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Tate spent a year jerry-rigging a 2,500-square-foot former welding facility, fabricating his own copper stills. Two years on, the crowded room still has a ragtag feel: Tate's cell phone number is scribbled on a cooling tube, and rods from his weight benches are used as supports. A barrel filler is wrapped in aluminum foil.
Tate's distillery, tucked in the back corner of a dead-end service road, has become an obligatory stop for whiskey pilgrims.
"I think what people like is the show is not a show," Tate says. "We say, 'This is not the Jack Daniel's tour. Enter at your own risk. We're burning alcohol.'"
• SLIDESHOW: Texas distilleries
The distillery's readying to move to a nearby 61,000-square-foot factory that will allow Balcones to meet the towering demand for its whiskeys. Just after Christmas, Balcones received an order from its distributor for eight pallets, or about 5,000 bottles. "And January's supposed to be dead," Tate says, shaking his head.
Paul Pacult, a spirits writer whose reviews are closely watched in the whiskey industry, last year awarded Balcones's Baby Blue his highest rating. "There's an entire universe of flavors," he raved in his Spirits Journal. "A craft distilling revelation!"
Tate, seated at a table set with dozens of barrel samples for taste testing, says: "I don't want fans. I want apostles."
"We're trying to create things that are new innovations within tradition," he continues. "We're trying to make a unique spirit for Texas."
That same creative spark flickers down at Ranger Creek, which is hoping to release a few small-barrel experiments later this year. "Mesquite-smoked porter whiskey gets us pretty jazzed up," says McDavid, who sees intriguing barrel possibilities in nearly every native Texas tree. But McDavid, 32, is bothered by the prospect of the state's distilling scene devolving into a constellation of mad liquor scientists sequestered in their own still houses. He believes the state's distillers need to band together for the sake of Texas whiskey.
That strategy has worked elsewhere. The Kentucky Distillers' Association was formed in 1880, when 32 distillers convened in Louisville to fight "needless and obstructive laws" requiring them to pay higher taxes. Collegiality has been a hallmark of the bourbon industry ever since, Gregory says.
"While they're competitors, they're friends," Gregory says. "If one of their parts breaks down, they call the distillery down road."
That fraternal ethos hasn't migrated to Texas, Owens says.
"The guys down in Texas are a little more competitive," he says.
Micro-distilling is forever being compared to microbrewing, which didn't exist until the 1980s. Like brewing, traditional distilling was decimated by Prohibition. Hundreds of distilleries that couldn't squeeze through the narrow loopholes carved out for makers of medicinal and sacramental spirits were shut down, but the survivors still produced high-quality goods, which wasn't necessarily the case with beer. When Samuel Adams and Sierra Nevada entered the beer market, the newcomers could pitch their ales as alternatives to Blatz and Miller Lite. Craft whiskey distillers have to contend with acclaimed Pappy Van Winkle.
"The big whiskey guys aren't making shit," McDavid says. "Their stuff is really good."
Microbrewers also had the advantage of being able to puzzle out better beers without alerting the authorities. "I've never met a brewer who wasn't a home brewer first," says Cathy Clark, organizer of Dallas Beer Week and Houston Beer Week. Home distilling is illegal, however, which makes it hard for amateurs to develop their skills.
Yet the most striking difference between the two genres is the secrecy which prevails in micro-distilling — particularly in Texas.
"The distilling industry doesn't seem as open and collegial as the brewing industry," McDavid says. "Look at yeast, for example. Brewers share yeast all the time. Distillers keep it under lock and key."
Texas whiskey makers are so cagey that none of them have visited all the other whiskey distilleries in the state, which meant most of them subtly pressed me for information I might have picked up along the Texas whiskey trail. "Dan blends, right?" one distiller said nonchalantly after learning I'd visited Garrison Brothers.
Perhaps it's because Ranger Creek doesn't yet have a product on the market or any trade secrets to protect, but its owners have been aggressive in reaching out to fellow whiskey makers. They downplay the sense of competition that pulses at other distilleries.
"Garrison's doing wheated bourbon, we're doing rye, and we've all got our own little niche, so it's working out great," McDavid says.
McDavid realizes collegiality has greater implications than the length of the distillery's Christmas card list. The tight-knit Kentucky bourbon community has successfully fought off crippling laws — including Prohibition — and created the phenomenally successful Kentucky Bourbon Trail, which attracts more than a quarter-million visitors annually. As McDavid points out, all of Texas's whiskey distilleries are within 90 miles of Austin. The state's wine sites annually collect $380 million from visitors, but tourist dollars could prove elusive for the craft liquor industry if distillers don't collaborate.
"We had two guys from Balcones down here," McDavid says. "We want to be more collaborative. If everyone takes the right collegial mentality, I think we're all going to be okay."
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.