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A Guide Through The Texas Whiskey Trail

Mar 26, 2024

This article originally appeared in our July/August 2023 edition of Local Profile.

Saddle up and let’s take a trip through Texas’ whiskey trail. While you sip on your glass learn all there is to know about the authentic Texas barbecue, where to get the best ramen Collin County has to offer and where to dine if you have food restrictions. Browse the July/August edition of Local Profile now!

“For about ten years, we had been wanting to establish a Texas whiskey trail and certification standards for what defines a Texas whiskey,” Texas whiskey legend Dan Garrison, the founder and CEO of Garrison Brothers Distillery, once said. In 2019, that happened: the Texas Whiskey Trail was officially launched at the San Antonio Cocktail Conference, boasting around twenty members. (Currently, 30 distilleries are part of the trail with additional distilleries joining this year.) And with that, the Texas Whiskey Trail was born.

For those who have not yet done so, visiting a whiskey distillery is an absolute blast that always ends with whiskey, and if that sounds like a party, just know that it is. The trail is completely free for whiskey lovers to join, and organizers have done a phenomenal job of gamifying the Texas whiskey experience. You earn points for certain visits; points are redeemable for tastings and swag, and so on. There are four different trails — North Texas, Hill Country, South Texas, and Gulf Coast — and all of the members of the trail produce certified Texas whiskey. This is a quick way to differentiate those truly growing the community from those sourcing their products from outside Texas and slapping an armadillo wearing cowboy boots on the label.

Fortunately, the North Texas portion of the Texas Whiskey Trail is one of the best trails — if not the best — in the state, offering an array of whiskey makers and styles that help North Texas to be counted among the elite whiskey regions in the country. For those whiskey fans in the area, you are sitting in the middle of a whiskey mecca and you might not even have known it. Let us begin.

Baby BlueThe first Texas whiskey on the market since Prohibition, made from roasted heirloom blue corn and always intentionally young. This sucker has won more awards than Michael Phelps.

Proof: 92

Nose: Kettle corn, vanilla cream puff, toffee, cinnamon and nutmeg, French-pressed coffee and dark chocolate.

Palate: Oily, dried apricot, brown sugar, cotton candy, sweet tea, warm peppermint and Sichuan peppers.

Since its inception in 2008, Balcones Distilling in Waco has been a gradual series of experiments. Its first releases was a five-month-old, 100% corn whiskey. Balcones is known for its innovative and experimental approach to whiskey making, which sets it apart from more traditional distilleries. The distillery’s American whiskeys are known to be among the most frequently awarded in the industry. From being selected “Craft Whiskey Distillery of the Year” by Whisky Advocate magazine and “American Craft Distiller of the Year” by Whisky Magazine to Head Distiller Jared Himstedt being named an Icon of Whisky, Balcones is lauded, and we haven’t even talked about the awards the whiskeys have won yet.

“Making whiskey in Texas is unlike anything else; it has its own personality,” says Himstedt. “Texas whiskey isn’t necessarily a class type, but a genre. And to think that we were there, getting started as it got started.”

Balcones has always personified the idea of a craft distillery: the company is nimble and creative in its approach, and it has a stack of gold, platinum and “best whiskey” awards. In November of 2022, it was announced that Balcones was being acquired by Diageo, the world’s largest spirits company. At the time, Greg Allen, the chairman of Balcones Distilling, said, “Balcones started with an idea driven by an innovative spirit and passion to create something original and authentic in the heart of Texas. Now, we couldn’t be prouder to have created these award-winning American single malt and Texas whiskeys, but also to have helped initiate an exciting new era of whiskey in Texas.”

Small Batch

Aged in 15-gallon American white oak barrels with a #3 char. With 90% wheat and 10% malted barley, this is a wheat whiskey and not a bourbon, make no bones about it.

Proof: 90

Nose: Mixed berry crumble, dried cherry, dates, buttered pound cake with vanilla icing.

Palate: Raisins, muscovado, dark chocolate-covered sea salt caramels, Triscuits with a hint of coriander.

On the other end of the spectrum, Lone Elm Wheat Whiskey launched in Forney in 2012 as the definition of a microdistillery. “We started with 15-gallon barrels and put them in a shipping container,” says Bill Wofford, founder of Lone Elm. “The idea was small barrels at a high temperature because we wanted to get to market quickly.” This is a fairly common practice in Texas, nicknamed the Texas Rickhouse, in which shipping containers are used to amplify the heat in order to increase the wood impact and “age” whiskey faster. While nothing is going to truly replicate time spent resting in a barrel, it dramatically increases the wood interaction and allows some whiskey to be released in a shorter amount of time. Lone Elm is one of the few straight wheat whiskeys on the market, and its small-batch blend typically contains whiskeys between 3 and 5 years old.

Lone Elm is conveniently located just 20 minutes outside of Dallas and offers an enjoyable and family-friendly distillery experience; the monthly farmers and artisan markets are especially popular. In March, the Lone Elm team journeyed to London for the World Whiskies Awards ceremony to receive the prestigious title of the World’s Best Wheat Whiskey. These are the most important whiskey awards in the world and the ones that truly matter. Remarkably, when Texas distillers attend these major international whiskey awards, they tend to have a lot of company.

Harbinger 115This flagship bourbon has won every award you can think of, including, most importantly, World’s Best Bourbon from Whisky Magazine in 2020. It is made with purple corn, Bloody Butcher Flint, and non-GMO yellow dent corn with a touch of rye. An encapsulation of everything Ironroot Republic does.

Proof: 115

Nose: Cinnamon, orange marmalade, blackberry, strawberry compote and brown sugar-maple cookies.

Palate: Freshly served elote, baking spices, caramel kettle corn and dry, charred oak with a nice astringency.

While Lone Elm was winning World’s Best Wheat, Ironroot Republic, from Denison, was continuing its dominance by bringing three major awards back to North Texas. Ironroot’s Apotheosis, its annual cask-finished bourbon series, won World’s Best Finished Bourbon for this year’s Pineau des Charentes cask-finished bourbon. Hubris, a beautiful corn whiskey made with purple corn and aged in second-fill European oak casks, won World’s Best Corn Whiskey. Again. For the fourth time. Talk about dominance.

But while Ironroot has received numerous awards, the one the company is unabashedly most proud of is the Icons of Whisky American Master Distiller/Master Blender of the Year, for which Head Distiller and Blender Jonathan Likarish was designated Highly Commended.

While this honor is incredibly impressive, Ironroot won its most important award in 2020 when the World Whiskies Awards named it the World’s Best Bourbon. This led to Ironroot consistently selling out of every drop of whiskey it makes. Ironroot has achieved global recognition and established itself as a cornerstone in the distillery industry, setting the bar for excellence among Texas distilleries. The Likarish family is among the most innovative whiskey makers in Texas, and it’s often tough to find Ironroot in the wild at your local liquor store — you’ll want to head up to the distillery for the good stuff.

Unbendt Straight Malt Whiskey This bottled-in-bond straight malt whiskey effectively incorporates its secondary wheat grain to produce impressive outcomes. It is one of the whiskeys blended into Bendt No. 5 and is outstanding individually.

Proof: 100

Nose: Malty and fruit-forward with hints of dark cherry notes, caramel and oak. Floral scents of honey leave you wanting a sip.

Palate: Robust barrel char flavors that contrast beautifully with the lighter caramel and honey notes. The finish is notably dark, revealing the flavors of black tea, clove and roasted barley, which are accented by a satisfyingly earthy aftertaste.

Just to the west in Lewisville, Natasha DeHart is on the very short list of female founders in whiskey, and Bendt Distilling Company is making moves. In what started as a massive pivot from the company’s former owners, DeHart and her husband, Ryan DeHart, decided to focus their energy and skills on the art of the blend. Their flagship whiskey, Bendt No. 5, combines five distinct whiskeys — bourbon, rye, wheat, malt and light whiskey — which, when blended, make an easy-drinking American whiskey. Over the past two years, Bendt has introduced a new range of whiskeys called Unbendt. Unbendt separates the five individual expressions that make up the blend, providing the opportunity for consumers to taste each whiskey individually.

During the pandemic, Bendt spent time upgrading and outfitting its tasting room to create a community hub that has truly become a gathering place for the distillery’s downtown Lewisville neighbors. The second you enter the space, you can see how much dedication the company has to its craft. The whiskey garden is an incredibly enjoyable place to enjoy a nice dram on a family-friendly patio.

Blackland Rye

A blend of 80% 4-year-old rye from Minnesota and 20% young rye from Blackland — their young rye consists of 80% Texas rye and 20% triticale.

Proof: 100

Nose: Very light on the nose, vanilla buttercream icing, dried leaves and cinnamon-apple baked oatmeal.

Palate: Herbal, creamy, candy-corn macaron, cinnamon-sugar bagel and new leather.

If you continue your craft whiskey exploration to the west, you’ll find Blackland Distillery, home of the nicest darn tasting room you’ll find in Texas. It’s an upscale, modern cocktail lounge, which is basically the opposite of what you’ll find at any other Texas distillery. You walk through the sleek concrete and metal accents on the patio, which does just enough to separate you from the rest of the industrial business park surroundings of the distillery. You walk into a beautiful horseshoe-shaped bar with innovative cocktails like nothing else in the state.

The cocktail program is tops in the city and even more impressive when you realize Blackland makes everything from scratch. See, in Texas, if you own a distillery, you cannot have a liquor license in the traditional sense, which means you have to produce literally any spirits you sell. You make whiskey and want an old fashioned? Break out that bitters recipe.

There’s nothing rustic about Blackland. And there’s nothing about Blackland that looks typical, including the still itself. Blackland uses the iStill, an automated distillation system that gives the distillery the ability to automate the proof percentage using a computer, which allows a distiller to easily replicate their process. “With the iStill, you get a clean, consistent product, which is what we were looking for,” says founder Markus Kypreos. Blackland might be the only distillery to incorporate triticale (a hybrid wheat/rye grain) into all its whiskey. This year, the company is finally ready to release its own 100% Texas whiskey. This is worth a drive west.

Smoked Single Malt

A 100% two-row barley from Hillsboro aged in 30-gallon, #3 char new American oak barrels.

Proof: 100

Nose: Outdoor charcoal grill, mushroom soup, overly oaky chardonnay and charred bell peppers.

Palate: Musty, incense, light roast coffee, burnt sticks and Italian wedding cake. I feel like I’m taking crazy pills, but it tastes like sotol on the finish.

While you’re there, mix in some real Fort Worth history and head to Hell’s Half Acre. Acre Distilling Co. is situated in downtown Fort Worth, right in the heart of what used to be the notorious Hell’s Half Acre — a historic area infamous for its gambling, alcohol and outlaws.

Acre has one of the most diverse product lines in Texas. While the company is currently sourcing its bourbons, everything else is 100% Texas, grain to glass. The founders both come from Rahr & Sons Brewing, so they’ve been supplying Fort Worth with the goodies for quite some time. The distillery is attached to a beautiful tasting room with massive picture windows that let you look out on the floor to see all the distilling equipment in action.

Wheat and spireA sourced, wheated bourbon that is 51% corn, 45% wheat and 5% malted barley. Bottled with a medium-charred, lightly toasted French oak spire.

Proof: 90

Nose: Vanilla, cherry tart, butterscotch and whole wheat bagels.

Palate: Mixed-berry jam, the pricey maraschino cherries from the jar and roasted marshmallow just before it catches on fire.

Located in downtown Bridgeport, just north of Fort Worth, Oak & Eden’s flagship location offers one of the most fascinating brand experiences in Texas. Since its inception in 2017, Oak & Eden has aimed to deliver a fully customized whiskey experience to its customers.

Oak & Eden’s patented approach to whiskey uses flavoring oak spirals that change the flavor profile of each bottle. This allows customers to have a fully customized whiskey experience. The founders also decided to create a space where friends could gather and grab some cocktails and an artisan charcuterie board. Hence, they established the Oak & Eden Flagship — a physical manifestation of the brand.

Oak & Eden is set to expand its reach by opening a new tasting room in Clearfork, in southwest Fort Worth, with another beautiful tasting room that gives guests an opportunity to design their own bottle of whiskey. Whether you visit the flagship store or the new location, you’ll have the chance to sample over 500 different expressions of Oak & Eden, a truly remarkable feat for any distillery.

And the newest member of the North Texas section of the Texas Whiskey Trail is the 1845 Distilling Company. Beautifully situated 10 minutes outside of downtown McKinney, this is an eighth-generation, family-owned and operated craft distillery specializing in Texas whiskey and bourbon. The company has been distilling for a while, but prior to February, you couldn’t even taste the whiskey. Currently, the distillery is open Saturdays, and that’s the only way you’re going to be able to give it a try. The 1845 Distilling Company is making some exceptional booze, and it’s hit the scene in a strong way, so keep an eye on it.

GraysonIf you’re looking for Texas in a bottle, this wheat-heavy bourbon is a blend of Ironroot Republic, Balcones and Lone Elm Wheat Whiskey. The latest version also incorporates Treaty Oak. Grayson is blended and bottled at Ironroot Republic Distillery and is available for sale in the tasting room.

Proof: 119.4

Nose: Raisins, barrel-aged maple syrup and beignet-flavored coffee rounds with subtle hints of jalapeño jelly and the insides of new cowboy boots.

Palate: Super sweet initially with syrupy waffle notes that move into a spiced cider with allspice, cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg. Plus, notes of brown butter and an almost-burnt pecan with sweet wheat and a fennel finish.

From the moment the grains are harvested to the final pour, a sip of bourbon whiskey represents a quintessentially American experience. We are fortunate to be surrounded by a community of artists who happen to specialize in crafting exceptional whiskey.

Each member of the Texas Whiskey Trail recognizes the importance of treating this experience with reverence, and they are dedicated to using their whiskey to support the growth of the industry and their community. The members of the Texas Whiskey Trail understand that they are not in competition but rather a community of like-minded individuals working together. As the industry continues to evolve and flourish, this rising tide will lift all boats.

Although it is less than 20 years old, the Texas whiskey industry has already earned a reputation for producing some of the finest whiskey in the world. Go find yourself a new favorite whiskey.

Baby BlueProof:Nose:Palate:Small BatchProof:Nose:Palate:Harbinger 115Proof:Nose:Palate:Unbendt Straight Malt WhiskeyProof:Palate:Blackland RyeProof:Nose:Palate:Smoked Single MaltProof:Nose:Palate:Wheat and spireProof:Nose:Palate:GraysonProof:Nose:Palate: