DRINKING TEXAS WHISKIES OF THE YEAR 2021
You know the old saying, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” But what if at first you DO succeed?
We came out of 2020 like most everyone else – exhausted, frazzled, and just a bit disoriented. But we decided to go ahead and shake off that strange year, regain our focus, and create the first Drinking Texas Whiskies of the Year list. We took all of our lock-down time and tasted (and sampled and drank) and discussed all the Texas whiskies we stumbled across. We came up with a list, and drank through it twice, then chose our favorites from among the naughty and nice (especially the naughty). And a new tradition was born.
Welcome to the 2nd Annual Drinking Texas Whiskies of the Year.
For 2021 we now had at least an idea of what we were trying to do and so we started visiting distilleries as they slowly opened back up to the public; we took part in a number of Zoom whiskey tastings; went to whiskey festivals, release parties and events; and made it a practice to try at least one new (to us) whiskey each week on the Drinking Texas Radio Show. What we managed to do was make it much harder on ourselves: there are so many people in Texas making so much good whiskey that the more you sample, the more difficult it is to settle on a favorite. But eventually we did and the results are listed under the 8 categories below.
All Texas whiskeys were eligible for consideration but we weren’t able, of course, to get to every one of them – there are so many limited runs, special blends, regional bottles and one-offs that we simply couldn’t run them all down … and we really, really tried. For this list we decided to consider availability (can people typically find these bottles?) and cost (can people typically afford these bottles?). And, of course, our personal preferences played a part. While we can absolutely recognize a fine example of a style we’re not necessarily fond of, we’re going to use our list to point people toward the bottles that really speak to us.
For the second time, we think we’ve put together a pretty good list of whiskeys that we are proud to call our favorites. If you are new to whiskey and looking for recommendations, or a veteran drinker looking for something new, we’re confident this list has something you are looking for.
Of course, we realize that the best whiskey is the one you like (style, proof, nose, palette), served the way you like it (neat, rocks, water, soda). And if we missed your favorite dram with our Texas Whiskeys of the Year list, feel free to let us know on the website (www.drinkingtx.com) or on our Instagram (@drinkingtx). We promise to drink harder (I mean try harder) next time …
Devils River Distiller’s Select Straight Bourbon Whiskey (San Antonio) – 120 proof. Made with grain sourced from a co-op of Texas farmers, Distiller’s Select is aged more than 2 years in the Texas elements in new American oak barrels with a #4 char. The selected barrels are brought to a uniform proof using spring water from the Devils River region near Del Rio. Dark copper in color, it has a woodsy, black pepper nose with a touch of rye spice. The alcohol meets the tongue first but quickly evaporates into a bouquet of flavors: green apple and pear are front and center while hints of vanilla, caramel and honey fill out the palette; a warm sense of oak and pepper lead to a perfect finish. It’s pretty smooth for such a high proof but adding an ice cube makes it even smoother helps bring the flavors out.
Still Austin Cask Strength Bourbon Whiskey (Austin) – 118 proof. After choosing Still Austin Straight Bourbon as our New Whiskey of 2020, I was anxious to try the Cask Strength version. Three production runs later I finally got my hands on a bottle. Now you would think the mixture of frustration and anticipation would create an expectation that a 2-year-old whiskey just couldn’t meet. Which just goes to show how good this stuff really is. Warm golden brown in color, the nose is surprisingly light and sweet – a sort of caramel apple and confectioner’s sugar. But the taste is dark and sweet with tart cherries, candied cinnamon, dried berries, candied apple, all-spice, and charred wood. Adding an ice cube uncovered a few more flavors like caramel, butterscotch, and tobacco.
Tahwahkaro Cask Strength Straight Bourbon (Palestine) – 128.6 proof. This whiskey was a revelation to me as I was not particularly fond of previous bottles of Tahwahkaro; they were good, but not something I felt the need to rush out and buy for myself. So, I wasn’t expecting anything when I tried the Cask Strength at the 2021 Texas Whiskey Festival. Then I had a taste, now I’m a believer. With a copper hue so dark it is almost auburn, it has a gummy fruit nose – a combination of purple (grape), red (strawberry) and orange (apricot) chews. The flavors are more complex with notes of dark fruit (blackberries, prunes, dates, and others), grains (brown betty crust, buttermilk biscuit, vanilla cake, popcorn), and savories (charred oak, spices, dark chocolate). That’s an awful lot of flavor for one bottle. It’s rich and warm and just right.
Real Spirits Distilling Co. Texas Hill Country Single Barrel Whiskey (Blanco) – 100 proof. I’ve been drinking Real Ale beers for close to 20 years (Fireman’s 4 was my first, Hans Pils is my favorite). I’ve only been drinking the brewstillery’s whiskey for about a year … but already I consider it an old friend. Perhaps that’s because it’s born out of an unhopped version of Real Ale’s beer and is then distilled twice in a hand-hammered, 240-gallon Spanish alembic still, non-chill filtered, and finally aged at least 2 years in charred American oak barrels. The color is reddish copper and the nose is mostly spice – a combination of rye, baking, and cardamom. The taste is surprisingly light – where you might expect heat or spice there is instead a cool clean sweetness that recalls sweet iced tea. Other essences follow like vanilla, cinnamon, rye, pepper, wood and even a little leather. But the sweet tea feel remain throughout the drink. And it makes this bottle unique. And delicious.
Kooper Family Barrel Reserve Rye (Ledbetter) – 116 proof. Blended, barreled and aged in Texas, the Koopers take a 95% rye from Indiana and a 51% rye from Tennessee and age them in white oak barrels 4 and 6 years respectively before blending them together. Rye tends to be darker than bourbon so the Barrel Reserve Rye’s mahogany color is just right. The nose is rich and deep, with vanilla and mint leaf and rye spice. There’s a lot going on with the palate: I get intense sweet notes up front with vanilla and candied apple before getting a warm rye spice flavor followed quickly by comfortable impressions of wood and char. As the flavor settles there’s a feeling of mint – Lifesavers Wint-O-Green if I have to identify it – that is a surprising yet perfect finish to the entire tasting experience. Troy and Michelle Kooper do an excellent job blending whiskies and the combination they’ve hit on here is pretty unique. It stands out among ryes for its unique richness and unexpected mint finish.
Andalusia Whiskey Co. Stryker Smoked Single Malt (Blanco) – 122.8 proof. Texas single malt whiskies have come a long way in a short time and Stryker is a perfect example of where the expression can go. It’s prepared like an Islay Scotch but instead of smoking peat for flavor, Andalusia smokes its malted barley like a traditional Texas BBQ, over oak, mesquite, and apple wood. It’s double distilled in copper pots and aged two years on new #4 char oak barrels then finished for six months in PX Sherry casks. It’s reddish copper in color and the nose evokes beef brisket. The mix of flavors is exciting: BBQ smoke, brisket, leather, mesquite, sage, plum, berries, orange, apple, and red and black pepper; plus you do get notes of the sherry from the finishing cask. And smoke (again). This is a sophisticated drink that pairs well with a plate of beef ribs.
Balcones ZZ Top Tres Hombres Texas Whisky (Waco) – 100 proof. Balcones has been having a good year with its diverse lineup of Lineage, Staff Selection Single Malt, Rumble Cask Reserve, and Rye among many others. But my favorite is the ZZ Top Tres Hombres collaboration. Head Distiller Jared Himstedt blended three of his whiskies that feature different grains – Texas Single Malt (100 % barley), Texas Rye (100% rye), and True Blue (100% corn) – and with the help of Billy Gibbons, Frank Beard and Dusty Hill (RIP) over numerous Zoom meetings, settled on this particular blend. It’s the color of a shiny new penny and is ridiculously smooth and drinkable. The nose is light and sweet, with vanilla and kettle corn. The first wave of taste is actually a feeling of warmth (no heat) that coats the tongue, followed by hints of cornbread, popcorn, and flour tortilla; sweetness follows in honey and butterscotch or maple notes. There is a slight woodiness of oak and mesquite on the finish. Try it straight, though it pairs nicely with “Jesus Just Left Chicago.”
Modisett & Sons First Run Barrel Single Malt Whisky (Manor) – 92 proof. Ben and Tom were playing at St. Andrews – the birthplace of golf and the home of Scotch – when they decided to make scotch here in Texas. Of course, here it’s known as single malt whisky, but the Modisetts make it using traditional Scottish distilling methods and Scottish copper pot stills and second-use barrels. We’ve tried a number of times to film a Drinking Texas episode at the tasting room but Ben keeps putting us off, saying they’re not “ready” yet. But the whisky says otherwise. It’s a bright caramel color with a nose of cereal grain, candy corn, and vanilla bean. Ben told me the First Run was “a single malt for bourbon drinkers” and that’s likely because of the warm, bright caramel notes. It has the ethanol finish of a young whisky, but it fades into a nice biscotti finish.
Treaty Oak Old Fashioned Cocktail (Dripping Springs) – 78 proof. Usually a flavored whiskey is just that – a mint rye or a caramel turtle bourbon, or a cinnamon candy whiskey. This is not that. The Treaty Oak Old Fashioned is a pre-mixed version of the classic cocktail made with Ghost Hill Bourbon, aromatic bitters, and orange zest. Ghost Hill is a high wheat bourbon which makes for a smooth, mellow base. The nose is pure orange peel. The taste is pure Old Fashioned. To be clear, it’s not a difficult cocktail to make: bourbon, muddled sugar cube, aromatic bitters, orange zest and maybe a Luxardo cherry. But this is not a bland, non-offensive, one-size-fits-all cocktail. It’s as good as the Old Fashioneds you will find at many restaurants and bars. Just add ice. I need to get a cocktail smoker and try this again…
DRINNKING TEXAS’ WHISKEYS OF THE YEAR 2020
2020 will be remembered less than fondly by many, if not most, people. The pandemic changed the way we went about our day-to-day business and seemed to intrude into every aspect of life. At Drinking Texas, that meant our practice of “making friends one beer at a time” had to be amended … but not abandoned. We’ve spent the year meeting people (sometimes virtually), drinking with people (socially distanced), and trying to get a taste of every whiskey in the state. That last adjustment has inspired us to share with people (both virtually and socially distanced) our favorite bottles of the past 12 months.
Welcome to our Drinking Texas Whiskeys of the Year.
Did we say “Whiskeys” as in plural? Absolutely. That one word covers so many styles – bourbon, rye, blended, single malt – that choosing one single expression would be a bit presumptuous. Plus, it’s likely we would never have agreed on just one winner.
Our list of favorites was put together by the Drinking Texas staff (with input from friends and experts) and is the culmination of a full year’s worth of tasting, comparing and drinking Texas whiskeys. Our methods included blind tastings, flight tastings, head-to-head tastings, neat vs rocks tastings, and a couple of nights that may or may not have ended up “bent and hell-bound.”
All Texas whiskeys were eligible for consideration but we weren’t able to get to every one of them – we had to consider availability (can people typically find these bottles?), cost (can people typically afford these bottles?) and – let’s face it – the pandemic severely restricted our ability to move comfortably around the state in search of regional bottles. Still, we think we’ve put together a pretty good list of whiskeys that we are proud to call our favorites. If you are new to whiskey and looking for recommendations, or a veteran drinker looking for something new, we’re confident this list has something you are looking for.
Of course, we realize that the best whiskey is the one you like (style, proof, nose, palette), served the way you like it (neat, rocks, water, soda). And if we missed your favorite dram with our inaugural Texas Whiskeys of the Year list, feel free to let us know on the website (www.driningtx.com) or on our Instagram (@drinkingtx). We promise to drink harder (I mean try harder) in 2021 …
Garrison Brothers Texas Straight Small Batch Bourbon – 94 proof. Deep red/brown in color, this bottle can be had for under $100 and will likely encourage you to take a chance on some of Garrison Brothers’ pricier offerings. Made with white corn, red winter wheat and two-row barley and aged 4 years, we got a strong scent of vanilla, butterscotch, charred oak, tobacco leaf, and spice – maybe clove. The taste is perfect – the sweet of caramel, cinnamon, maple, dark chocolate and dried fruit is balanced with oak, smoke, spice and a finish of black pepper. Not everybody who tasted it recognized all of these, but they all got many of these. And everyone agreed it was an amazing pour.
Milam and Greene Single Barrel Bourbon – 86 proof. Single barrel offerings are tricky because even though every barrel selected shares the same characteristics – mash, process, age, atmosphere – by the very nature of the wood in the cask each barrel is different. Our bottle was outstanding. Sourced in Tennessee and finished in Blanco, it has a pleasant nose – a sweet combination of fruit, honeyed sugar and butterscotch/caramel. The taste, too, starts sweet with honey, red apple, peach, vanilla and butterscotch, then slowly changes to spice and a touch of pepper. The finish is long but the last thing to go is the delightful taste of peach. If we never get another one exactly like this, at least we got to have this one.
Still Austin Straight Bourbon – 98.4 proof. We visited Still Austin 3 years ago when they were making clear liquors and honestly were not too impressed. So we were unprepared for this bourbon, their first grain-to-glass and properly aged offering. Aged the requisite 2 years to qualify for bourbon and with a mashbill of 70% non-GMO white corn, 25% rye, and 5% malted barley, it is surprisingly robust. It’s young, but it has plenty going for it: reddish/bronze color; a pleasant nose of toasted oak, black pepper, tropical fruit, and rye spice; and a palate of rye and buttered corn (or maybe popcorn) that swells to include hints of tart apple, chocolate and macadamia nut. Every bit of this bottle was a revelation including the label – an original painting by Marc Burckhardt.
Oak and Eden Rye and Spire – 90 proof. Oak & Eden’s “gimmick” is putting a flavoring spire into each bottle to keep enriching the whiskey after it leaves the cask. This patented process makes Oak & Eden the only whiskey to finish its flavor profile in the bottle. Sourced spirits are blended and aged in Texas and a charred spiral of American Oak is added to the bottle, which is aged another 6 weeks. It works. We noticed the rye and oak strong on the nose. The taste was spicy vanilla, spicy oak and spicy rye – a real rye-lover’s kind of flavor. We thought it simply out-ryed the competition. Good neat or in a cocktail.
Banner Wheat Whiskey – 92 proof. Some of the country’s best whiskeys are “wheated,” meaning they use wheat instead of rye – from Garrison Brothers in Texas to Pappy Van Winkle in Kentucky. But Banner is a wheat whiskey, 95% wheat and 5% malted barley. This combination gives it a lighter honey-orange color. It also has a very light nose – we detected oak with green apple and caramelized sugar. The taste starts warm and smooth – I know those aren’t flavors, but repeated tastings all started the same way – and becomes woody, nutty, buttery and lightly vanilla, followed by a touch of pepper and black licorice. The anise at the end is the perfect finish, leaving a memory of the light, sweet body while keeping the mouth from getting tired of the taste.
Yellow Rose Outlaw Bourbon – 92 proof. All bourbon is mostly corn, but there aren’t many that are 100% corn like this one. All bourbon is aged a minimum of two years, but this one has an age statement of “at least 1 year,” making it not technically a bourbon unless it didn’t adhere to the “law” …. Corn whiskey by its nature has a sweet nose but it is grain type sweetness, not fruit or candy. The initial pull is surprisingly smoky and oaky. Once the char covers the mouth it’s followed by flavor – popcorn, caramel, vanilla and spice. It’s a unique flavor and feel that might start a bit jarring but ends up smooth and corn sweet. Plus, the bottle has a sweet little leather collar that just screams “Texas” …
Balcones Texas Single Malt – 106 proof. There are plenty of single malt whiskeys, though it is a style most associated with Scotch. Like all the others, this one is made with 100% malted barley, but is the only one aged in new charred oak barrels (most others re-use barrels that held other spirits). It also has a higher ABV than many we tried. These factors lead to a nose that is smoke and methane hovering over a toffee and ripe fruit sweetness. The taste is robust – an alcohol front becomes roasted grains, rich honey and mild fruit – maybe apple or pear. It’s heavy and rich and will change into a much smoother drink when water or ice is added. It does a good job of treading the refined Scotch/Texas whiskey line.
Iron Wolf Iron Hot – 70 proof. Unlike any other type of whiskey, people usually either love flavored whiskeys or hate flavored whiskeys. We’re in the minority that simply appreciates them for what they are – fun, flavorful shots (and occasional cocktails) that seem to be made for shared experiences. Iron Hot is unique in a few ways – it uses Iron Wolf bourbon as its base then flavors it with natural cinnamon, natural sugars, and a blend of Texas-grown chili peppers. The result is a surprising combination of smooth whiskey, sweet cinnamon and spicy pepper – much more complex and, well, grown up compared to those flavored whiskeys that taste like cinnamon candies.