the spirit. They sell a classic version but are particularly proud of their three infusion varieties – serrano and cucumber, blackberry and mint, and coffee and pecan. The first two flavors are subtle, with a hint of heat and bit of mint, respectively. The coffee and pecan infusion was my favorite, with a stronger flavor like an after-dinner liqueur without the sweetness. The moonshine can be consumed simply with tonic water or used as a mixer in cocktails, and the classic works particularly well with citrus flavors. Limited retail sales began in Texas in early 2015, and the moonshine is available at their distillery in Spicewood outside Austin (along with tours). There are plans to launch an absinthe soon. Five percent of sales go to building clean water wells in Ethiopia.
Garrison Brothers Distillery
Several miles off the highway in the Texas Hill Country, an area known predominantly for its wine, stands one of the most well-recognized Texas distilleries, Garrison Brothers Distillery. The first legal whiskey distillery in Texas, Garrison Brothers makes only bourbon, and they want it to be the best.
Garrison Brothers opened in January 2008 with a strict “corn-to-cork” approach, which is outlined during the 20 tours they give each week around the property. They do everything from making the mash to bottling the bourbon. Their numerous awards show that the hands-on approach is definitely paying off.
Making the Texas bourbon starts with all-organic, food quality grain – corn from the Panhandle, wheat they grow themselves on 65 acres in the Hill Country, and barley from the Pacific Northwest. After distillation in Garrison Brothers’ impressive copper stills, the spirits are aged for 30-40 months in charred white American oak barrels. The pressure caused by the Texas heat requires that Garrison Brothers uses some smaller, thicker barrels than the typical bourbon barrels you might find in Kentucky, which could otherwise burst. After aging, the spirits are cut with rainwater. Pure Texas.
Historically, Garrison Brothers has developed two vintage releases each year of its Texas Straight Bourbon Whiskey – one in the spring and one in the fall – all of which sell out pretty quickly. During my visit, I had an opportunity to try the Fall 2014 Vintage. Smelling and tasting of a combination of caramel and spiced fruit, I didn’t need to know much about whiskey to know this was fabulous. Beginning in 2015, there will only be one vintage per year. Garrison Brothers also makes Cowboy Bourbon, a cask-strength, limited release bourbon made from their favorite barrels. Other products in development include Texas Opus, a white whiskey, and Hye Rye, a rye bourbon slated for release in 2018.
With the exception of Witherspoon Distillery, I was the guest of the Texas distilleries. Opinions about the liquid gold they are hand-crafting are my own.
Have you been to these or any other distilleries in Texas? What did you think?