Texas aims for Kentucky-like devotion to its whiskey, but wants to keep Texas flavor

Texas Editor / BourbonStory.com

HOUSTON -- My first newspaper job out of the University of Texas was writing about municipal bonds. Never mind that I knew next to nothing about the topic. It was a recession and a job was a job. In order to get to know the denizens of my new world, I set up meetings with investment bankers, plying them with questions as I plied them pours of Macallan and Glenfiddich. Lucky for me, my then-bosses didn’t bat an eye at the accumulated $100 tabs, usually at the now departed Beau Nash at the Crescent, that I was submitting for a single night’s source meeting.

That was also my introduction to world of Scotch whisky smoky and sweet, mellow and peppery. In time, bourbon found its way into my glasses, too.

Those brands still reign today, of course, and premium bourbons are commanding as much attention as the single-malts of early encounters. But mumblemumble-years later, the focus on craft-distilling and locavore nourishment has spurred a homegrown whiskey industry in Texas, one that has brought new bourbons and other whiskeys to Texas palettes. In just the last few years, half a dozen homegrown distilleries have begun producing Texas-style whiskey and bourbon, drawing on Kentucky’s traditions but embracing local agriculture and tapping our harsh summers to create a unique Texas flavor.

“The idea is to make a Texas product, not to just try to copy what’s going on in Kentucky,” says Ryan Baird, co-founder of Yellow Rose Distillery in Houston, which makes four spirits, including a rye, that sell for as much as $65.

The result is attracting fans—and recognition. Yellow Rose, which produced its first batch only 18 months ago, was named best in category at the American Distilling Institute’s most recent judging of artisan spirits last fall. Balcones Distilling in Waco last year took home a trifecta of accolades, including World Single Malt of the Year, in the Wizards of Whisky awards in London.

At a time when legacy whisky brands are scrambling, unable to keep up with drinkers’ thirst, the emergence of Texas-based distillers is helping to fill the void. “I keep Balcones in the back,” says Everett Lynch at the Houston Wine Merchant of the distillery’s signature Baby Blue corn whiskey. “People have to ask for it.”

It’ll be a while before Texas distillers will command the devotion of their Kentucky brethren—and even longer before their sales measure up to the millions of barrels already aging in the Bluegrass State. Long lead times in production and a prevalence of smaller bourbon barrels mean a lot of room for tinkering. Baird acknowledges that a Texas pedigree needs 10 or 20 years to be fully formed.

But such immaturity, so to speak, hasn’t dissuaded Texas whiskey’s loyal following. “People in Texas like things from Texas,” says Lynch at the Houston Wine Merchant. “And they’re willing to pay premium prices for it.”

On a recent Friday afternoon, a growing gaggle of Brooks Brothers-besuited young men gathered at Leon’s Lounge, chugging on beer bottles and sipping single malts. As I asked the bartender about the interest of patrons in Texas whiskeys, we overheard one of them say to another, Hey, I heard they’re pretty good. What’s that one you had?

And so begins a tradition.

Of the group of us at Bourbon Story, I am the official novice. But I do know that Texans’ enthusiasm for their compatriots along with a healthy competitive spirit means I’m in for a lively learning curve. I’m looking forward to coming along this journey with you.

Angela Shah (@angelashah) is Texas editor of BourbonStory.com. Email her with ideas, suggestions or complaints at angela.shah@gmail.com.