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Let the Spirit Move You

Texas bourbon comes of age
Written by Kristy Alpert.

Garrison Brothers Distillery in Hye rolled out its first barrels of straight bourbon in 2008.  To be called “straight” bourbon, it must be aged for at least two years in new, charred-oak barrels.  (Photo by J. Griffis Smith)

As I swerved to miss the potholes along a stretch of warehouses in northeast San Antonio, I finally caught sight of the headquarters for Ranger Creek Brewing & Distilling. Even with a towering windmill out front, if it weren’t for the rustic metal sign on the building, I might have imagined that the crowds were waiting for access to a warehouse sample sale. Discounted furniture or couture? Not today: Lucky for us, we were in for an entirely different sort of sampling experience—a Saturday “brewstillery” tour.

Although many people believe that bourbon can only come from Bourbon County, Kentucky, that’s not accurate.

We walked through an inconspicuous door, and before our eyes could adjust from the sunny skies to the warehouse fluorescents, a man who introduced himself as “the Colonel” welcomed us with a friendly smile. The Colonel—actually Allen McDavid, a retired U.S. Army Colonel and the father of one of Ranger Creek’s founders—handed us souvenir pint glasses and a stack of three blue tickets, which we could exchange for pints of handcrafted beers and a taste of the strong stuff. I could smell the deliciously sweet aroma of bourbon as I made my way to a picnic table in the tasting room.

Tours of Garrison Brothers Distillery include a look at the distillation process. Most of bourbon’s flavor and color comes from the barrels it ages in. (Photo by J. Griffis Smith)Ranger Creek makes four year-round beers, several seasonal and specialty brews, and two different whiskeys. We were eager to learn more, and after the Colonel and his wife, Reta, made a toast, we sipped our first beer and settled in to learn about the brewing and distilling process. “Making whiskey—remember, bourbon is a type of whiskey—is similar to making beer,” he told us. “To make bourbon, we start with a mixture of corn, rye, and malted barley, then transfer it to a fermentation tank, where we add yeast. The yeast eats the sugar, and in a few days, we have something called distiller’s beer. Then we put the distiller’s beer into a 300-gallon, copper still, where we distill it twice. After the second distillation, it’s called ‘white dog.’ It’s as clear as water at that point. We then put it in new, charred-oak barrels—that’s required by law if we’re to call it bourbon—and age it. The barrel gives bourbon most of its flavor and color. And if we age it two years, we get to call it ‘straight bourbon.’”

We refilled our pint glasses before heading to the manufacturing warehouse (where the grains are ground and mixed), the tank room (where we saw the brew kettles and copper still), and finally, to the aging room (where thousands of gallons of “white dog” aged in rows of oak barrels). The Colonel fielded questions about everything from dry hopping (a beer-making technique that enhances aroma) to Texas’ changing brewing and distilling legislation—a hot topic that dominated the floor on our second visit to the tasting room, where we ended our tour with a sample of Ranger Creek’s newest small batch of bourbon.

The Buzz About Bourbon

Opened by friends and business partners TJ Miller, Mark McDavid, and Dennis Rylander in 2010,  Ranger Creek was the first beer producer to venture into spirits production.  (When Blanco’s Real Ale Brewery solidifies its spirits plans, it’s expected to be number two.) But distilling in Texas dates to 1997, when Austin entrepreneur Tito Beveridge launched Tito’s Vodka and kicked off a craft-distilling movement. Today, according to the Texas Distilled Spirits Association, at least 16 Texas distillers offer products for sale in stores. And at press time, the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission reveals 46 current and active 
distillery permits. But despite all the vodka, rum, whiskey, and liqueurs made in Texas, bourbon had remained relatively unrepresented until recently.

“Texas bourbon is a new and growing category with a lot of new brands entering it,” says Mark McDavid, who credits sipping premium bourbons like Kentucky’s Buffalo Trace for his refined palate. “I found bourbon from scotch. Before I did, I was a scotch snob. Then I started drinking whiskey with our head distiller, and I came to really appreciate the flavors of vanilla, oak, brown sugar, and maple syrup in bourbon.”

Wait. Bourbon? In Texas?

Although many people believe that bourbon can only come from Bourbon County, Kentucky—much as true Scotch can only come from Scotland— that’s not accurate. Legally, bourbon must be made in America, but it can be made in any state, including Texas.

“Distilleries in Kentucky invented and perfected bourbon, and we respect that heritage,” says Mark McDavid. “However, the law allows any state in the union to make bourbon, as long as we follow certain guidelines. There are small distilleries like us in many other states making Colorado bourbon, California bourbon, New York bourbon, Arkansas bourbon, and so forth. If everyone making bourbon shares our philosophy, we’ll have delicious and unique products with the flavor of each state.” 

Mark McDavid, who co-founded Ranger Creek in 2010, says he was a “Scotch snob” before discovering the complexities of bourbon. (Photo by Will Van Overbeek)Ranger Creek is currently in the process of aging its bourbon for two years to earn the coveted title of “straight” bourbon. In the meantime, Ranger Creek has released a small-barrel version of the bourbon, called Ranger Creek .36, which takes less time to mature, thanks to the barrel size and Texas’ temperatures. Other Texas distilleries making straight bourbon include Firestone & Robertson Distilling Co. in Fort Worth (which plans to release its first ever straight bourbon in the fall of 2014) and Garrison Brothers Distillery in Hye, west of Johnson City.

Dan Garrison, founder and chief whiskey peddler of Garrison Brothers, was the first Texan to legally distill whiskey in the state. He has been making straight bourbon with strictly Lone Star ingredients since he rolled out his first barrels in 2008. “We make our bourbon with organic corn from the Texas Panhandle, organic soft red winter wheat that we grow ourselves on my farm, and rainwater that we harvest from the rooftops of our buildings and purify ourselves,” explains Garrison.

From Wednesday through Sunday, Garrison and his team offer tours of the Central Texas distillery, which typically start out with an array of local wines, beers, and s’mores around a roaring, midday campfire. After the group has been primed for the down-on-the-farm tour—where grazing roosters are as common as the shots of white dog passed around by eager tour guides—Garrison and his team guide the masses around the grounds to explain the distilling process before winding up in the tasting barn for a sample of the final product. “What I love about bourbon is the history, the people, the culture, the taste, and the authenticity,” he says as he toasts the group. “Whiskey can be made a thousand different ways, but straight bourbon is totally authentic. Drink up.”

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