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Drinking Texas Whiskies of the Year 2023

 

It’s that time of year when media outlets start making lists to try and wrap the past 12 months up with a pretty bow for their readers. People like it because most of us enjoy lists, rankings, encapsulated critiques, and large amounts of information at our fingertips. Media outlets like it because it’s a chance to review the highlights (or sometimes lowlights) of the past year, comment on them in a way we might not have been able to previously, and give our opinions by christening winners and creating ratings. And with the way it’s done and the way it’s consumed, the debates it creates, the memories it conjures, and the recommendations it offers, there may be nothing more fun, interesting, and useful as the annual year-end “best of” lists.

In fact, the only thing we don’t like about these types of lists is when the media picks something as the best, gets us excited about it, then reveals that it’s no longer available. We swore when we started doing a Whiskey of the Year list back in 2020 that we would not fill it with overly expensive, impossible to get bottles. Turns out this year we have a little explaining to do…

When we started making best of lists, the whiskey renaissance in this country – and more importantly, in this state – was just beginning. We were excited to talk about Texas whiskies and shine a spotlight on what was then a fairly fledgling industry. But my, look how it’s grown. Where once upon a time we were happy to find a distillery that featured a bourbon and a rye, nowadays they are releasing special editions, seasonal mash bills, unique finishes, single barrels, cask strengths, collaborations, blends, flavors, and all other sorts of bottles - many of which we tried and a few of which we deemed this year’s best. Bottles that, by their nature, were limited runs and are therefore no longer available to the public, no matter how good we make them sound. And then there’s a case of a winner of ours whose distillery shuttered its doors a month ago. So we tried, we really did. And we drank and voted and eventually let the chips fall where they may.

Welcome to the 4rd Annual Drinking Texas Whiskies of the Year.

All Texas whiskies were eligible for consideration, but we weren’t able to get to every one of them. It wasn’t for lack of trying; it’s an impossible task (having a staff of just two-and-one-quarter whiskey drinkers - Amber’s slowly getting up to speed), though a task we enjoy taking on. There are some bottles that are so limited-run that they are gone before we can get our hands on one, others that are available only on-site at distant distilleries, and still others are just too far out of our price range to be able to buy. In the end, we tasted approximately 200 different whiskies this past year and feel like we have a strong list of winners that will be hard to argue against. Our winners were all eventually obvious to us. We mostly picked the ones we kept going back to over and over through the year as well as some special editions that really blew us away. We classified our winners in certain categories, though many of the winners qualified in more than one category. Still, each whiskey seemed to be the best one for the category in which we placed it.

Of course, we realize that the best whiskey is the one you like to drink, served the way you like it. There is no wrong way to drink your whiskey. There is a wrong way to cook your steak, though. We’re not giving you any slack on that…

 

TEXAS CERTIFIED

Devils River Distiller’s Select Straight Bourbon Whiskey (San Antonio), 120 proof. Aged a minimum of 2 years in American Oak Char #3 barrels; each batch of Distiller’s Select is bottled whenever the distiller Mike Cameron proclaims it ready. Mash bill is undisclosed though we believe it is the same 75% corn, 21% rye, 4% malted barley used in some of the distillery’s other expressions. We had Bottle 7953 of Batch 1.

This whiskey is a three-time, three-time, three-time winner in this category because no matter what else we get the opportunity to try, we keep coming back to this one. It wasn’t difficult to choose it again as we managed to go through 3+ more bottles of it in the studio in 2023. It’s high proof, which we like, and has a velvety mouthfeel with an easy demeanor; the flavor stays on the tongue with no esophageal burn or “Kentucky Hug.” It’s made of 100% Texas grains sourced from their own co-op of Texas farmers and uses Devils River region spring water to level the proof at 120. The whiskey is aged in new American Oak barrels with a #3 char (the first edition of this expression used #4 char). Neat, the whiskey hits the expected notes that young, high-rye bourbons do – of oak, black pepper and rye spice; left in the glass to breathe a bit reveals softer vanilla and sweet apple notes. Add a couple drops of water and you soften it with caramel, pear, and very light spearmint flavors.

 

BARREL PROOF/CASK STRENGTH

Kooper Family Barrel Reserve Bourbon Whiskey, Barrel Proof/Single Barrel (Ledbetter), 121 proof. No age statement. Sourced from Kentucky and “slowly” matured in white oak barrels. This batch was a barrel pick by owners and blenders Troy and Michelle Kooper. Mash bill is undisclosed but our guess is this column distilled bourbon is likely 78% corn, 10% rye, and 12% malted barley. Our bottle isn’t numbered, but is one of just 300ish bottles produced.

So, this is the first of our picks that you cannot go out and buy. Kooper released two limited run bourbons in 2023, the 80 proof Founders Reserve and the 121 proof Barrel Reserve. Each is very different from the other with the Founders being a blend of whiskies from 3 different states and the Barrel being a cask strength single barrel pick, but they shared similar runs – only one barrel of each was bottled so the only way to get it was to visit Kooper Family and pick up one of the 300-odd bottles. We hope they plan to make these one-offs a seasonal selection, but even so the next batch of Barrel Reserve will have different tasting notes than this one. It’s sweet and bright on the tongue with a very light mouthfeel for such a high proof. Don’t shoot it – it will burn. Just sip it and enjoy the warm feeling spreading slowly through the cockles of your heart. Mostly sweet notes of corn, shortbread cookie, burnt brown sugar, molasses, pancake syrup, cola candies, and rye spice. Adding water seems to blend the different notes into a sweeter slurry that comes across as a dessert whiskey with no dark notes at all.

 

SINGLE BARREL

Milam & Greene Distillery Edition Straight Bourbon Whiskey Batch #4 (Blanco), 117.6 proof. Aged 4 years with a mash bill of 70% corn, 22% rye, 8% barley. Pot distilled by master distiller Marlene Holmes. Only one barrel was produced for Batch #4 meaning only about 300 bottles ever existed of this recipe. Our bottle is marked Batch H-22. It is sold out.

 

The second of our picks that you cannot go out and buy is at least a series; you can visit the distillery and pick up a Distillery Edition bottle, it just won’t be Batch #4. “Do you have one of these?” Marlene asked as she handed me this bottle back in September. “No, you don’t.” she answered without waiting for me to respond. Staring at this gift I was about to put in my mouth, Marlene went on to mention that Batch #4 was the rarest version to date for two important reasons – first, that only one barrel was produced which sold out almost instantly, and second, that this barrel was aged during the epic freeze of ’21, maturing in weather that no other Texas whiskey had been exposed to, making for a more robust flavor than any previous (and possibly post) versions. She wasn’t lying. It’s a deep burnt umber and has rich, dark fruit notes on the nose – fig, prune/plum, raisin. It’s similarly intense on the palate with black tea, maple syrup, fig, toffee, praline, cocoa. Adding water, it gets slightly sweeter with more sugar flavors like brown sugar and turbinado.

 

NEW

Bingham’s Bourbon (Alvin), 80 proof. Aged at least 2 years with an unknown mash of corn, rye, and barley. Texas Country Music star and Yellowstone actor Ryan Bingham started a new bourbon line last spring and it’s definitely different. It’s a grain to glass Texas Certified whiskey, but with a twist: it undergoes a Persedo C.R.A.F.T. process. This process, which can be done before or after distillation, allows for the removal of certain conegers (substances other than alcohol that appear in distillate) that allows for elevated aromas, tastes, and mouthfeel. It also helps eliminate the fusel alcohols that contribute to hangovers. Our bottle is from Batch #S-323.

Persedo C.R.A.F.T (Controlled Removal And Finishing Technique) does not age the whiskey nor add any flavor notes. What drew us most to the bottles is the label, with a line-drawn skull wearing Ryan’s trademark wide-brim American Hat Company lid. Bingham’s Bourbon has a sharp nose – citrus zest and perhaps brandy-dipped cigar. The first thought upon tasting is “smooth,” followed by apricot jam, shortbread cookie, butter, vanilla, pecan, marshmallow, dried grass, and a light smoke finish. The Bingham’s Black is the same whiskey but at 94 proof.

 

WHEAT

Banner Wheat Whiskey (Manor), 92 proof. No age statement with a mash bill of 95% winter wheat and 5% malted barley. Banner is truly a craft distillery with basically a two-man staff – founders Logan Simpson and Tony Jimenez – who purchased the land, designed and hand-built the stills (both stainless steel and copper), grind the grain, make the mash, and run the bottling line. Banner Wheat Whiskey – the only liquor they make apart from vodka – is grain-to-glass, or rather, as they call it, “Mill to Still,” with the ingredients visible from the front porch of the distillery and local rainwater used for proofing. Bottling runs are very small, usually about 175 375-ml bottles per batch. Our bottle is Batch #25, Bottle #18.

Banner was founded in 2011, has been winning awards since 2015, and first appeared on our radar in 2017. It’s a wheat whiskey – not a wheated whiskey. The difference is wheated whiskies (like Pappy Van Winkle) use a small percentage of wheat instead of rye to soften the corn and barley spirit; wheat whiskies have no corn and sometimes no barley. It’s a remarkably smooth drink, and Banner set the standard for what we think of when we think of wheat whiskey. The color is honey orange and the nose light and sweet – caramelized sugar, oak, and a touch of fresh green apple. The flavors start woody and nutty, then buttery and vanilla, and finally a touch of pepper and anise. It’s a perfect journey.

 

RYE

Fierce Whiskers Texas Straight Rye Whiskey (Austin), 90 proof. Aged 2 years with a mash bill of 100% rye. Fierce Whiskers is a new distillery in South Austin that opened last Spring and is an interesting blend of authentic history and modern technology. The name comes from an 1849 quote from future US President Rutherford B. Hayes: “Austin is an inconsiderable village … with large expectations … full of discharged Rangers … costumes of every variety … fierce whiskers, gaming, and drinking very abounding in all quarters.” The whiskey comes from a state-of-the-art sustainable production facility and copper pot still. Their first batch was actually a private barrel pick by the Smoke & Mash group called Volume 1 that was spectacular, but not really available to the public. This bottle of Texas Tight Cut Rye is the distillery’s flagship (and currently only) whiskey. The bottle style and black and brown embossed label evoke the 1880s. Our bottle is not numbered and simply labeled Batch 1.

We came by this bottle by surprise. Still Austin’s Andrew Braunberg appeared on our show and brought a bottle with him. We tried it and were immediately struck by its uniqueness. The nose is an unusually sweet combination of brandied cherries and Turkish Delight (candied apricot and powdered sugar for you non-Narnia fans). Certainly not typical rye notes. The sweetness carries through to the palate. Cherry, plum, honeysuckle, vanilla, toasted marshmallow, maple syrup. If you add a little water, you can find a few rye notes like tobacco, black pepper, and oak, but the finish is light and sweet.

 

SINGLE MALT

Acre Texas Single Malt Whisky (Fort Worth), 100 proof. Aged 4 years with a mash bill of 100% two-row barley, harvested in Hillsboro, malted and milled in Fort Worth, then mashed at Acre Distilling - named that because of its location in Ft. Worth’s notorious Hell’s Half Acre, a district of brothels and saloons that served cattle drivers and cowboys from 1868-1920. It’s then aged in bourbon barrels which imparts familiar bourbon notes to the malt whiskey. We were sent a sample bottle.

We don’t drink a lot of single malt compared to the bourbons and whiskies we taste. But we’ve always sort of leaned toward finished batches – among our favorites are Andalusia Stryker Smoked, Acre’s Barleywine barrel finished, and Balcones’ Peated. This Texas Single Malt - a silver medal winner at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, a National Grand Champion at the US Open Spirits Challenge, and a Silver Buckle winner at the Texas Whiskey Festival – has nothing added during the aging process. The result is clean drinking, light feeling whiskey. Neat, this comes across sweet with cereal grains out front which dissolve into sweet tea and pancake with syrup, then ends with a dry finish that is mostly oak and white peppercorn. Adding water does little to change the profile but does blur the lines between the front, mid, and finish notes.

 

FLAVORED

Bahnbrecker Slow River Blend Hefeweizen Whiskey (New Braunfels), 80 proof. Aged 3-5 years with a mash bill of 100% wheat. In a nod to the area’s German heritage, local boy Randy Rogers’ brand has released the first Hefeweizen whiskey in the world. They blend Texas and Midwestern Straight winter wheat whiskies and macerate lemon peel and whole clove in the blend before putting it in a barrel for up to 5 years. The result is a hazy wheat whiskey that tastes like a hefeweizen beer. These bottles are not batched or numbered.

If you’re going to pay homage to New Braunfels’ German heritage, making a whiskey in a Hefeweizen fashion is a pretty unique way to do it. And what they’ve come up with is remarkably delicious. It’s smooth and light throughout the sip with no alcohol burn. The primary flavors are banana, lemon and clove with hints of vanilla and caramel. Unlike nearly any other whiskey, which has different notes on the front, mid, and finish of the palate, this whiskey stays consistently Hefe all the way through. Adding water or ice does nothing. Sounds weird, but a truly unique and refreshing whiskey.

 

MUSICIAN INSPIRED

MKT Distillery Hayden Baker’s Against the Grain Bourbon (Katy), 97 proof. Aged at least 2 years with an unknown mash bill containing corn, rye, rice, and barley. MKT’s special blend for hometown hero Hayden Baker features two things their other bourbons don’t – famous Katy rice and water from the well on Hayden’s grandparent’s East Texas ranch. Against the Grain was Hayden’s first independent album and led to him signing with Ronnie Dunn’s Perfect Pitch Publishing. The bourbon was proofed at 97 because that was the year Hayden was born. These bottles are not batched or numbered.

This is the third of our winning whiskies that you cannot get – unless you are in the Houston/Katy area and act quickly. MKT closed its doors in December, leaving only the stock at select Total Wine & More stores available to the public. We knew we had to pick this as one of our winners because we went through 4 bottles this year (though one bottle was simply dropped in the studio parking lot by Chip). The nose is typical of young bourbon with mostly vanilla and wood notes. Where it stands out is the taste with buttercream, honey, vanilla, oak and white pepper with a complete absence of dark, spicy notes.

 

That’s it! That’s the list. We believe the selections we’ve made are dead solid perfect. You won’t go wrong trying any one of them. But if you also can’t believe we left your favorite whiskey off the list, go ahead and let us know. You can always try and prove it to us with a little impromptu tasting…

Meanwhile, we’ll get started on next year’s list. We promise to do better.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Drinking Texas Whiskies of the Year 2022

Tastes change, palates mature, and passion grows. If you are any kind of whiskey drinker, that line right there probably describes you to some extent. And it should – whiskey drinkers like us are always up for trying something new: an unusual blend, an exclusive barrel, a limited batch, anything to add to our list of experiences and refine our choice of favorites; to continue growing.

Which is important, as author and icon William S, Burroughs famously reminds us, “if you stop growing, you start dying.” We’re finding this to be a great time to be alive.

Whiskey, it can be said, is a journey and not a destination. It’s meant to be enjoyed each step of the way. Luckily, we live in the perfect state and time for making such a journey. The Texas whiskey scene is young (the oldest distillery is only 12 years old), but it is thriving with more than 130 active distilleries putting out several hundreds of spirits including an impressive array of Texas whiskies. This year we’ve been to festivals, tastings, and releases and have been introduced to more bottles than we’ve ever seen before – extremely high proofs; well-aged blends; port, sherry, rum, and other barrel finishes; cinnamon, peanut butter, mint, and other whiskey flavorings; single grain malts, ryes, wheats, corn, and potato expressions; collaborations between distilleries and bands; light whiskies; and even a Hefeweizen whiskey. And as we found ourselves experiencing and growing, we kept track of our favorites…

Welcome to the 3rd Annual Drinking Texas Whiskies of the Year.

All Texas whiskies were eligible for consideration but we weren’t able to get to every one of them. It wasn’t for lack of trying; it’s an impossible task, though one we enjoy taking on. There are some bottles that are so limited run that they are gone before we can get our hands on one, others that are available only on site at distant distilleries, and still others are just too far out of our price range to be able to buy. In the end, we tasted approximately 200 different whiskies this past year and feel like we have a strong list of winners that will be hard to argue against. Our winners were all eventually obvious to us. We mostly picked the ones we kept going back to over and over through the year as well as some special blends that really blew us away. We classified our winners in certain categories though many of the winners qualified in more than one category. Still, each whiskey seemed to be the best one for the category in which we placed it.

Of course, we realize that the best whiskey is the one you like to drink, served the way you like it. There is no wrong way to drink your whiskey. Just remember to continue growing…

 

TEXAS CERTIFIED

Devils River Distiller’s Select Straight Bourbon Whiskey (San Antonio), 120 proof. No age statement but Straight Bourbon is aged a minimum of 2 years; each batch of Distiller’s Select is bottled whenever the distiller proclaims it ready. Mashbill is undisclosed though we believe it is the same 75% corn, 21% rye, 4% malted barley used in some of the distillery’s other expressions. This whiskey was our choice in this category last year as well. It wasn’t difficult to choose it again as we managed to go through 5 bottles of it in 2022. It’s made of 100% Texas grains sourced from a co-op of Texas farmers and Devils River region spring water to level the proof at 120. The whiskey is aged in new American Oak barrels with a #3 char (the first edition of this expression used #4 char). Neat, the whiskey hits the expected notes that young, high-rye bourbons do – of oak, black pepper and rye spice. It’s smooth and approachable with the alcohol heat showing up at the end. Add a couple drops of water and you reveal softer flavors like apple, pear, vanilla caramel, and a very light spearmint.

 

BARREL PROOF/CASK STRENGTH

Treaty Oak Ghost Hill Straight Bourbon Whiskey Eaves Blend (Dripping Springs), 114 proof. No age statement but uses a blend of barrels, the youngest of which is at least 2 years and 10 months old. Mashbill is 57% corn, 32% wheat, 11% malted barley. The first (and only) blended Ghost Hill Bourbon is part of the Marianne Eaves Blind project, where the superstar blender from Sweeten’s Cove (and first female Master Distiller in Kentucky history) works with craft distilleries around the country to create a blend that creates flavors to showcase the local terroir and grains; Treaty Oak always uses locally sourced ingredients in its bourbon. The Eaves Blind project organizes blind tastings of these craft whiskies designed to expose them to a wider audience as well as expand that audience’s palates. Ghost Hill is a wheat-forward bourbon and is full of warm flavors like fresh baked bread, honey, butter, white peppercorn, and ginger root. Adding water opens it nicely to notes of cinnamon sugar, walnuts, star anise, and toasted vanilla bean.

 

Milam & Greene The Castle Hill Series Bourbon Whiskey (Blanco), 111.04 proof. 13-year-old age statement, though Batch 2 is made using barrels between 13 years-10 months and 14 years-3 months old. Mashbill is undisclosed and the source Tennessee distillery is undisclosed (though it is rumored they are George Dickel barrels). Since partnering with the former Ben Milam distillery, Master Blender and whiskey authority Heather Greene has created some award-winning blends, including the Triple Cask Bourbon and Port Finished Rye – both of which won Double Gold medals at the San Francisco International Spirits Competition. She started the Castle Hill Series to “celebrate … the art of batching well-aged casks” and Batch 1 sold out immediately. We never got a chance to try it. Batch 2, which is available as of this writing, is a blend of 26 barrels of 8 different Tennessee bourbons and the result is a revelation: delightful dessert notes of warm each cobbler, crusty brown sugar, vanilla, caramel, almond, and milk chocolate swirl around each other from the first sip. One reviewer actually said Bit-O-Honey. Adding water really doesn’t change it much, it simply makes it smoother.

 

SINGLE BARREL

Garrison Brother’s Single Barrel Texas Straight Bourbon (Hye), 94 proof. Aged 3 years. Mashbill is 74% corn, 15% wheat, 11% malted barley. This is the oldest legal distillery in Texas (at 12 years) and as such has picked up its share of haters, but Garrison Brothers has stayed on top by staying pretty loyal to its core whiskies. And why not, they are all pretty good. With single barrel picks, you may have an idea what you are getting, but the truth is every barrel is unique and the whiskey experience you are having with that bottle may never happen quite that way again. We drank from barrel 16879 from 2019 and found a little of everything – fresh fruit (apple, pear), grain (sweet corn, bread dough), sweet (caramel, vanilla), and earthy (leather, oak). The flavors trade in and out; I thought the bread dough was front and dominant during early tasting but am tasting a lot of apple and oak today. Water brings out more baking notes (brown sugar, nutmeg, allspice).

 

BLENDED

Balcones ZZ Top Tres Hombres Texas Whisky (Waco), 100 proof. No age statement. Mashbill undisclosed, however it is made with a specific blend of three of Balcones’ single grain whiskies: Baby Blue Corn, Texas Rye, and Texas Single Malt. Developed during the pandemic, Balcones decided to make a blend using three different grains that would represent the three members of “That Little Band from Texas,” ZZ Top. The tastings were conducted via Zoom with all three bandmembers – Billy Gibbons, Dusty Hill, and Frank Beard, and this is the result. While all three of the whiskies used in this blend are very good, this is a case of the sum being greater than the parts. This is the second straight year Tres Hombres has been our blend of the year because Batch 2, which we’ve gone through 4 bottles of this year, is every bit as good as Batch 1 was (Batch 3 is now in stores). It’s balanced and mellow, leading with soft flavors like apple and pear, buttered popcorn, and brown sugar. After adding water other, unique flavors are revealed such as leather, red wine, and salad greens.

 

NEW

Luckenbach Road Whiskey Straight Bourbon (Luckenbach), 88 proof. Aged 3+ years. Mashbill is 99% corn, 1% malted barley. We first encountered what we lovingly refer to as “Road Whiskey” at the ’22 Texas Whiskey Festival where it won a bronze buckle in Bourbon: Aged and Bottled in TX. Founder Stewart Skloss’s three-times great grandfather, Heinrich Ochs, opened the Buckhorn Saloon in Fredericksburg in 1881 and it’s said the recipe they now use was founded there; their “Farm to Bottle Experience” has them teaming with Texas A&M to develop varieties of corn, barley, wheat, and rye that will thrive in the local environment. The whiskey is currently sourced from MGP and aged in Luckenbach. Mellow, sweet and pleasant. Prevailing flavor is nutmeat, though I can’t nail it down between pecan, walnut, or cashew. Also a sweet, fresh fruitiness with peach and apricot notes. Water actually softens the sweetness and gives notes of spun sugar and perfumed flowers.

 

WHEAT

Unbendt Bottled in Bond Straight Wheat Whiskey (Lewisville), 100 proof. Aged 4+ years. Mashbill undisclosed but includes Denton Soft Red Winter Wheat, Yellow Dent Corn, and Maris Otter malted barley. Bendt is best known for its blended whiskies, so if you don’t visit the distillery, you may not know about their unblended line. Luckily, we checked in and found Unbendt wheat whiskey (it’s now available in Austin area liquor stores, we just never would have found it). This liquid gold won a 2022 Gold medal at San Francisco and a 2022 Double Gold medal at New York. No dark notes here, it tastes of fresh apple and dried peaches and plums at first, then mellows into cereal grain, buttered toast, caramel, and Turkish Delight (including confectioner’s sugar). Adding water makes it feel softer and kind of dulls the flavors so I recommend neat in this case.

 

RYE

Still Austin The Artist Straight Rye Whiskey (Austin), 99.6 proof. Aged 2 years. Mashbill is 100% rye. Still Austin has been around since 2015, but for the last four years they have been making some of our favorite bottles. The Musician and The Musician Cask Strength have appeared on this list before. This year it’s their new Straight Rye that caught our eye. The 100% rye mash is not unheard of but also not the norm. It’s put into #3 char barrels and aged using a “slow water” process where a little water is added to the barrel each month as the whiskey ages so it comes out of the barrel at the desired proof. It’s a friendly country rye with welcoming flavors of honey, burnt sugar; fruit notes of baking cherries, Fig Newton, apricot; and kitchen spices like clove, nutmeg, cinnamon, and ginger. With a splash of water actually brings forth darker flavors of oak, rye, dark chocolate, and orange zest. The label art is great as well, featuring is an original work by Austin artist Marc Burckhardt.

 

SINGLE MALT

Acre Texas Single Malt Whisky (Fort Worth), 117.6 proof. Aged 4 years. Mashbill is 100% malted barley. Acre Distilling, named that because of its location in Ft. Worth’s notorious Hell’s Half Acre (a district of brothels and saloons that served cattle drivers and cowboys from 1868-1920) makes a number of outstanding single malts including the Parker County Smoked Single Malt where the barley is smoked over peach and pecan wood for a smoky sweetness. But our winner, the Texas Single Malt, was a silver medal winner at San Francisco and silver buckle winner at the Texas Whiskey Festival. The two-row barley is from nearby Hillsboro, malted in Fort Worth and distilled on Hell’s Half Acre. It is aged in bourbon barrels to impart those American oak flavors normally found in bourbon. Neat, this comes across sweet with cereal grains out front which dissolve into sweet tea and pancake with syrup, and ends with a dry finish that is mostly oak and white peppercorn. Adding water does little to change the profile but does blur the lines between the front, mid, and finish notes.

 

FLAVORED

Bahnbrecker Slow River Blend Hefeweizen Whiskey (New Braunfels), 80 proof. Aged 3-5 years. Mashbill is 100% wheat. In a nod to the area’s German heritage, local boy Randy Rogers’ brand has released the first Hefeweizen whiskey in the world. They blend Texas and Midwestern Straight winter wheat whiskies and macerate lemon peel and whole clove in the blend before putting it in a barrel for up to 5 years. The result is a hazy wheat whiskey that tastes like a hefeweizen beer. It’s smooth and light throughout with no alcohol burn. The primary flavors are banana, lemon and clove with hints of vanilla and caramel. Unlike nearly any other whiskey that has different notes on the front, mid, and finish, of the palate, this whiskey stays consistently Hefe all the way through. Adding water does nothing. Sounds weird, but a truly unique and refreshing whiskey.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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 …

 

 

TEXAS CERTIFIED

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.

 

BARREL PROOF

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.

 

SINGLE BARREL

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.

 

RYE

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.

 

SINGLE MALT

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.

 

BLENDED

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.”

 

NEW

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.

 

FLAVORED

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…

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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 …

 

Texas Certified

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.

 

Single Barrel

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.

 

New

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.

 

Rye

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.

 

Wheat

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.

 

Corn

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” …

 

Single Malt

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.

 

Flavored

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.

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