Ask Andrew Braunberg to sum up the history of whiskey in Texas in three words, and his response is: “Shot, beer chaser.” He follows up with: “The saloons of the day liked to keep their options simple.”
Braunberg’s book, Fires, Floods, Explosions, and Bloodshed: A History of Texas Whiskey (State House Press), released on May 11, delivers an exceedingly thorough, frequently entertaining account of the Lone Star State’s little-known but seminal role in the domestic whiskey industry.
Braunberg; his wife, Lisa; and four others founded Still Austin Whiskey Co., a grain-to-glass distillery, in 2017. A longtime Scotch drinker, Braunberg was intrigued by the American craft distilling movement, which led him to transition from his career as a cybersecurity analyst. One of his primary roles at the distillery was developing relationships with Texas grain farmers. He says he thought “it would be cool to be part of the development of regional varieties of whiskey in the United States, just like they have in Scotland.”
While the couple moved out of their day-to-day roles at the distillery in 2019 (Braunberg is currently working on opening Bushel & Bale, a whiskey distillery and brewery in Taylor), Braunberg continued to delve into the origins of whiskey in Texas. “The research started innocently,” he says. “Initially, I just wanted to know what types and varieties of grains early Texas distillers were using. That took me down all sorts of rabbit holes. I’m kind of geeky anyway, and it became apparent that what I was actually creating was the outline for a book.”
He started the manuscript in 2020, and what emerged is a 202-page title interspersed with historical photos, newspaper clippings, and rowdy anecdotes.
Here we pull out just a few of the things we learned while reading that will enthrall any Texas-history lover and/or whiskey drinker.
No One Knows Who Distilled the First Batch of Whiskey in Texas, but There Is One Theory
The Spanish produced brandy in Texas in the mid-seventeenth century, and by the 1820s, Anglo colonists from the Austin colony were making rum. While there’s no definitive proof of who distilled the first batch of whiskey, credit has been given to Jabez Fitzgerald, a migrant from Tennessee who settled in Fannin County in the 1830s. When his distilling operation washed away in a flood in the early 1840s, it was “considered a major loss for the community,” Braunberg says.
Texas’s Early Leaders Were Divided on Imbibing
“Stephen F. Austin, the Father of Texas, wished for prohibition in his colony,” Braunberg says, “but took the pragmatic view that if Texans were going to drink, then it would be better if that booze was made in Texas.” Conversely, the republic’s first president, Sam Houston, was by all accounts a legendary whiskey drinker. Texas seemed poised to embrace whiskey because, “for whatever reason, most of its populace maintained a frontier mindset and lifestyle long after the state was settled,” Braunberg says.
Whiskey Had a Role in the Civil War in Texas
One of Braunberg’s favorites stories from the book is about an 1862 debacle involving Union gunboats shelling Confederate troops guarding Corpus Christi.
“Most of the 400 shells fired . . . exploded but more than a few were duds. When the intact shells were examined, the defenders discovered that instead of being loaded with gunpowder . . . they contained whiskey. It seems the captain of one of the Union ships had a private stash . . . and his men had stolen a barrel. They hid the whiskey in the artillery shells expecting they could drink it before the ship saw action.”
“Taft Whiskey” Was Banned in Texas
A young chemistry teacher named John Simpson Abbott was hired as Texas’s first dairy and food commissioner in 1909. Abbott loved good whiskey, and when President Taft came out with his definitions for what that entailed—for example, a mixture of straight whiskey and neutral spirits could be labeled as a “blend of whiskies”—Abbott wasn’t impressed. As state newspapers gleefully reported, he was the first to ban so-called Taft whiskey and would go on to create his own, more stringent standards for Texas whiskey, like that it needed to contain at least 44 percent alcohol and not contain added sugar, glycerin, or aromatic substances.
You Couldn’t Get a Legal Mixed Drink in Texas From Prohibition Through 1970
There are tales of ignominious politicians, murders, natural disasters, fatal steam boiler explosions, and arson listed in the book, but it was Prohibition that ultimately led to a half century–long cessation of Texas’s whiskey industry. “Prohibitionists—including radical temperance movement member Carrie Nation, who had twice resided in Texas—did such a great job demonizing the saloon that you couldn’t get a mixed drink here until 1970, when an amendment was made to the state constitution that made liquor by the drink legal,” Braunberg says.
Texas Is Experiencing a Whiskey Boom
Texas distilleries have increased from “eight in 2008 to 190 [in June 2022],” according to the University of Texas at San Antonio’s Institute for Economic Development. Of those, at least thirty are whiskey producers, including Waco’s Balcones Distilling, Blanco’s Milam & Greene Whiskey, Hye’s Garrison Brothers Distillery, and Dripping Springs’ Treaty Oak Distilling. The 2022 Craft Spirits Data Project has also ranked Texas as the “third most concentrated state” for craft spirit production. “We’re experiencing an absolute whiskey renaissance,” Braunberg says. “The last time there were this many whiskey distilleries in Texas was probably during the Civil War.”
But the Industry Is Still in Its Infancy
While modern domestic craft distilling took off in the early aughts, the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission didn’t allow distilleries to operate tasting rooms or sell bottled spirits on-site until 2013. This change, Braunberg says, was the main accelerant of the growth. “Tasting rooms can represent a sizable revenue stream, but they’re also the primary means of building a brand,” he says.
We’re Still Learning What Makes “Texas” Whiskey
One thing that sets Texas whiskey apart is terroir, including the use of Texas-grown heirloom wheat, corn, rye, and barley, “but there’s an impressive amount of innovation going on now,” Braunberg says. “The sky’s the limit.”