The Texas Whiskey Rush

The Lone Star State legalized distilling then did what it does best and went big.

Five years ago, when he opened The Usual Bar in Fort Worth, Brad Hensarling had few local whiskey options to choose from. Today, he keeps seven Texas whiskeys at arms length – and for damn good reason.

“I know if I put a drink on my cocktail menu that has TX Whiskey in it I’m going to sell boatloads,” says Hensarling, referring to a popular and remarkably smooth blended whiskey from Firestone & Robertson Distilling Company, which sits a mile away next to Rt. 30.

Hensarling attributes that growth, in part, to the success of of Tito’s Handmade Vodka, which became Texas’ first licensed distillery in Austin in 1997. Prior to Tito’s, it was illegal to have a distillery in the state of Texas. With much lobbying, Tito’s amazingly named Founder Tito Beveridge paved the way for future distillers to create beverages of all colors.

Today, the craft whiskeys coming out of Texas benefits from aging in the warm climate of the Lone Star State. “It’s hotter in Texas than Kentucky, so that definitely speeds up the aging process,” he says. He adds that Texas whiskeys also convey the free-spirited, Wild West-style mentality of the proprietors, who aren’t afraid to experiment. Across the state, distillers are using smoked malts, local grains, sugar, and even Texas wildflower honey to create unique flavors. “I think, much like Texas, there’s a very large sense of ‘We’ll go our own road as far as making this stuff goes,’” says Hensarling.

Here are the four Texas whiskeys that Hensarling recommends to Lone Star Staters who wander into his watering hole (Note: not everything is available out of state just yet so you may have to get on a plane before you can enjoy these great new American drinks).

Texas Single Malt Whiskey, Balcones Distilling: This popular distillery got its start in a former welding shop under a bridge in Waco. Now, it produces whiskeys beloved not only in Texas, but across the world. In 2012 and again in 2014, Balcones was named Craft Whiskey Distillery of the Year by Whiskey Magazine and the Craft Distillers’ Association. With its 2012 win, it was the first American distiller to earn the “Best in Glass” designation.

TX Blended Whiskey, Firestone & Robertson Distilling Co.: Fort Worthians Leonard Firestone and Troy Robertson are the forces behind TX Blended Whiskey, which has a growing reputation for drinkability thanks to its notes of caramel, honey and vanilla. Sure, the whiskey itself is brought in from another state, but one taste of this instant Texas classic and you won’t care. Take note of the bottle tops. Made of wood, each one is hand-assembled and topped with a circle of Texas boot leather. Soon to be released: a Texas bourbon that locals are giddy to try.

Hye Rye Bourbon. Garrison Brothers Distillery: The dark, rich bourbons that come from this Hye, Texas distillery are made from organic corn, grown instate. With a high sugar content, this elixir manages to give off a distinct sweet-tea like flavor. Try it yourself at the bar or on a “Sit and Sip” tour through the “corn-to-cork” ranch and distillery.

Red-Handed Bourbon Whiskey, Treaty Oak Distilling Company: Austin-based Treaty Oak got its start making rum, but has cowboyed up to make the spicy wonder that is Red-Handed Bourbon. You’ll get a nose of cinnamon, pecans, caramel, vanilla and even a hint of pepper in this rye-heavy blended whiskey. And for out-of-staters looking to mess with this Texas whiskey, you can now find it in Chicago, too.