Austin may be a hot spot for craft beverage makers, but four years of living in San Antonio taught me not to discount our neighbor city just down I-35. San Antonio has one of the crown jewels of Texas distilleries (in my humble opinion, at least) tucked away in an industrial park on the north side of the city.
Ranger Creek Brewing & Distilling has been operating since 2010. They produce not only the bourbon that I’ll be reviewing today but also a line of craft beers — it’s one of the only places I know of that produces both bourbon and beer in the same location.
Ranger Creek embraces their Texas heritage wholeheartedly, naming their various lines of spirits after famous firearm calibers that have been used to shape the history of the state. From their “Rimfire” whiskey to this .36 caliber bourbon there’s always a story behind the name.
Like I said, Ranger Creek really leans into their Texas roots. Instead of trying to make a Kentucky style bourbon whiskey, they made the process their own by adding the flavors of Texas into the mix. All of the grains used in the mash for this spirit come from the state of Texas.
As a bourbon at least 51% of the grain should come from corn, but the exact mix isn’t listed. Those grains are toasted before being added to the mash using mesquite wood from the local San Antonio area, the same kind of wood usually used to make the best barbecue in the state. Once the grains are toasted, they are turned into a mash and distilled on site.
The same mesquite wood from toasting the grains is used to char the insides of the oak barrels used to age the whiskey. Speaking of the barrels, Ranger Creek uses a much smaller barrel to age their “small caliber” series whiskeys like this one. The concept is that the smaller barrel means that each drop of spirit has a greater chance of being exposed to the surface of the barrel to suck out some of that delicious flavor. It also helps in the aging process, since a smaller barrel will more readily heat and cool the contents than a large barrel.
In theory, all of these factors combined make for a bolder, more flavorful spirit that incorporates some of the most iconic flavors of Texas.
The bottle is pretty standard. A rounded body, round shoulder, and tapered neck is a classic design that really can’t go wrong. Topping off the bottle is a wooden cork to keep everything contained.
The label on the bottle is an appealing brown paper that looks and feels aged. The distillery logo and information is printed on the label in a rather plain black font that matches with the no-nonsense style.
Just below the product label is a black strip that details exactly the specifications of what went into this specific bottle — in the bottle reviewed, the mash was distilled in spring of 2016 and aged for a full 25 months. I really appreciate knowing the details of what I’m drinking, and the personal touch of knowing that each individual bottle was marked by hand is a huge plus.
From the first sniff, you can tell that this is a bolder and more flavorful spirit than usual. A strong vanilla scent, with some caramel toffee underneath, is immediately present once poured. It’s sweet with a touch of spicy aroma that warms the senses.
Take a sip and you’ll notice that the liquid seems thicker and more viscous than most other spirits. That mouth feel might be partially attributed to the slightly higher alcohol content, 96 proof compared to the more typical 90 proof spirit. The first flavors will hit you like a freight train, a bold combination of vanilla and brown sugar that almost reminds me of maple syrup. The sugary mash from the corn in the grain bill, combined with the mesquite smoking, presents a taste like the best barbecue I’ve ever had.
From start to finish the spirit goes down like you’re drinking a shot of Austin’s Southside Market’s bold BBQ sauce, spicy and flavorful but smooth as butter. There’s no bite or burn to the spirit at all. Probably a result of the bitter alcohols being vented off more efficiently in the small barrels during the aging process. To get a scotch whiskey this smooth you’re either going to need some serious blending or a couple decades, but Ranger Creek did it in two years.
If you like bold flavors or if you need a spirit that packs a punch, for example for something to sip while smoking a cigar, this would be ideal all on its own. But for some people this might actually be a little too bold. Thankfully we have ways of dealing with that.
Personally, the way I enjoy this the best is with a single massive ice cube. I love the bold flavors but sometimes they can be a bit much, so as the ice melts it dilutes the spirit just enough to mellow things out. This spirit is a great example of why we sometimes add ice – just a little dilution goes a long way here, and if you tend to prefer a mellower bourbon you can easily achieve that with Ranger Creek on the rocks. (Or rock, if you go with the single ice cube).
Generally the Ranger Creek bourbon is a very thick, syrupy, bold flavor. It’s great to punch through if you’re eating or smoking something equally bold, but there isn’t much balance for those looking for a more complete experience.
Adding some bitters and orange completely changes that experience. The added citrus and bitters easily cut through the thick flavors, providing some much needed balance to the spirit and turning it into a proper drink — this is easily one of the best bourbons for an Old Fashioned. Add an ice cube and it’s something that I could happily sip morning, noon, and night.
The risk with a mule is that the flavors of the spirit will be overpowered, but in this case I was actually more concerned that the ginger beer wouldn’t be strong enough to compete with the spirit. Finding the right balance of spirit to ginger beer took some testing, but in the end a 1:1 mix of ginger beer and spirit turned out an absolutely delicious drink that’s great on a sunny day.
Some of the new distilleries popping up in Texas are simply trying to re-create the existing bourbons and whiskies on the market, but Ranger Creek went their own direction. They decided to incorporate the beat parts of Texas, from the ingredients to the addition of mesquite smoking to the process, to make a product that is uniquely Texan.
If I want a “Kentucky” bourbon I’ve got plenty of options. What I want from a craft distillery is something different and unique. Judging by that benchmark Ranger Creek knocked it out of the park.
Ranger Creek .36 Texas Bourbon Whiskey
Owner: Ranger Creek Brewing & Distillery
Production: San Antonio, TX
Grain bill: Not Listed.
Aging: 25 months
Proof: 48% ABV / 96 proof
Price: $33.99 / 375ml ($0.09064 / ml)
Overall Rating: 4.5/5
It might be just a touch too bold of a flavor on its own. Just add bitters and ice.