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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

Garrison Brothers opened the first legal Texas whiskey distillery in 2007 on a ranch near Hye, a tiny spot between Fredericksburg and Johnson City. They released their first batch of Garrison Brothers Straight Texas Bourbon Whiskey last year — a full-bodied, oaky, all-organic, all-Texas whiskey. Garrison grows their own soft red winter wheat on 65 acres of the Blanco County ranch, and they buy their corn from farms in Dalhart and Muleshoe up on the Panhandle. Part of what goes into the bottle comes from the sky — the distillery has a 65,000-gallon catchment system to collect rainwater. (“It got scary a month ago,” said proprietor Dan Garrison, “because we hadn’t had rain for 18 months.”)

Garrison released their fourth batch recently when the rains returned. Like the other distilleries, they do weekly tours, and the trip is worth the drive, Garrison says. “The entire ranch smells like cornbread cooking all the time, its quite the tactile experience.”

Waco’s Balcones Distillery has wowed the experts with four whiskies, and has been featured in Playboy, Saveur, and Smithsonian Magazine.

Their nutty Baby Blue Corn Whiskey, made from Hopi heritage cornmeal, took Double Gold awards at the 2010 San Francisco International World Spirits Competition. Their newest project, Balcones Single Malt Whiskey, entered stores in September and has already fared well with the critics. “We were trying to decide if it was ready to release,” Balcones co-owner Stephen Germer said. “Just in fun, we sent a bottle to the New York World Spirits Competition. A few months later they called back and said, ‘You’ve won a Double Gold and Best in Show for the whole competition.’ Well, I guess it’s ready.”

The Single Malt gets its balanced flavor profile from the different yeasts that introduce hints of banana, apricot, and pear while fermenting the mash, which is made from Scottish Golden Promise barley. Balcones whiskies also include True Blue, a cask-strength version of the corn whiskey, and Brimstone, a smoky whiskey made with scrub oak. Balcones also distills Rumble, reminiscent of Armagnac and grappa, the distinct spirit is made from Texas wildflower honey, mission figs, and Turbinado sugar from Sugar Land. All their spirits are made in Balcones’ handmade still, constructed by founder and head distiller Chip Tate (the former assistant dean at Baylor University has a background in space engineering). “We started on a shoestring,” Germer, Balcones’ business manager recalls. “When we sat down and designed everything on a napkin, I asked Chip, ‘What do you need?’ And he said, ‘a tig welder and a whole lot of copper.’ He grew up in a nuclear lab with his dad.”

Though Balcones’ and Ranger Creek’s free-form style contrasts with the firm, measured approach taken by Rebecca Creek and Garrison Brothers, the new Texas whiskey industry is by necessity an experiment — the legendary corn whiskey that defined the frontier is long gone. “We see our relationship with Balcones and Garrison as making Texas whiskey, though we are all doing something different,” said Ranger Creek co-owner Mark McDavid. “No one knows what Texas whiskey tastes like. We’re going to have this conversation with consumers and all figure it out together.” D


Texas whiskies are available at Spec’s, Twin Liquors, selected Gabriel’s and independent liquor stores, and can be tasted at fine drinking establishments including the Esquire Tavern, Bohanans, and the JW Marriott Hill Country.

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