By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
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By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
McDavid is a genuinely nice guy: When he discusses the quality standards Ranger Creek's aiming to meet, he says, "We wouldn't release anything before we'd serve it to our parents." But he recognizes Texas whiskey won't rise on a wave of good feelings. There's a plaque on the distillery wall with the names of its investors, a clear reminder of how little whiskey makers can accomplish without solid business plans and stacks of money.
Diageo, the spirits conglomerate behind Bulleit bourbon, collects about $16 billion in annual revenue. Rebecca Creek Distillery in San Antonio is considerably smaller, but its backers don't expect it to stay that way.
"We're hoping to be the largest whiskey producer in North America," co-founder Mike Cameron says. "All of our investment group is very passionate about that."
• SLIDESHOW: Texas distilleries
Rebecca Creek has scads of money, and isn't shy about showing it. The distillery, which last year released Enchanted Rock vodka, has a branded tour bus that it uses for promotions (including a Texas distilling event for which the bus was strategically parked to obscure signs advertising other distillers). Rebecca Creek's whiskey isn't ready for drinking, but there are soy candles and polo shirts for sale in the gift shop. There's also vodka.
"The purpose of the vodka was to generate revenue," Cameron says. "We produced and sold 10,000 cases in the first four months. It's a record for any distillery I've ever heard of. We could just rest on vodka, but we have a lot of whiskey drinkers in our investment group."
The flavor profile of Rebecca Creek's forthcoming whiskey was decided by committee, with investors providing specific instructions to distiller Jeff Murphy.
"We covered color, we covered taste, we covered finish," Cameron says. "We already did a batch in California, and it's fantastic. I can't wait to bring it to the masses."
"We're planning on half a million cases of vodka a year, but whiskey, we've been told, could be bigger," Cameron says. "No one seems to have cracked the nut yet on Texas whiskey. You've got Chip Tate under the bridge."
Cameron was a tractor salesman before a college friend recruited him to "get into some business related to alcohol." The pair planned to open a distributorship, but then settled on distilling.
"The point was to get fantastic whiskey to the masses, but we've talked about doing a rum, doing a gin," Cameron says. "The sky's the limit."
Dan Garrison's equally ambitious, although he has no desire to distill anything but bourbon or sell so many cases he'd risk violating the "corn to cork philosophy" that girds his operation. Garrison has turned down offers to distribute in California, New York and New Zealand.
"We're staying here. If you look at the size of the business, I don't have ambitions to make it much larger," he says.
Still, Garrison's influence is immense. He personifies the creativity, vision and drive needed for the Texas craft spirits industry to succeed in dispelling the misconception that good whiskey comes only from Kentucky.
Tom Herbruck, an applejack maker from Cleveland, was supposed to be in Fort Worth for a conference. But he couldn't resist detouring to visit Garrison Brothers Distillery.
"Everybody knows Dan, if you're in distilling," Herbruck explains. "It's hard for micro-distilleries to make a really good product. It's not like bread, where it tastes great just because you made it at home."
Garrison's dedication is apparent even to drinkers who can't find — or can't afford — an $80 bottle of Garrison Brothers bourbon. His distillery, seated down a gravel road lined with oaks, is so pretty that he's preparing to promote the barrel house as a wedding rehearsal dinner venue for couples marrying at nearby vineyards. The buildings' tidy interiors, all wood and natural light, hum with bourbon heritage. The Kentucky homage is intentional.
"I love the history of what the spirit is," Garrison's wife, Nancy, says. "We really have a responsibility for what's come before us. I can't imagine us making any other spirit. It has extra meaning to me."
Garrison, a former software marketer, was running a nonprofit foundation when he came across a newspaper story about a craft vodka maker.
"I said to my wife, 'Why doesn't someone make something that tastes good?'" Garrison says. He opened the distillery in 2008.
Garrison takes obvious pleasure in linking his project to the legacy of whiskey making. He's acquired a distillery dog — "I told my wife now that I was a glorified moonshiner, I had to have a basset hound" — and cultivated relationships with the distillery's neighbors. He annually enters a float in the Peach Festival parade, and employs as many locals as he can.
"The town of Fredericksburg is cute and quaint, but you talk about tough people, these Germans are badasses," Garrison says. "I mean, first, they're all sold a pack of lies by the Kaiser, then they have to spend years and years removing rocks and being attacked by Apaches. The locals aren't that quaint."
Stubborn as his 19th-century heroes, Garrison grows his own soft red winter wheat, collects rainwater for proofing his whiskey and insists on making a straight bourbon, which calls for a full two years of aging. State legislators have grown accustomed to seeing Garrison bound through the halls of the Capitol, bourbon barrels balanced on each shoulder.
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.