By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
Distillers who equate "craft" with "creative" sometimes claim the regulations governing bourbon are too confining, but the decision to forgo bourbon usually comes down to money. Even a modest bourbon distilling setup costs more than a decent college education. A single empty barrel, for example, retails for about $250.
The economics of bourbon tend to confound potential investors, who shrink from waiting years for profits while the whiskey ages. Once bourbon's in the barrel, distilleries can't do much but sell souvenir shot glasses, dabble in an alternate alcohol such as beer or vodka and hope whatever comes out when the barrels are tapped will sell. Banks aren't enticed by the bourbon business either: Since laws forbid them to take possession of liquor, they can't collateralize a distillery's tens of thousands of dollars worth of mellowing bourbon whiskey. With their cash flow effectively dammed, bourbon makers get in the habit of calling their accountants before writing checks.
"That's an interesting scheme," an inquisitive visitor to Garrison Brothers told Dan Garrison after he outlined how long it takes to put a bourbon on the shelf. "You work six years indentured."
• SLIDESHOW: Texas distilleries
"Everyone told me my business plan was insane," Garrison replies with a laugh.
Yet Garrison pressed ahead with plans to make bourbon: Garrison Brothers last fall released its 2008 vintage, selling out its entire 300-case run from Fredericksburg-area liquor stores in less than two weeks. The distillery this spring bottled another 728 cases, set to go on sale around Austin and San Antonio this week.
Garrison was quick to snap up the "first and oldest legal whiskey distillery in Texas" slogan, but he's not alone in the statewide bourbon arena. Ranger Creek's already distilling and the makers of Treaty Oak Platinum Rum in Austin have announced plans to release a bourbon in 2015.
"We believe bourbon is the right whiskey for Texas," Ranger Creek co-founder Mark McDavid says. "Our goal isn't to get people to stop drinking Kentucky bourbon. We drink the heck out of it. Our goal is to figure out what Texas bourbon should be."
Despite Owens's warnings, craft distillers are developing bourbons in other states, too. In Wyoming, Bourbon Hall of Famer and former Maker's Mark master distiller Steve Nally is in charge of the Wyoming Whiskey project. Washington is home to Woodinville Whiskey, a distillery that has secured the consulting services of Dave Pickerell, another former Maker's Mark master distiller. But Texas is emerging as a regional center of craft aged whiskey-making — and perhaps the only significant bourbon scene that doesn't trace its lineage to Kentucky.
"Texas is a leader, that's all," Owens says. "These guys are role models."
Corporate distilleries so thoroughly dominate the liquor trade that Owens's grandest ambition is for craft spirits of all styles to capture 1 percent of the $46 billion industry. Nobody has yet compiled statistics on craft spirit sales, but the major players don't appear worried. When asked whether Kentucky distillers were concerned about out-of-state competition, Eric Gregory, president of the Kentucky Distillers' Association, gave a hearty tycoon's laugh.
"We are the birthplace of bourbon," Gregory pronounced proudly. "Ninety-five percent of bourbon comes from Kentucky. We have a heritage we don't think anyone can replicate."
The vast majority of American whiskey is still made at 13 Southeastern distilleries owned by eight international conglomerates. According to custom, bourbon comes from Kentucky outfits with company histories dating back decades.
But Texas bourbon makers believe the state is uniquely positioned to challenge Kentucky's liquor cabinet supremacy. While McDavid's contention that Texas will eventually take a spot alongside Ireland, Scotland and Canada on the world's list of great whiskey-making regions may sound preposterous now, Texas has advantages that bolster its standing as the site of an incipient whiskey rebellion.
Bourbon is made from grain and water, but the drink's most important ingredient is time. As the weather changes, barreled whiskey cycles in and out of the wood surrounding it, a process that creates color and flavor. In Kentucky, where it's cold in winter and warm in summer, whiskey spends more time sitting than cycling. But the schedule is different in Texas, where a day's high and low temperatures might be separated by 40 degrees. The Texas climate fast-forwards whiskey aging so profoundly that Garrison claims he can reproduce the character of a 12-year Kentucky bourbon in two years. He supplements the weather's natural rhythms by using 15-gallon barrels instead of the standard 53-gallon. The undersized barrels increase the area where whiskey touches wood.
"You get a lot of flavor," agrees Mike Veach, a member of the Bourbon Hall of Fame and the nation's only professional bourbon historian. "And then you spend four or five years trying to get rid of it. A friend of mine describes it as small-barrel bourbon. It has a lot of wood tannins, but it doesn't have the caramels and vanillas you get with time."
Texas doesn't have the monopoly on weather extremes, but it does possess a healthy corn crop, making the state one of the few places where distilleries can fashion a "local" product from homegrown corn and erratic weather.
Another Lone Star advantage is water from the state's limestone aquifers, similar to Kentucky's. The same minerals that account for the notorious thickness of Hill Country coffee make good bourbon, Garrison explains.
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.
Rob, Ranger Creek hopes to have a limited release of what it's calling "innovative, small barrel bourbon" this fall, but Mark McDavid reports the traditional bourbon the distillery's set out to make won't be ready until 2013 or 2014.
I hadn't thought about that and you're right.
We should have asked the State of Texas Legislature to pass a law this session making Bourbon drinking with anything other than ice...illegal.
And mixing Bourbon with Coke gets your deported to Mississippi.