Texas might be a little late to the party, but it’s one of the prime locations for whiskey production in the US. Texas has made its appearance on the whiskey scene back in the mid-2000s and now, over 100 distilleries are maturing top-notch whiskey.
But is there a thing like the Texas Whiskey? Or is this a gimmick? To find out, you have to stick to the end of this post. We’ll go over what Texas whiskey is and why is it different than Kentucky bourbon? How is it matured?
What is Texas Whiskey?
Texas whiskey is essentially bourbon whiskey. As simple as it may sound, there’s more depth to the ocean of information.
Bourbon is one of the most distinguishable styles of whiskey. It’s American, it’s harsh, and it’s awesome. It’s probably the only type of whiskey that must go through intense legislative protocols to be legally sold as bourbon.
The primary criteria are the usage of grain. Each distillery uses its own combination of grain mash. A bottle of bourbon must contain at least 51% corn mash bill. The other portion might be filled with barley, rye, or wheat.
But wait! Isn’t that the same for Tennessee whiskey? 51% corn? The answer is yes. Both Texas and Tennessee whiskey uses at least 51% corn concentration.
The differentiating factor in this case, is the barrel in which the whiskey is matured in. Every Tennessee whiskey, including Jack Daniel’s, is initially similar to bourbon until it goes through the Lincoln Country Process. It’s a charcoal filtering process that defines the signature tone of the Tennessee whiskey and mellows out the harshness of bourbon.
Before prohibition, bourbon was only distilled and aged in Kentucky. There was and is no legal restriction for other states to produce whiskey. It’s just that Kentucky has been the forefather of bourbon production in the US.
It all changed when the Garrison Brothers Distillery got permission to produce bourbon in Texas. It’s the first distillery to make bourbon in the state and the oldest distillery in Texas as well. It’s the pioneer among distilleries, taking the legacy of making bourbon out of Kentucky, for the first time in history.
The legal definition of whiskey requires it to be extracted by fermentation of grain and aging in a wooden barrel. That’s a huge canvas to play with and distilleries around the country have taken full advantage of the abstract definition.
The major differences for all different types of whiskeys are the barrels they are aged in and the grain composition. And then comes the climate of the region. When these factors work hand in hand, the end result becomes fascinating.
What is Bourbon?
We’ve established the fact that Texas whiskey is bourbon. So, what is bourbon?
Well, bourbon is a style of whiskey, primarily made from corn mash. Contrary to popular belief, Kentucky does not exclusively have the right to produce bourbon, it never did. However, the majority of the world’s bourbon demand is still met by Kentucky.
But the production of bourbon cannot go outside of the USA. There are federal laws in place that define bourbon as a ‘distinctive product of the United States’. The name bourbon is supposedly derived from Bourbon County in Kentucky, the birthplace of bourbon. There is a street named Bourbon in New Orleans as well. It all links back to the House of Bourbon, a French Dynasty.
Bourbon is distilled at a maximum proof of 160. It effectively means the whiskey is distilled at 80% alcohol volume. It changes as time progresses.
When it goes for aging, the proof cannot be higher than 125. The final proof when aging is done usually drops. The bourbon is then diluted for bottle strength. Some bottles go as barrel strength as well.
Bourbon is probably the purest form of whiskey with no external elements introduced at any point. The law restricts distilleries to add anything to the formula. Otherwise, it cannot be labeled as bourbon.
The final and most important property of bourbon is the barrel it’s aged in. The barrel must be newly charred American oak. The fresh char layer on the inside of the barrel contributes to the rich and sweet flavor of the bourbon.
Most other whiskey styles reuse the barrels. Some distilleries use multiple iterations of barrel maturation to give character to the whiskey. But that’s not the case for bourbon. The barrel must go once the maturation of the particular bourbon batch is done.
There is no minimum aging requirement for it to be bourbon. But the law states that a minimum of two years of maturation makes it a ‘Straight Bourbon’. And any bottle aged less than four years must contain the age information on the label.
Difference Between Kentucky Bourbon and Texas whiskey
The ultimate difference lies in the aging process. The primary steps are identical. The corn mash concentration, the proof numbers, and aging durations are almost identical. It all comes down to the climate of the individual states.
To understand why Kentucky bourbon and Texas whiskey is different, we have to understand how the oak tree influences the flavor.
How Flavor is Extracted?
Before the whiskey is matured, it’s nothing but highly concentrated spirit. It’s the oak barrel that releases the flavors with time to make it whiskey. Oak is a wonderful tree and American white oak dominates the whiskey industry for its unique flavors.
The barrels are toasted once they are shaped. It’s the heat treatment of barrels for quite some time to break down the chemicals inside the wood. It brings out a compound called vanillin. It directly translates to the strong vanilla flavor in the Texas whiskey.
The next step in barrel making is charring. The interior of the barrel is burnt with direct fire to create a layer of charred oak. The heat reacts with the sugars inside the timber and turns it into the caramel. The caramel contributes to the sweetness and aroma of the whiskey when maturation is done.
For Texas whiskey, the barrels must be brand new. Or, At least go through STR (Shave, Toast, Rechar). It’s true for all bourbons. That’s one of the unique characteristics of this whiskey. The first fill of the barrel extracts most of the flavors from the wood. Some liquid gets soaked into the wood as well. Aging is a give and take process between the whiskey and the barrel.
Other types of whiskeys like Tennessee whiskey, Scotch, or Irish whiskeys use the repurposed barrels. The flavors are drastically different as the wood is already exhausted from releasing the flavors. That’s why other whiskeys are often mellower than Texas whiskey. Or, bourbon, whatever you might want to call it.
Now that you know how the flavor is extracted from the barrel, we can focus on why Texas Whiskey is different than Kentucky whiskey.
If you ever get the chance to compare both in person, you’ll clearly notice a difference in the color. The Texas whiskey appears much darker and richer color compared to the Kentucky variants. The Kentucky bourbon almost has a straw-like pale color to it.
That’s a direct result of the weather difference between the states. Kentucky is colder and doesn’t see any drastic temperature fluctuations regardless of the season. In colder climates, the whiskey matures very slowly. And it lacks the dynamic push to breathe more inside the barrels. The humidity is also higher in Kentucky, resulting in slower and more blunt maturation.
Texas, on the other hand, is very dry and sees drastic temperature changes. It can be freezing at night and give you a sunburn on the same day. The huge difference causes the liquid inside the barrel to expand and interact with the wood. The maturation is consistent in Texas while it’s almost non-existent in Kentucky.
The faster maturation explains the darker color and richer taste of the Texas whiskey. While every other variable is constant, weather becomes the only variable for bourbon maturation. And the dynamic weather of Texas has given its whiskey industry a new edge.
There are downsides to this as well. The ‘angle’s share’. It’s a term used by distilleries and it means evaporation. During aging, a portion of the whiskey gets evaporated and soaked by the wood.
The angle’s share is negligible in Kentucky while it’s pretty high in Texas. Then again, you must wait for years to come even close to the flavor profile of Texas Whiskey. It’s all a tradeoff.
The land area in Texas is so large that the evaporation ratio is not the same for distilleries in the state. Whether you lose water or alcohol during evaporation is a factor determined by the humidity of the area.
For example, the humid weather along the gulf coast loses more alcohol during evaporation than water. Take distilleries in Huston. Similarly, less humid areas near central Texas lose more water than alcohol. Take Hill Country as an example.
The greatest thing about Texas whiskey is that the flavor profile might drastically differ from one another depending on the geolocation of the distillery. The spiciness of the taste can range dramatically different and the color might vary as well.
Texas whiskey always packs a strong punch. And it has only become possible thanks to the weather. The oak releases all the flavors very quickly to mature the whiskey. You get the sweetness of caramel. You get the aroma of vanilla. You get the spice of cinnamon.
Leave it for too long and you lose all of it. That’s the biggest challenge with Texas whiskey.
What Does Texas Whiskey Taste Like?
Texas whiskey is known particularly for its aroma. It’s almost like you can feel the warmth of corn while drinking. The subtle smell of the flowers along with suppressed cinnamon and maple-pecan pie. Thanks to the toasting of the barrel, you get a touch of vanilla.
Bourbon is often known for its notorious burn while going down the throat. Well, you get it with Texas whiskey as well, but on a much milder level. The taste is very smooth and has a long finish.
How to Drink Texas Whiskey?
Texas whisky is not very dynamic in flavor, making it a prime choice for cocktails. The whiskey itself is very smooth and doesn’t interfere with other flavors. If you’re a fan of how whiskey tastes, you can go for whiskey on the rocks with this one.
Or, you can mix it with Topo Chico, soda, cola, orange juice and enjoy a citrusy cocktail.
The Best Texas Whiskey Manufacturers
There are over 100 distilleries in the state of Texas. It’s a huge jump considering the first distillery got a permit to operate in 2005. As of 2009, there were 9 distilleries in operation. Let’s take a look at some of the pioneering distilleries from this area.
Garrison Brothers Distillery
Undoubtedly, Garrison Brothers Distillery is the star of the show. It’s based in Hye, Texas and is known for its straight bourbons. It’s the first legal distillery to produce and age bourbon in Texas. Cowboy Bourbon is the flagship bottle. The distillery has been releasing one batch every year since 2013.
The name of Balcones comes right after the Garrison Brothers in terms of Texas whiskey. They joined the party in 2008. The journey started in Waco. After a year of renovating, the distilling started in 2009.
Balcones uses grains produced in Texas. Whether it’s corn from New Mexico or malted barley, the manufacturer strictly sticks to Texas-grown grains for authenticity.
Ranger Creek Brewing & Distilling
San Antonio, Texas houses one of the best Texas whiskey distilleries in the state. It features amazing single malt and rye whiskey. But the pinnacle would be the .36 Texas Bourbon. It’s an award-winning formula. The barrels are extremely small and the ingredients are handpicked for this one.
.36 White Whiskey is a great bottle of the white dog. White dog, in whiskey terms, means the bourbon before maturation. It’s a completely clear liquid. All whiskeys are before they go into the barrel. The crimson color of the whiskey is a direct result of maturation.