When you hear “Texas” and “whiskey” together, what comes to mind? Do the words conjure an image of John Wayne sauntering into a West Texas frontier saloon? Or maybe you think of one of the many country songs about whiskey recorded by Texans, like Kris Kristofferson’s “Whiskey, Whiskey” or Willie Nelson’s “Whiskey River.” Given how closely tied whiskey and Texas are in the public imagination, it might surprise you to know that twenty years ago, there were no whiskey distilleries at all in the Lone Star State.
The history of whiskey in Texas is one of long gaps, pervasive struggles, and underground bootleggers. During the 19th century, there were a number of distilleries in Texas, some legal and others . . . less so. But that all changed with Prohibition, when the state’s distilling traditions were almost stamped out for good. Distilling became legal in Texas again in 1935, but the state’s whiskey distilleries quite simply never recovered from the Volstead Act. Not until recently, that is.
It’s remarkable how things can change in a couple of decades.
When Texas decides to do something, there are no half-measures—and whiskey distilling is no exception. Since the founding of Texas’s first two distilleries in Central Texas in the late aughts, Texas bourbons, ryes and single malts have exploded onto the world stage.
As a matter of fact, it took only a handful of years after those first distilleries were founded before Texas distilleries began to win major awards alongside stalwarts from Kentucky and Scotland and Ireland—and these days the Lone Star State is now being spoken of as a major world center for top-shelf craft whiskey. In 2012, a Balcones Single Malt won first prize at London’s prestigious “Best in Glass” competition, beating out rivals from storied Scottish houses like The Macallan and Glenmorangie. In the years since that historic upset, Texas distilleries have continued their string of upsets. In 2020, Ironroot Republic’s Harbinger Bourbon Whiskey was named the “World’s Best Bourbon,” and in 2022, Acre Distilling’s Longhair Jim Bourbon took home gold at the US Open Whiskey and Spirits Competition.
Meanwhile, at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition—the world’s most illustrious spirits contest—“Double Gold” awards have been handed out to Central Texas distillery Milam & Greene and perennial favorite Still Austin Whiskey Co. Indeed, Still Austin whiskeys have brought home Double Gold awards three years running—a remarkable streak for a plucky distillery from the South Side of Texas’s capital city. These distilleries and many others have now become immensely popular stops for whiskey lovers on “The Texas Whiskey Trail.”
So, what’s behind this unprecedented rise in quality and popularity among Texas whiskeys? The state’s distilling success comes down to a number of factors, and they all add up to a single revelation: if you had set out to design a perfect location for distilling and aging world-class whiskeys, the result would look a lot like Texas.
First, there’s the state’s unpredictable climate, with its wild weather swings. These precipitous drops in barometric pressure serve to push the spirits in and out of the grains within the oak barrels, rapidly advancing the aging process. By contrast, traditional whiskey centers like Scotland and Kentucky have more stable climates.
Second, there’s the vastness of the Lone Star State and its capacity to produce grains of virtually every variety, from traditional corns, ryes, wheats, and barleys to more “bespoke” heritage grains specially grown to produce delectable bourbon. In fact, there are a few Texas distilleries—including Treaty Oak and Still Austin Whiskey Co.—that use Texas grains exclusively.
Thirdly, there’s the culture of the Lone Star State. This is a land of endless creativity, matched only by its relentless work ethic. In Texas, there’s a long tradition of making goods by hand. Consider Little’s Boot Company in San Antonio, where the same family has been making boots by hand since 1915, or Amarillo’s Oliver Saddle Shop, where the Oliver family has been hand-crafting saddles for over half a century. This sense of craftsmanship and creativity has carried over into the whiskey industry, where tradition has taken its rightful place alongside innovation.
In short, Texas is finally coming into its own as a whiskey-producing region, and the state’s status as a whiskey juggernaut feels rightfully earned and thoroughly overdue. Long may the Whiskey River continue to flow through El Paso, Nacogdoches, and all points in between.