Crafting the Texas Spirit: Local Distilleries on the Rise

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Crate of the still used to make the spirits at Ranger Creek. Photo by Garrett Heath.

Crate of the still used to make the spirits at Ranger Creek. Photo by Garrett Heath.

Garrett HeathIf you frequent downtown, you are aware of the proliferation of the local cocktail scene at establishments such as Bohanans, The Esquire Tavern, The Brooklynite, SoHo and Blue Box.

These bartenders, or mixologists as some like to be called, specialize in hand crafted cocktails ranging from classic to contemporary. As the craft cocktail scene has taken off, so too has local, craft distilleries that produce spirits requisite of any mixed drink.

San Antonio and the Hill Country are home to several different outfits that are producing vodka and unique Texas whiskeys.

Mint Julep from Lüke San Antonio on the River Walk, made with Garrison Brothers bourbon. Photo by Garrett Heath.

Mint Julep from Lüke San Antonio on the River Walk, made with Garrison Brothers bourbon. Photo by Garrett Heath.

Craft Distilling on the Rise

As opposed to home brewing, distilling alcohol is currently illegal in the United States. So while there seems to be a path for an average Joe to create a craft brewery, the process of starting a craft distillery is a little more difficult. This is one of the reasons why there were only 314 unique listings for craft distilleries in the American Distilling Institute’s (ADI) 2012 Directory. That being said, ADI has found the industry heating up, with the amount of entrants doubling every three years.

In Texas, the recent passage of the Senate Bill 905 allowing craft distilleries to sell their product on-site should be a boon to area businesses. Under the law, consumers can now purchase up to two 750-ml. bottles of alcohol when they visit the distillery.

“We’re really excited about it. It was unnatural to not be able to sell somebody a bottle of something they want to buy,” said Mark McDavid, co-founder of Ranger Creek. “It felt uncapitalist, un-American and was awkward and painful. Now that we can, we are super excited. It’s a new revenue stream that we haven’t counted on.”

Mark McDavid holds a bottle of .36 Texas Bourbon in the tasting room of Ranger Creek. Photo by Garrett Heath.

Mark McDavid holds a bottle of .36 Texas Bourbon in the tasting room of Ranger Creek. Photo by Garrett Heath.

Where Did All Those Peaches Go?

While Tito’s vodka may be the godfather of Texas distilling, newcomer Enchanted Rock Vodka made at the Rebecca Creek Distillery (Bulverde Road and Tx. 281), have won over plenty of people. Created in a copper still that was purchased from Carl Artisan Distilleries and Brewing Systems (a family business out of Germany that has manufactured stills since 1869) Enchanted Rock vodka was the number one selling new spirit in Texas in 2011. The vodka is made using number two yellow corn, grown here in Texas, and the drink is gluten free.

“There are 14 hours of distillation and 12 hours of cold filtration. We distill for 14 hours because we are trying to get the bad stuff out of it, we feel very strongly to give a nice, crisp, clean product,” said Mike Cameron, co-founder of Rebecca Creek Distillery.

Many people noticed a lack of Fredericksburg peaches this past year in the aisles of H-E-B. When a devastating late frost and destructive hailstorm took out most of the crops, Cameron was on the scene to purchase what was left of the crop for his peach-infused Enchanted Rock vodka that will hit the shelves this May.

In spite of the late freeze and hail storm, Cameron was able to purchase some Fredericksburg peaches to make a new flavor of Enchanted Rock Vodka. Photo by Garrett Heath.

In spite of the late freeze and hail storm, Cameron was able to purchase some Fredericksburg peaches to make a new flavor of Enchanted Rock Vodka. Photo by Garrett Heath.

“We had a map of all the peach farms and we went by all them and kept seeing ‘Closed – No Peaches.’ We started getting concerned because we produced labels that said “Fredericksburg Peaches.” We found a couple of farms that had enough left to get us through next season so we bought everything in Gillespie County that we could. I apologize for (buying all the peaches), but it is in our vodka and it is good.”

But local vodka production isn’t restricted just to Cameron’s distillery on the Northside of town. Southeast of San Antonio, just north of Calveras Lake, you will find Azar Distillery, the home of Cinco Vodka, distilled with “water (that) is naturally filtered through the Cordova Creme limestone that lies far beneath the surface of San Antonio, Texas.”

Crafting a Texas Bourbon

While most people associate bourbon as a spirit that must originate from Kentucky, it can actually be produced anywhere in the United States, providing that it has a grain mixture of at lease 51% corn, is aged in new, charred-oak barrels, and is distilled at no more than 160 proof, entered into the barrel at no more than 125 proof and bottled at no less than 80 proof.

You may recognize Ranger Creek (I-35 just north of Loop 410) as the local brewer behind the popular OPA (Oatmeal Pale Ale) and La Bestia Aimable beers, but the business has a line of whiskeys as well. Being a double threat was no accident—becoming both a brewery and distillery (or “brewstillery”) was in the business plan from the start. In addition to beer, McDavid and his co-founders have a passion for whiskey and wanted to try their hand at creating a bourbon. A Texas bourbon to be exact.

“We respect the hell out of Kentucky bourbon because that’s why we fell in love with bourbon, but there’s no reason that we can’t make our own, local Texas bourbon,” McDavid said. “We want ours to be different from Kentucky bourbon intentionally. We want to use local Texas corn and our local Texas climate to produce something that is unique to the state.”

Crate of the still used to make the spirits at Ranger Creek. Photo by Garrett Heath.

Crate of the still used to make the spirits at Ranger Creek. Photo by Garrett Heath.

McDavid said that more than two pounds of Texas corn goes into each bottle of their small caliber series of Ranger Creek .36 Texas bourbon. Additionally, while the bourbon is aging in these smaller barrels, McDavid estimates that they lose between 20-25% of the spirit to evaporation over the course of a year, what is known as the angels’ share. In Texas, this amount is significantly higher because of the heightened heat and humidity.

“We’re waiting to see if the traditional large barrels are even feasible [in Texas]. That 25 per cent loss is in a five-gallon barrel [and takes a year to mature]. In a big barrel, we think that is going to take two to four years to mature. Let’s say we lose that same 25 per cent a year over four years, we would only have a little bit left in that barrel,” McDavid offered. “One of the factors of aging whiskey in the hot climates of Texas is that we might not be able to use those traditional big barrels.”

If you venture further into the Hill Country to the town of Hye, a town between Johnson City and Fredericksburg on Tx. 290, you will come across the first and oldest legal whiskey distillery in Texas.

Rebecca Creek Distillery's copper still that was produced by the Carl Artisan Distilleries and Brewing Systems in Germany. Photo by Garrett Heath.

Rebecca Creek Distillery’s copper still that was produced by the Carl Artisan Distilleries and Brewing Systems in Germany. Photo by Garrett Heath.

Made with corn from the Panhandle and wheat they grow themselves, the Garrison Brothers Distillery produces only a few hundred barrels each year.

In addition to vodka, Rebecca Creek Distillery offers a namesake spirit whiskey, the first whiskey to be named after a female, that is a hybrid between a Canadian and Kentucky bourbon.

The distillery brings in an eight-year bourbon and combine it with what is called “white dog,” a young, clear whiskey made at the facility, along with a third whiskey that is aged on site.

“When designing this taste profile, I wanted something to appeal to the masses. The number one selling whiskey in Texas is Crown Royal from Canada. To me that seemed real odd, that we would be supporting a place so far away. Nothing against Canada but I felt we could make a great whiskey here in Texas,” Cameron said.

Introduced in 2011, Rebecca Creak Spirit whiskey went on to become the number two selling new brand in 2012. In the Spring of 2014, Cameron looks to introduce a single malt whiskey that is distilled and aged completely on site. Because of the length of time it takes to age, Rebecca Creek will have a limited production of an estimated 7,200 bottles of the single malt whiskey.

Mike Cameron holds a bottle of Rebecca Creek Texas Spirit Whiskey in the tasting room of the Rebecca Creek Distillery. Photo by Garrett Heath.

Mike Cameron holds a bottle of Rebecca Creek Texas Spirit Whiskey in the tasting room of the Rebecca Creek Distillery. Photo by Garrett Heath.

Debating the Definition of “Texan”

There is a debate over what constitutes a Texan spirit. For example, whiskey is either blended, a mixture of liquids that have been distilled and/or aged in different locations, or can be what is termed “grain-to-glass,” meaning that it was mashed, distilled and aged on site. While all whiskeys mentioned in this article are under the Go Texan umbrella, there is still a difference of opinion on what makes a whiskey truly Texan.

Ranger Creek's .36 Texas Bourbon Whiskey and Rimfire Mesquite Smoked Texas Single Malt Whiskey. Photo by Garrett Heath.

Ranger Creek’s .36 Texas Bourbon Whiskey and Rimfire Mesquite Smoked Texas Single Malt Whiskey. Photo by Garrett Heath.

McDavid of Ranger Creek feels that in order for the whiskey to take on the characteristics of Texas, it is imperative for it to be aged for the majority of its life in the Lone Star State. In fact, he feels that it is the climate that gives the Ranger Creek .36 Texas Bourbon its signature taste.

“Whiskey gets most of its character from where it is aged. Any aged spirit goes into the barrel clear as water and gets all of its color through the maturation process in the barrel; (the spirit) transforms a little bit. Depending on the climate of where it was matured, the whiskey will taste different and those differences are important to the whole local flavor mentality,” McDavid said. “The San Antonio climate gives us a lot of sweetness. We get a lot of sweetness from the Texas corn and the heat during the maturation brings out a lot of the vanilla, caramel and brown sugar from the wood in the barrel.”

Rebecca Creek Texas Spirit Whiskey flanked by two different varieties of Enchanted Rock Vodka. Photo by Garrett Heath.

Rebecca Creek Texas Spirit Whiskey flanked by two different varieties of Enchanted Rock Vodka. Photo by Garrett Heath.

Cameron seems to have a different take, pointing out that people have been trading ingredients for a long time, be it grains or other spirits to blend.

“I think it boils down to the ingredients that go into it and the care in the distillation process. There’s a large part of what’s in a bottle of Rebecca Creek whiskey that is made right here in our facility,” Cameron said. “To have an eight-year bourbon in our product from somewhere else is just an added ingredient to give it a more desirable flavor that makes it the way people like it.”

As more craft distilleries begin to pop up in Texas, expect the debate on what constitutes a “Texas Spirit” to heat up. The state experienced a similar discussion when the wine industry took off some 30 years ago – even today there can be some confusion whether the wine you purchase is truly Texan. There is much to gain, or lose, for Texan distilleries depending on how the labeling law may evolve.

Regardless of which side of the debate you support, or even if you care at all, San Anontio and the Hill Country are fast becoming a Mecca of craft distilleries. It seems a natural fit that a city with a newly flourishing cocktail culture, as evidenced in the annual Cocktail Conference, would begin to sprout more and more local options. With more distilleries planned in the near future, locals will have plenty of home grown options to wet their whistle.

 

Garrett Heath blogs for Rackspace and is the Average Joe that started SAFlavor. He loves San Antonio, especially eating at mom and pop Mexican food restaurants. Find him on TwitterFacebookPinterest and Google+. 

 

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4 thoughts on “Crafting the Texas Spirit: Local Distilleries on the Rise

  1. Great article, Garrett. I think it’s important for consumers to be educated and let them make their own decisions. But to add another point, you don’t see distilleries in Scotland or Kentucky buying stuff from out of state and labeling it as if it was made there. They are proud of the fact that they make it and, more importantly, age it in their home state to give it local terroir.

  2. I like to support true Texas made spirits. For me, the process needs to be grain to glass all in Texas, which includes fermenting, distilling, and bottling. Unfortunately when a consumer goes to a large Texas liquor store these days they will find plenty of products that the labels sure make them look to be a Texas made product but don’t come close to my definition. Anyone ever seen a fermentation tank at Tito’s? If you don’t ferment your own product then what are you starting with? The answer is bulk GNS (190 proof neutral spirit)purchased from outside Texas. If all you are doing is buying a bulk whiskey from another state and then you cut it to 80 proof here in Texas, is that a Texas made product?

    For whiskey, read the label – want you want to see “Distilled by ABC in xyz city, TX”. If you see anything else, like Made or Produced or Bottled in Texas – this is code for it’s sourced whiskey not made in Texas. And you really want to buy Straight Bourbon or Straight Rye to ensure proper aging.

    I’ll call out a few that do it right and have products currently for sale – grain to glass made in Texas. Railean (our state’s 1st true craft distillery), Garrison Brothers, Balcones, Ranger Creek, and Bone Spirit’s Fitch’s Goat

    Wade – Certified Spirits Specialist

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