What Makes a Texas Whiskey?

Wherever good whiskey pops up, you can be assured that an association isn’t far behind trying to elevate and protect that delicious concept. From the early days of scotch whisky and the Scottish Distillers Association to modern times, associations of like minded distillers have protected the uniqueness of a specific region. The newly formed Texas Whiskey Association is trying to do the same for Texas whiskey. But what exactly makes a Texas whiskey unique?

American whiskey has always been something… different. Compared to the Scottish and Irish distilled spirits from which the tradition comes, the flavors have been sweeter, bolder, and spicier than the old masters. Some areas, like Tennessee and Kentucky, have been making the delicious spirit for well over a century and have their own distinct processes and “fingerprint” profile.

Texas whiskey, on the other hand, really only started gaining popularity this century. It’s new, and while some experts will say that a Texas whiskey is defined by bolder and richer flavors than a typical bourbon, the Executive Director of the Texas Whiskey Association, Spencer Whelan, had a different answer:

“Innovation.”

I caught up with Spencer over a couple glasses of Texas whiskey at the Seven Grand Whiskey Bar in Austin, Texas. According to him, the one common thread that ties Texas distilleries together is their willingness to strike out on their own, try new things, and experiment with new ideas.

“When people see the word ‘Texas,’ or the Texas flag, or even just the outline of the state, they know what that means. They understand the feeling, the culture, the mindset.” According to Spencer, that mindset is all about honoring the traditions of whiskey manufacturing while pushing the envelope of innovation and trying new things.

Prime examples of this push for innovation are Ben Milam, a distillery owned and operated by a woman in a predominantly male industry. Their approach to trying new blends and creating new flavor profiles that aren’t found anywhere else exemplifies that curious and innovative spirit, according to Spencer.

Or Balcones Distilling, another Texas Whiskey Association member, whose Brimstone whiskey (smoked with Texas scrub oak) makes for a unique love-it-or-hate-it flavor that he says reminds him of hot summer nights spent in Hereford, Texas.

According to Spencer, while innovation is what’s driving the industry there’s still a need to differentiate between those whiskies that are made in Texas and those that are trucked in and bottled from other states. “There are a lot of people trying to cash in on the Texas brand. We think that a Texas whiskey should contribute to the local economy.” For their definition a Texas whiskey, it needs to be mashed, fermented, distilled, aged, and bottled all within the state of Texas. All steps that contribute and give back to the community. That’s something I can get behind, as we’ve regularly dinged whiskey that shrouds itself in the Texas lore but actually originates somewhere else.

While the Texas Whiskey Association is hopeful that some legislation can help clarify and protect that definition, they don’t have a legislative agenda and are trying to encourage consumers to make that purchasing decision on their own through their education and certification process. The distilleries whose products they have certified as meeting the standards as a Texas whiskey are allowed to use a trademarked Certified Texas Whiskey badge, which should help consumers identify legitimate Texas whiskey. They also started marketing a Texas Whiskey Trail to boost tourism of this region and get as many people as possible to visit these certified distilleries to see the process for themselves.

Beyond that, Spencer says he just wants to see consistent enforcement of the existing labeling requirements on whiskey products. There are already federal laws requiring whiskey labels to disclose the location where the spirit was distilled, but these regulations aren’t well enforced. He hopes by giving the consumer as much information as possible that people will naturally choose to support local whiskey producers and keep them in business for years to come.

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