This phenomenon has not developed in isolation – if anything, Texas is lagging behind a national trend. From California to New York, microdistilleries are popping up — the number in the United States has grown in the past decade, from a few dozen to over 200. Still, the Lone Star State is important to the industry, not only for its considerable potential as a place of future development, but also as the origin of this nascent movement’s true success stories.
Waco, home to many Baptists who frown upon alcohol consumption, is one of the last places in Texas you would expect to find a distillery.
But inside a 2,000-square-foot building in the city’s warehouse district, lies Balcones Distillery, all shiny copper stills, exposed ceiling beams and steel vats brimming with fermented fruit and grain. A handful of young men mill about, pounding plugs into small oak barrels and sampling snifters of golden-colored whiskey.
Chip Tate, the full-bearded owner of Balcones, opened the place in 2008 after a stint as a Baylor University administrator. “For me, this all started as baking when I was 11,” he says. Tate, who, as a grown–up, has dabbled in cheese-making and professional brewing, constantly draws on his appreciation for food to get ideas.
A couple of years ago, he had hopes of making a liquor that used 100 percent Texan ingredients. At home, he had just made a dessert sauce from Texas figs, honey and sugar. In the distillery, he fermented the same ingredients and the final product became Rumble, a spirit that’s now part of Balcones’ regular offerings. In addition to its success in last December’s “Drink Local” cocktail contest in Austin, it won a silver medal at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition last spring.
Tate places an emphasis on quality regional ingredients: another of his spirits, Balcones’ Baby Blue corn whiskey, is made from New Mexican Hopi blue corn.
But the epitome of locavore liquor may be the bourbon made at Garrison Brothers’ Distillery, located in bucolic Texas Hill Country, an hour west of Austin. (Contrary to popular belief, bourbon whiskey does not have to be made in Kentucky. Among the requirements codified in federal law is that bourbon has to be distilled in the United States, be made from at least 51 percent corn and be aged in a charred new oak cask.)
On rolling ranch land near President Lyndon B. Johnson’s hometown, owner Dan Garrison grows organic wheat and collects rainwater for cutting down the proof of his bourbon before bottling. His spent mash, previously distilled fermented grain, is used by local farmers for animal feed.
“Everyone around here takes good care of the land,” Garrison told me during a distillery visit recently. “We try to be good stewards as well.”
These efforts to be inventive or local — or both — have not gone unnoticed. Last October, Garrison released about 1,800 bottles of his first two-year aged bourbon in Hill Country liquor stores. By early December, it was almost sold out.