When I think about Texas whiskey, I think about melting last summer on the Texas Whiskey Trail. I think about tasting white dog from a spigot for the first time and wide, exposed drums of bread-colored mash. I think about pinging from Dallas and pong-ing to Waco for maximum distillery coverage during the brightest hours of the afternoon, partly so that my husband could win bragging rights over how many Whiskey Trail points he’d earned that week, and partly because we couldn’t get enough. I think about the creative, numbered prayers that were quietly offered to the elusive god of air conditioning (a wrathful god, with little patience for air circulation in closed, fermenting spaces), and how I could have repurposed a lot of those prayers to instead salvage my liver.
But distinctly, the Texas whiskies that I think about are the ones that left an impression on those trips and challenged what I thought I knew about craft distillate. All of my career I’ve been told that spirits aspire to sameness— an idea that brings comfort to many but has often times left me with a lingering discouragement as coarse as the bourbon residue left on my tumbler. In the case of Texas whiskey, it’s the unfamiliar that I am celebrating. Its whiskey made with ancient grains, restored varieties of corn and even Katy rice. Its whiskey finished with local rainwater and fermented in open, uncontrolled vats that sweat through Texas summers nine months out of the year, like you or I. It’s a broad, original landscape embracing what has for too long been antithetical to the industry: making an important whiskey that remembers the power of agriculture and embraces regionality.
These are the five producers I can’t wait to revisit on Saturday’s Texas Whiskey Festival:
I’ll let you in on a common oversight: if a distillery can make a clear spirit bound for barrel that tastes flavorful and balanced, then the final liquid is destined to succeed. Such was my introduction to Andalusia, an unassuming Blanco facility in the Texas Hill Country. Their triple-distilled white whiskey is a fine reference to early American moonshine, with significantly smoother edges.
Andalusia focuses on malted barley as their base grain, creating clear options for fans of Irish and Scotch styles. Expect a whiskey that is light, clean, and consistent, usually clocking in at 100 proof. Head to their Revenant Oak for peat lovers, or enjoy their love letter to smoke (the barley is first smoked with mesquite, oak and apple woods) with Stryker. As for me, I’ll be on the hunt for some rumored PX Sherry finished bottles.
2. Lone Elm, Five Points Distilling
Red Winter Wheat is the heart of Lone Elm, an unexpected edge to Forney, Texas. Operating since 2013, they run on two hulking stills: one for vodka and the other for whiskey. Both worlds are easily worth investing time on outside of the TWF. Abandon the old adage that vodka must be flavorless and singular– Lone Elms’ has a depth of flavor attributed to potato and other craft grain vodkas. Memorably complex, it runs the gamut of cream, dark chocolate and umami notes. Their whiskies are no less intricate. Taking a departure from typical wheat bread and honeyed notes, both the small batch and single barrel are generous of spirit. Even at 90 proof, expect an abundance of tastes (stone fruit, molasses, herbs and baking spice) coming together with a rich body and lengthy finish.
MKT is the whiskey passion project I wish I had the guts to do myself. Located across a set of train tracks outside of Houston in the small town of Katy, Nici and Nick helm production in the spare hours around their full-time day jobs.
Wild yeast, spontaneous fermentation, and minimal technology, MKT is the quintessence of punk, small-batch production. Their strengths lie in their stalwart community awareness and distinct use of local rainwater and grains.
Not to be held back by conventional ingredients, they both source local Texas corn and barley and include Katy rice in their whiskey mashbill. The results are as unexpected as they are delicious: the added complexity of rice (sometimes savory, sometimes saline) in a whiskey that tastes uniquely ‘Katy’. Try their fearless Silver Spike Whiskey (amaretto cookies and almonds) or Conductor’s Reserve Bourbon for a sip of something utterly original.
The Garrison Brothers domain is everything I pictured about Texas before I moved here over a decade ago: sprawling land, tractors caravanning people across dirt roads, log cabins and oversized rocking chairs. While I’ve repeatedly been informed that everything is bigger in Texas, it hasn’t been the skyline, state size, Big Bertha or even Bevo that has continuously roused my interest. It’s been the bigger bourbon. And that, Garrison Brothers does patriotically.
Large and brassy, Garrison Brothers’ Small Batch has all of the comforts of everyday bourbon, but with added quality and volume: the warm hug of heavy oak presence, slightly elevated booze, and an unctuous, expensive weight. As a bartender, it’s one of my favorite bottles to use to introduce Texas whiskey to a curious newcomer. A quick look at the side of any bottle reveals everything you could want to know about their grain to glass progression: the variety of grain and when it was harvested, where it was farmed, and dates for distillation, barreling and release. For an even more refined experience, I recommend playing with their single barrel bottles.
If the world comes to an end at the Texas Whiskey Festival and there’s only time for one dram before we submit to the post-apocalyptic fray, this distillery would be my choice. A boon to the industry, the Likarish family is making noteworthy advances in flavor and philosophy. Located in Denison just North of Dallas, brothers Robert and Jonathan Likarish are committed to native Texas grains. It’s clear that understanding and cultivating a terroir is well within their wheelhouse, and the finished product is a sincere tribute to Texas agriculture. Heirloom Purple, Red Flint, Dent Yellow, Bloody Butcher– meet the cast list of local corns responsible for bottles of Icarus, Promethean, and Harbinger. Their intention is one you can taste: each bottle thrives in nuance, with base grains carrying a subtle presence to the finish. These are whiskies every Somm dreams about– complex liquid that tells a story.