Texas Goes Big on Craft Spirits

Whiskey being poured into a glass at Firestone & Robertson Distilling Co.
Photo courtesy Firestone & Robertson Distilling Co.
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The Lone Star State, the largest in terms of square mileage in the continental U.S. as well as one of its most populous, encompasses a wide range of home-grown spirits. In other words, don’t mess with Texas.

Its pioneering attitude and diverse population means a sometimes unconventional approach. From Austin to Waco and beyond, there’s plenty of whiskey, an iconic vodka brand and surprise detours through rakia, sotol and more.

What makes distilling different here? According to Heather Greene, who relocated from the New York City area to Austin to become CEO and master blender at Milam & Greene, it’s the sprawling state’s wide-ranging climate that allows for a varied range of spirits.

In general, it’s marked by heat and humidity, which helps whiskey and other spirits mature faster, but it’s also subject to winds that sweep down the plains and desert-like conditions further south.

“What is ‘Texas whiskey’?” asks Greene. “How do you define it in a place this big? You could fit three Scotlands in Texas!”

Master Distiller Marlene Holmes (left) and CEO, Partner Master Blender Heather Greene sampling whiskey at Milam & Greene
Master Distiller Marlene Holmes (left) and CEO, Partner Master Blender Heather Greene at Milam & Greene / Photo by Sarah Baumberger

Equally important is what she calls “cultural terroir.”

“Texas has a frontier mentality to it,” says Greene. “We can do things differently, and we can do things on our own in a way people don’t think about.”

Compared to states with more established traditions of spirits production, “here, we can do things on our own terms,” she says.

If a road trip across the state isn’t in the cards right now, here are nine notable producers with Texas ties and some of the spirits for which they’re best known, as well as some coming attractions.

Dorćol Distilling & Brewing: This San Antonio microdistillery turns apricots into fragrant Kinsman Texas Rakia, a clear fruit brandy that’s a nod to one of the founders’ Serbian heritage. The distillery is named for a neighborhood in Belgrade.  

Firestone & Robertson Distilling Co. copper sculpture and distiller exterior
Firestone & Robertson Distilling Co. / Image courtesy Firestone & Robertson

Firestone & Robertson Distilling Co.: This “whiskey ranch,” sited on a 112-acre former golf course, bills itself as the largest whiskey distillery west of the Mississippi. Its calling card is whiskeys like Firestone & Robertson TX Straight Bourbon, made using wild Texas yeast, key for those who care about local terroir.

Garrison Brothers: Situated on a farm and ranch in Texas Hill Country, this distillery introduced its first Bourbon in 2010. It’s perhaps best known for its annual Cowboy Bourbon release, which tends to sell out in hours. An easier bottle to score: Garrison Brothers Small Batch Bourbon.

Marfa Spirits: Launched in 2019, this West Texas newcomer is geared up to take on sotol, a distillate made from a type of shrub, Dasylirion wheeleri, commonly called “desert spoon.” The distillery has been working closely with sotol producers in Chihuahua, Mexico, to ensure its spirit will pay homage to the original. The pandemic has pushed production plans into early 2021, the producer says.

Milam & Greene: The Austin whiskey maker’s latest bottling is a robust grain-to-glass Bourbon made by distiller Marlene Holmes. Its blender, Heather Greene, also experiments with Bourbons and ryes sourced elsewhere and brought to age in the Texas heat. The Milam & Greene Triple Cask Bourbon blends three straight Bourbons for a vanilla-forward sipper accented with spicy cinnamon glow.

Saint Liberty Whiskey: One of the founders at this Austin whiskey house also took on the role of chief historian, which makes sense for a lineup inspired by Prohibition-era women bootleggers. For example, Bertie’s Bear Gulch Bourbon is a four-year aged Texas Bourbon proofed with water from Montana. It honors Birdie Brown, a Black bootlegger and Montana homesteader.

Tate & Co. Distillery: Spirits industry veteran Chip Tate makes brandy in the style of Cognac or Armagnac. However, he’s doing it in Waco with Hill Country grapes on a still that he’s assembled himself, piece by piece. Keep an eye out for the brandies when the distillery has its official debut, anticipated in mid-2021.

Tito’s Handmade Vodka: This vodka juggernaut started in Austin in 1997, when it became the first legal distillery in Texas since Prohibition. It’s now a national brand that produces tens of millions of bottles per year, but it still has Texas roots.

Treaty Oak barrels and their Waterloo Gin / Photo courtesy Treaty Oak
Treaty Oak barrels and their Waterloo Gin / Photo courtesy Treaty Oak

Treaty Oak: Come to the 28-acre Dripping Springs ranch for the Waterloo Gin accented with Texas pecan and lavender, stay for the “grain-to-glass” whiskeys. Its latest is Day Drinker Texas Bourbon, made with Texas wheat and corn, aged for one year in the heat.

Published on October 14, 2020
Topics: Spirits