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Arts & Culture

Area distilleries putting Texas flavors on the map

Photo: Michael Barajas, License: N/A

Michael Barajas

Mike Cameron at Rebecca Creek Distillery

Photo: Scott Andrews, License: N/A

Scott Andrews

Ranger Creek's distiller TJ Miller

When President Jimmy Carter made home brewing legal in 1978 the newly legitimated hobby spawned fledgling brewmasters across the country. Some got stars in their eyes, and the American micro-brewing industry was born. Inspired by the new brewers, the first craft distillers opened shop a dozen years later. The Texas trend didn’t begin until 1997, when San Antonio native Tito Beveridge initiated production at the Mockingbird Distillery in Austin, the first legal distillery in the state. Tito’s Handmade Vodka now competes with Dripping Springs and San Antonio’s Enchanted Rock and Cinco vodkas; Texas rum is made in San Leon, Austin, and Pflugerville. While whiskey was late to the party, two San Antonio distillers released new brands just last month. Ranger Creek Brewing & Distilling and Rebecca Creek Distillery share something in their names, but these hometown companies are radically different tributaries of the mighty whiskey river.

Unlike commercial distilleries obsessed with consistency above all else, the Ranger Creek “brewstillery” brings a craft brewer’s experimental nature to their distilling venture. In November, Ranger Creek .36 (named after the gun favored by the Texas Rangers) was released — the first offering in their Small Caliber Series. Taking advantage of the hot days and warm nights that mature Texas whiskey much faster than in Kentucky or Scotland, Ranger Creek speeds the process even more by using five- and seven-gallon barrels that have a greater percentage of surface area than the standard 53-gallon cask, putting more wood flavoring and coloring agents in contact with the still’s product, called white dog. Vatted from barrels aged only seven to 11 months, the result is remarkable — offering a complex profile favoring caramel and vanilla notes with hints of black cherry in the finish. The .36 is sour mashed and distilled twice. But while Ranger Creek’s large-barrel bourbon ages for a few years, they’re experimenting with triple-distillation, too, and with different char-levels in barrels they are trying out, sourced from three different cooperages. “Some people just pick a barrel and go with it, even though it imparts 70 to 80 percent of the flavor.” said Ranger Creek co-owner and distiller TJ Miller. “We use the barrel as an ingredient.”

Rebecca Creek is aging a single malt whiskey for a planned June 2012 release. In the meantime, they’re producing Enchanted Rock Vodka with a 700 gallon still, the largest that Christian Karl, the German manufacturer, has ever sent to North America. Last month the distillery added Rebecca Creek Fine Texas Spirit Whiskey to their line. They intend to need that high-capacity still (and their in-house bottling line); both products are targeted for popular consumption, and seem to be on their way. “Our vodka is the fastest-growing new liquor brand in Texas,” said Rebecca Creek co-owner Mike Cameron. He and Steve Ison, Rebecca Creek’s other owner, know what they want for their whiskey, too. “The number one selling whiskey in Texas is Crown Royal,” says Cameron. “Grabbing the bottle and going to the hunting-lease, or picking up some Crown for Christmas, is very typical.” The spirit whiskey is a proprietary blend that, claims Cameron, “has an eight-year old bourbon in it.” This ultra-smooth whiskey offers a new choice for the Canadian blend drinker.

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