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See photos of the distilleries brewing bourbon in Texas in our slideshow.
The dozen or so drinkers who show up for Ranger Creek Brewing & Distilling's free Saturday afternoon tours in northeast San Antonio don't have much in common, save the ability to find the industrial park building that looks as if it might house a sports trophy warehouse or screen-printing operation. The group almost always includes a home brewer or two, twitchy with excitement over the giant vats of malt. They're joined by locals entertaining houseguests who refuse to do the Alamo again, Hill Country antique hunters who've promised their haggard husbands a beer-themed stop and wayward wine-trail followers who figure one spirituous substance is as interesting as another.
Many of the tour-goers don't realize Ranger Creek is in business to make bourbon. Although the whiskey won't be flowing until 2013 at the soonest, it's the emotional centerpiece of the tour, which opens with an account of Ranger Creek's vision to make a bourbon befitting Texas. The beer the company brews is a meantime beverage, co-founder TJ Miller tells visitors.
• SLIDESHOW: Texas distilleries
Before Miller can lay out Ranger Creek's ambitious plans, he first has to conduct an elementary bourbon tutorial for his guests. Bourbon didn't exist in its current form until 1964, when the federal government, thirsty for tax revenue, committed the drink's definition to code.
The rules are precise. Bourbon may inspire sloppy behavior, but the drink doesn't see any recklessness on its way into the bottle. Stringent laws dictate how much corn is included in a bourbon's mash bill, the type of barrels in which it's aged and its alcoholic strength throughout the distillation process. Distillers who do more or less than what the law requires — the moonshiners who fill their Mason jars from backyard stills and the Tennessee whiskey makers who charcoal filter their hooch — aren't making bourbon. Neither are well-intentioned distillers in Canada and Mexico, no matter how closely they hew to the standards. That's because what's labeled bourbon can be made only in the United States.
By this point in Miller's spiel, a few tour-goers are getting antsy. They're ready to see the grain milling closet, to ogle bubbly yeast. But Miller's building to a crescendo that enfolds the beer drinkers, the wine drinkers and the teetotalers busy calculating how much River Walk browsing time they've wasted.
Bourbon doesn't belong to Kentucky, Miller says. It's legal to make bourbon in any state. Texas whiskey drinkers deserve a bourbon made from Texas corn and Texas water, which is why Ranger Creek is setting out to make one of the first Texas bourbons.
The response usually comes from somewhere in the back of the crowd: "Hell, yeah!"
By the American Distilling Institute's count, 301 craft distilleries operate nationwide. Unlike "bourbon," "craft" is an inexact term: It's typically used to refer to the underfunded upstarts in unexpected places who give up jobs as IT consultants and graphic designers to make liquor. There are craft distillers who are devout in their methods, and craft distillers who buy secondhand spirits from established distilleries to put in bottles with pretty labels. Much to the chagrin of distillers who consider themselves members of the former group — and consumers who spy romance and populism in a pricey fifth of garage gin — there's a good amount of swill being sold under the craft banner, largely because self-regulation and education can't keep pace with the eye-popping growth of micro-distilling.
A decade ago, the United States was home to so few distilleries that if every head distiller in the country got together for dinner, they could probably have nabbed a table at most restaurants without a reservation. But once states got wise to the revenue potential of liquor production and relaxed restrictions adopted nearly a century ago, when the Anti-Saloon League had a choke hold on legislatures, hundreds of rookie distillers rushed to replicate the grassroots renaissance that has invigorated the nation's beer and wine industries. While laws still bear the scars of Carrie Nation's infamous hatchet, homespun liquor's reputation has been rehabilitated so convincingly that Bill Owens, founder of the American Distilling Institute, recently took a call from a presumably sensible FedEx pilot who wanted to make spirits.
"All kinds of people are coming out of the woodwork," says Owens, a former brewpub owner whose wardrobe consists primarily of T-shirts advertising craft liquors.
Owens has counseled a young Midwestern distiller who's making whiskey from hay and advised a 72-year-old liquor enthusiast to sink his retirement savings into a still.
"I said, 'What are you going to do? Play golf? Stay home with your wife all day?'" Owens says. "Get out in life and do something!"
Owens's rippling enthusiasm doesn't extend to bourbon.
"I tell people don't even go there because that category's owned by giant corporations," Owens says, spitting out the last two words with the anti-imperialist fervor he nurtured as a student activist in 1970s California.
Bourbon is studiously avoided by all but the gutsiest micro-distillers. Dan Garrison of Garrison Brothers Distilling in Hye, a speck of a town west of Austin, estimates he's one of just seven craft distillers messing with bourbon. That makes bourbon one of the least-produced categories tracked by the American Distilling Institute, trailing only Asian liquors soju and baijiu.
Texas has a huge Obesity and type 2 diabetes diet problem. These brewery drinks can really pack on the calories
I suggest Texas Bourbon makers with Texas printed on their label sell their Bourbon only to Texans (with a Texas ID) at a premium price.
Others may purchase a bottle of Texas Bourbon if they have a written referral from a Texan.
Have to control the 'Riff-Raff' somehow!
The more Bourbon the better, I always say. The proof - no pun intended - will be in the texture and lack of jagged edges found in inferior Bourbon & Tennessee whiskey. I really look forward to tasting it without Coke, though. I never mix Bourbon with anything but ice.