Two Lone Star State craft distillers help us find the answer
When we asked our readers to help us name the best craft whiskey distilleries in the nation as part of our 2017 Readers' Choice Awards, the results revealed something interesting. The top two distilleries are crafting whiskey not in Tennessee and not in Kentucky, but in the state of Texas.
This begs the question: Is there such thing as Texas whiskey? If so, what defines it? 10Best sat down with both winning distilleries to get some answers.
"You know, I've been asked that question a lot," Dan Garrison, proprietor of first place-finishing Garrison Brothers Distillery told 10Best. "There are some very good distilleries here that are doing things the right way. They’re making it from scratch. Nobody’s trying to copy anybody else. Everybody has their own recipes, their own treatments, their own mash bills. So what's causing Texas to be known as a hotbed for whiskey production is that everyone’s trying to do their own thing."
Garrison Brothers is indeed doing their own thing. To start, they're not just making any old whiskey; they're making bourbon. In fact, when Garrison founded the distillery in 2005 after taking a trip to Kentucky upon losing his software marketing job in the dot-com crash, it was the first legal bourbon distillery in the state of Texas and among the first new bourbon producers to open outside Kentucky since before Prohibition.
For the uninitiated, whiskey is defined as any spirit made from grains and aged in a barrel. Under that broad umbrella are all kinds of different styles with their own unique characteristics and flavor profiles – Scotch, Irish whiskey, Canadian whiskey, blended whiskey, Japanese whisky and bourbon whiskey among them. Of all the variations of whiskey out there on the market, bourbon has some of the strictest standards for how it has to be made.
Garrison refers to them as the ABCs of bourbon: American-made, barrel-aged in new oak, corn-based (at least 51 percent), distilled at below 160 proof ... the list goes on. And according to Garrison, the barrels are the biggest differentiator between bourbon and all those other types of whiskeys you see on the shelves at the liquor store.
"Other whiskeys can reuse barrels over and over and over again, so they’re not nearly going to have the flavor and the sweetness that bourbon does, because when you use a barrel one time, you’re extracting a great majority of the sugars from the sap of the white American oak tree," explains Garrison.
As the birthplace of bourbon, Kentucky is most closely associated with the spirit, so much so that bourbon simply wasn't being produced anywhere else.
"I recognized quickly that Kentucky may be the birthplace of bourbon, but legally you can make bourbon anywhere you want in the United States, and back then, I don’t think anybody knew that yet," said Garrison, "Everybody just accepted that all bourbon had to come from Kentucky. So once I figured that out, I was off to the races. I was going to build the first bourbon facility outside of Kentucky come hell or high water."
Unlike many of the big production bourbon distilleries in Kentucky, Garrison Brothers isn't as concerned with consistency as they are with making each vintage better than the last. Traits that run through each Garrison Brothers bourbon include a dark, amber-crimson tint – much darker than the typical straw-colored Kentucky bourbons – and a darker, richer flavor profile than just about any other bourbon on the market.
With only three ingredients in any bourbon mash – water, grain and oak – what accounts for such a stark difference in flavor and color between a classic Kentucky bourbon and a Garrison Brothers Texas bourbon?
To start, the climate's to blame. Where Kentucky tends to be cooler with high humidity, the hill country of Central Texas is hot and dry.
"In the summer, you’re looking at 110, 120 degrees sometimes, especially in our rickhouses where we age the bourbon barrels," Garrison explains. "So the weather and the geography and the climate have a pronounced effect on how the bourbon inside the barrel ages."
In cold climates, the wood maturation cycle effectively ceases. In Texas, temperatures can be freezing in the morning and above 80 degrees in the afternoon. These huge temperature fluctuations force the liquid to breathe and interact with the wood, allowing bourbon to be aged year-round at a much faster rate than in cooler climates. While there's a greater loss to evaporation – what's known as the "angel's share" – the whiskey also picks up more character from the wood in less time, resulting in a richer, heartier spirit.
"Frankly I have never tasted a Kentucky bourbon that tastes anything like it."
And Garrison Brothers isn't the only distillery making a name for Texas whiskey. Further north in the city of Waco, Balcones Distilling – runner-up for the title of 2017 Readers' Choice Best Craft Whiskey Distillery and winner in 2016 – has done a lot to put Texas on the international whiskey map since their founding in 2008.
While Dan Garrison was creating the state's first bourbon, the distillers at Balcones had their sights set on corn whiskeys and American single malts.
According to Head Distiller Jared Himstedt, what makes Balcones whiskey so special is a commitment to quality ingredients – New Mexico-grown blue corn, Scotland-grown malted barley and customized fine grain oak casks. This passion for grain-to-glass Texas whiskey was born mainly from curiosity.
Himstedt, who came to the whiskey industry with a background in beer brewing, began to experiment with less common ingredients and production methods, all the while keeping meticulous records of what was working.
This spirit of innovation led to the creation of some of the distillery's most successful products, including Baby Blue, an intentionally young whiskey made from a mash of 100-percent blue corn.
"We’ve always focused on having a sense of place," Balcones brand manager Winston Edwards told 10Best, "so part of that means looking at not just the flavors of Texas, but the palates in Texas. Corn as a grain is pretty prominent in Texas cuisine. You think of tortillas, or masa or cornbread. But we didn’t want to just more or less replicate what other people had done with corn whiskey. [Blue corn] is so rich. it’s so nutty. It has a really high oil content that lends itself perfectly to whiskey."
So what defines Texas whiskey? It's certainly the Texas terroir – the dry summer heat and drastic fluctuations in temperature. But perhaps more importantly, it's the trailblazing spirit of the Texans distilling it.
Texas whiskey is defined by a passion for fine spirits and an eye toward experimentation. Texas whiskey is defined by its individuality, not just within the state, but between each craft distillery. Texas whiskey is defined by its pushing the boundaries of what a whiskey can be. Maybe Texas whiskey is simply defined by its very unwillingness to be defined. We'll just have to wait and see.