Update: After receiving an email from Whitmeyer's Distilling and some readers, we wish to clarify our previous statement that the Yellow Rose Distillery will be the first whiskey distillery in Houston. See the end of the article for the full explanation.
The Great Texas Whiskey Debate--as we've come to call it--is alive and well in Houston. Ever since we conducted a taste test of "Texas whiskeys" last month, we've been hearing from diehard fans of the spirit and of the state that many products that claim to be made in Texas are actually only bottled here, and that there are very few true Texas spirits. For some, it seems, it's a very sore subject.
Ryan Baird and Troy Smith are hoping to quell at least some of the furor by opening Houston's first whiskey distillery early this fall. The duo (who are now joined by a staff of three and CFO Randy Whitaker) started making whiskey in 2010, after deciding they needed a change from their corporate day jobs.
"Me and my partner Troy, we were neighbors," Baird explains. "We were both in corporate America. We'd sit outside and drink a beer and talk about how great it would be if we weren't doing our day jobs. We talked about doing a craft brewery, but there were a bunch in the works then. We started investigating vodka and wine, and ultimately we settled on whiskey."
Initially the company, called Yellow Rose Distilling in honor of Texas, operated out of a tiny facility in the small town of Pinehurst, north of Houston between Magnolia and Tomball. With only 1,500 square feet to work with, Baird estimates he and Smith had the smallest still in Texas.
Smith was the recipe master, while Baird ran the business side of things. The small still meant small batches of whiskey--about 250 bottles a month that were sold to a local distributor. In spite of the humble beginnings, Baird and Smith were proud of the finished product, which debuted in 2012.
On a whim, they submitted their Outlaw Bourbon to the American Distilling Institute, which awarded the product a best in class designation. The Straight Rye Whiskey won double gold at the San Francisco Artisan Spirits competition the same year, so the friends decided to expand their production.
"At that time, we were still working full time jobs and trying to do other things," Baird says. "Then in 2013, we decided to figure out how to take this to the next step. So we're trying to raise money to get bigger equipment. We have a much bigger still now and a vodka column to eventually make vodka."
Yellow Rose Distilling has purchased a 10,000 square foot space just north of the Galleria area, and with more space, the company is able to produce four whiskeys. One of them, Baird explains, is blended with whiskey purchased from producers outside of Texas.
"There are a couple distilleries that make everything from scratch in Texas, but we do some of both," Baird says. "The problem we had was we couldn't make enough to keep up with demand and to keep prices down. If you look at the ones made from scratch, they're so expensive."
"A lot of the consumers don't understand," he says. "We make some stuff from scratch like the Outlaw, and we also use some of the components we distill and blend that with bourbon we've purchased for our Blended Whiskey. I've found a lot of comments on the website from diehard consumers who say it has to be distilled here, but the problem is there aren't enough of them here to keep us in business."
By producing small batch Texas whiskey as well as larger batches of a blended product, Yellow Rose is able to serve both the whiskey connoisseur as well as the fan who wants a good product for around $30 a bottle.
"We're Houstonians," Baird says, shrugging off suggestions that whiskey not made completely in Texas isn't a Texan product. "We're building jobs here, we're spending money here. As long as you don't lie about it. We're open about it, and we think that's the way to do it."
Another way Yellow Rose is hoping to build community is with a Kickstarter campaign to fund some of the buildout of the tasting room. The company is hoping to raise $25,000 by mid-August to add the necessary finishing touches to the tasting room in order to make it a great place to have parties or relax after a tour.
"It's a little different because we already have products and aren't starting from scratch," Baird says. "But we thought it would be great to do a Kickstarter to build community and build excitement around the distillery, so when we open, we'll have instant customers."
Yellow Rose is offering a number of rewards for donations to the project, including a table handmade from a used bourbon barrel, one of the most popular choices so far. The top reward is a week working side-by-side with a distiller to learn how the whiskey is made. If you live outside of Houston, the company will even provide a hotel for you while you work in the distillery.
Update: Yellow Rose officially began production in 2012--before Whitmeyer's--in Pinehurst, Texas. Whitmeyer's claims this is outside of Houston, while Yellow Rose maintains that Pinehurst, near Tomball, is in the "Houston area."
Though both Whitmeyer's Distilling and another company, BJ Hooker's, have Houston city addresses, Yellow Rose Distillery partner Ryan Baird maintains his company is the first to be licensed in the city of Houston. Whitmeyer's and BJ Hooker's are in unincorporated Houston.
Baird writes, "When we moved to our new North Post Oak address, we again became the first whiskey distillery in Houston. In fact, ask the City of Houston how many distilleries they have permitted......you will get the right answer which is only one (Yellow Rose). Unfortunately, that meant we had to go through 11 months of city permitting red tape. So, we are first on both accounts. First in the Houston area and first in the City of Houston."
Travis Whitmeyer disagrees with that statement, noting, "I still have the first barrel of legally distilled whiskey produced in the county since prohibition, and I plan to hold on to it for some time. While [Yellow Rose] did open a couple of months before us, I would hardly call Pinehurst, TX; Houston, TX. I suppose you could use the designation Houston area, however, there were Houston area distilleries prior to us and Yellow Rose--Railean's in San Leon, Galveston County, and Dash in Brookshire, TX."
It seems to be a matter of semantics--what you consider Houston and what you consider the surrounding area--in determining who was truly the first distillery in town.
Of course, the fact that there's a disagreement over this at all is a sign that Houston is becoming a diverse liquor producer, which is great for the city. We doubt that anyone can argue about that.