With the recent explosion of the American craft whiskey industry, a wide range of whiskeys have found their way onto retail shelves across the country. With more than 130 spirits distilleries in the state (including whiskey, vodka, gin, and more), Texas now sits among the top five states in number of distilleries alongside California, New York, Washington, and Colorado. But aside from its sheer size, Texas stands out from among the rest for its climate. No one here needs reminding that the weather in the Lone Star State throughout the year fluctuates on a spectrum of hot and humid. But those few months in which we receive winter cold snaps also play a key role in producing spirits, especially those that rely on oak aging, such as bourbon. That’s because bourbons matured in hot climates manage to extract flavors from the oak barrels they are aged in much faster and in higher concentration. Between the predominantly hot seasons offset by the shorter cold spells, the wooden barrels contract and expand while absorbing and extracting the aging whiskey inside. The result is a spirit with richer flavor and complexity. (Note: This temperature differential also causes a high evaporation rate of both the alcohol and water in the spirit. In iconic whiskey-producing regions such as Kentucky and Scotland, the rate of evaporation is about 2 percent. In Texas, it’s more like 10 percent, depending on humidity levels.)
Because bourbon is required by the federal Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits to be aged in charred American oak barrels that are new, the intensity of heat can also cause the strong wood characters to impart more robust tannin and overpowering vanillin notes. But Texas’s savvy producers have found ways to work around this, working either with smaller barrel sizes or with climate-controlled warehouses for aging. It’s been exciting to see what they’ve been able to accomplish in just more than a decade since they started.
Has Texas bourbon developed a defining regional character? It certainly seems so. A sampling of some of the state’s grain-to-glass bourbons—meaning those produced from start to finish within Texas and, therefore, most representative of this theory—reveals a common thread of decidedly concentrated and bold flavor profiles. But we’ll let you decide. We’ve included a few of the most recent releases that piqued our thirsty palates, all from members of the Texas Whiskey Association.
1. Milam & Greene
Distillery Edition Straight Bourbon Whiskey
A partnership between Texas entrepreneur Marsha Milam and whiskey expert Heather Greene, the Blanco-based distillery in August put out its first grain-to-glass bourbon, meaning every step was done on-site. It was cooked up in a three-hundred-gallon copper pot still in 2017, and because it was made from only seven barrels, the whiskey is a true limited edition and is sold only at the distillery. The golden mahogany bourbon offers notes of orange marmalade, caramel, and candied pecan. It has an unusually high alcohol content, so sip it slowly. 60.9 percent ABV, $122.
2. Still Austin Whiskey Co.
The Musician Straight Bourbon Whiskey
This urban bourbon, named in honor of the music scene surrounding the South Austin distillery, debuted this summer after aging for more than two years in charred American oak barrels. With a deep amber color in the glass, the Musician leads with a floral perfume followed by aromas of juicy tangerine, brûléed cane sugar, and tropical fruit. It has a smooth, clean texture on the palate with tinges of coconut and a pleasant bitter-almond bite. 49.2 percent ABV, $45.
3. Treaty Oak Distilling
The Day Drinker Texas Bourbon
As the label implies, this September release is built for those who prefer the spirit on the lighter side. The Dripping Springs distillery employs the same recipe it uses for the brawnier Ghost Hill Texas Bourbon, but instead of being aged for more than two years, the Day Drinker spends just twelve to fifteen months in new oak barrels. The result is a similar flavor profile to that of Ghost Hill, a citrusy one of orange blossom and marzipan, only with a softer, more delicate finish. 40 percent ABV, $24.
4. Blackland Distilling
Blackland Bourbon Whiskey
This small-batch offering from Fort Worth–based Blackland Distilling is as artfully crafted as the elegant bottle in which it is packaged. Offering notes of vanilla cream, candied orange rind, and homespun marshmallow, this bourbon leans into the softer, more delicate side of the spirit. 41.5 percent ABV, $38.
5. Garrison Brothers
Uncut and unfiltered, this brawny barrel-proof bourbon is as burly as the spirit of the American cowboy. Drawing on the sweet corn–centric recipe of the well-known producer from the Hill Country outpost of Hye, this bourbon delivers a powerful palate of summer berries, toasted pecan, and silk corn milk. 66.9 percent ABV, $199.
This article originally appeared in the November 2020 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Texas Toasts.” Subscribe today.