Master distiller Troy Smith points to a few sacks of corn on the floor of the small warehouse that houses Yellow Rose Distillery in a quiet, residential area just north of Tomball. "We use organic corn from North Texas," he says. "And we grind it all by hand."
That corn is the most important ingredient in the bourbon that he and partner Ryan Baird are distilling here. Important because unlike most bourbons -- and especially the Kentucky sour mash bourbons most Americans are used to -- this whiskey is made entirely from corn. A small amount of barley, only 1 percent of the entire recipe, is added to encourage natural enzymes to develop in the bourbon before it's fermented for four days, separated in a curvy copper still and then aged in small oak barrels for four to six months.
What's equally intriguing about the steam-powered still that Smith and Baird run is that it's the first legal bourbon distillery in the Houston area. And that's just how the two partners planned it.
Smith was a homebrewer and winemaker who experimented in his garage; Baird lived next door and was finishing a graduate degree at Rice University. Their wives were friends. They were good neighbors to each other. Except that Smith kept good-naturedly harassing Baird for years to go into business together.
"He'd be waiting in the driveway for me when I got home every night," chuckled Baird, standing in the barrel aging room of the small distillery. It's carefully climate-controlled, kept at an 80-degree temperature that encourages the bourbon to develop a sweet flavor.
"The oak comes through too heavy when it's any hotter," Baird explained. The result is a viscous, honey-sweet whiskey that finishes surprisingly lean and clean -- and not at all like most other bourbons, thanks to its sweet corn mash.
Clearly, Smith's badgering paid off: The pair's Yellow Rose Distillery is a product of two years of careful planning, obtaining licenses and searching for real estate. "There's not a lot of places that will let you make alcohol," Baird pointed out. But before any of that could be accomplished, Baird and Smith had to decide what to make. Bourbon wasn't always the plan.
Instead, the two men wanted to capture a market segment that hadn't yet been pioneered in Houston. While there are bourbon distilleries in other areas of Texas, there wasn't one anywhere near Houston, nor were there any planned. Smith and Baird consulted their friends and business partners, who all told them to jump on the idea. Even their wives encouraged them -- and their little copper still -- to go full steam ahead.
Now their signature product -- Outlaw Bourbon -- is just a few short months away from hitting the market. Spec's has already arranged to purchase 20 barrels a month; that's 20 percent of the distillery's entire output each month. The liquor store plans to stock the bourbon everywhere from its downtown Smith Street hub to stores in The Woodlands, Sugar Land, Kingwood and -- of course -- Tomball.
Smith and Baird still live in the area and are still neighbors, and would have preferred to open their distillery in Tomball proper. But local regulations prevent them from operating anywhere near the city limits, so the pair have set their sights on Houston. Within a year or two, they hope to have relocated into the heart of the city and hope to be making far more than just 100 barrels of bourbon a month. At both its current location and the future location, Yellow Rose will be offering tours of the facility and -- of course -- tastings.
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For now, though, Baird and Smith are just trying to get their grand opening under way. Reserve 101 will be the first bar to stock Outlaw Bourbon and will host the release party in September. And after that, the team plans to keep tackling the emerging American whiskey market with their trademark vigor and insight.
"Rye whiskey," says Baird, who aims to start making batches in October. "There's a huge market for rye whiskey right now."