A Texan’s Take On The Best Bourbons From The Lone Star State

Ask any Texan, myself included, what they’re most proud of from their home state and you’re sure to get an emphatic answer. It might be the savory barbecue served up everywhere from fine dining restaurants to the roadside shacks, or the uncrowded, seemingly-endless national parks, or simply the beautiful, expansive, star-filled night sky. Or it might be the whiskey.

Young to the industry in relation to whiskeys distilled in Kentucky and Tennessee, the current wave of Texas distilling started in 2006 — when Garrison Brothers Distillery was granted a distiller’s permit for bourbon. That made it the first of its kind: the only legal bourbon distillery in Texas. Much progress has been made since then, with the Texas Whiskey Trail launching just last year, founded by 12 distilleries at the forefront of crafting Certified Texas Whiskey.

To speak generally, Texas whiskey, particularly bourbon, features nuances and notes that are distinctive to the region. Unlike whiskey-producing states to the east of Texas, with four easy-to-define seasons, Lone Star weather is generally dry and often hot. (It’s also variable — we like to say that you can experience four seasons in one week, in Texas. Sometimes all in one day.) The dry conditions combined with warm temperatures cause barrelled alcohol to expand. This helps the distillate reach deep into the pores of the wood, which is where many of the flavors are born and where the deep, dark hues originate. Of course, the climate varies based on where you are in the massive state. Houston (more humid) and Austin (drier) are just a few hours away from each other, but the unique weather in each city no doubt affects the taste of the whiskeys made there.

For years now, brands have loved slapping “Texas” on any product they market to denote large size or a certain rugged cool factor (yeah, we’re kind of a big deal). So the Texas Whiskey Association has specified the criteria that must be met for a whiskey to be a true Texas expression. These specifications can be summed up in one simple line: “Begin with grain from Texas or elsewhere, then complete every step of the whiskey-making process all within Texas.”

As an avid lover of both bourbon and my home state, I thought it was time run down a few Texas made bourbons that excite my palate. With Texas going right back on lockdown after a huge COVID spike, these bottles might be exactly what residents need to make it through a sweltering summer.

Garrison Brothers Texas Straight Bourbon Whiskey

ABV: 47%
Distillery: Garrison Brothers Distillery, Hye, Texas
Price: $90

The Whiskey:

Founder Dan Garrison spent the early 2000s learning his craft from the crème de la crème of Kentucky’s distillers. Fast forward to 2010, Garrison Brothers introduced the first bourbon whiskey legally made in Texas. Every expression of the company’s bourbon is made from a sweet mash bill (as opposed to sour mash) and barrel-aged in the intense Texas climate. Every step, from cooking the mash to bottling, takes place on-site at the Garrison Brothers Distillery.

Tasting Notes:

This bourbon has long been one of my absolute favorites. This amber-colored expression has an oak, vanilla, and caramel palate with a welcoming, long finish. I associate whiskey with music, so this one has a Kacey Musgraves-style “Slow Burn” and its heavily oak-flavored profile arrives thanks to the scorching Texas heat.

Balcones Texas Pot Still Bourbon

ABV: 46%
Distillery: Balcones Distilling, Waco, Texas
Price: $30

The Whisky:

The Balcones imprint gets an A+ in innovation. The team pairs classic techniques with experimentation and this pot still bourbon is a testament to their inimitable approach. Created from their signature roasted blue corn, the mash bill is also comprised of Texas wheat and rye, plus malted barley.

Tasting Notes:

I was drawn in by the subtle, sweet scent of honey and toasted oak. I was completely won over by the baking spices and spicy rye palate. The lingering finish is riddled with heat and sweet spices such as cinnamon.

Treaty Oak Ghost Hill Texas Bourbon

ABV: 47.5%
Distillery: Treaty Oak Distilling, Dripping Springs, Texas
Price: $50

The Whiskey:

The bourbon is made with local heirloom grains from Barton Springs Mill. This grain-to-glass goodness is mashed, fermented, distilled, barreled, aged two years, and bottled on-site at the Treaty Oak Distillery.

Tasting Notes:

The honey and caramel nose enraptured me, so it was definitely “love at first scent.” Full body, robust oak and spice flavors with medium heat. I added a few drops of water in the second sip that left me with a soft, vanilla finish.

Milam & Greene Triple Cask Bourbon

ABV: 47%
Distillery: Ben Milam Whiskey Distillery, Blanco, Texas
Price: $42

The Whiskey:

Milam & Greene is named for the collaboration between Texan entrepreneur Marsha Milam and whiskey expert and writer Heather Greene. The Milam & Greene Triple Cask is a batch of three straight bourbon whiskeys selected by Greene: a two-year-old premium Texas bourbon alongside three to four-year-old Tennessee whiskey, plus a ten to eleven-year-old Tennessee whiskey.

Tasting Notes:

This is the first bourbon I’ve tried with a floral aroma. It was a bit off-putting, but I’m glad I didn’t stop there. The creamy palate has hints of vanilla and honey, culminating with a spicy, lingering finish. I loved this as a slow sip neat, but I’m convinced it would make for an even better cocktail.

Firestone & Robertson Texas Straight Bourbon Whiskey

ABV: 45%
Distillery: Firestone & Robertson Distilling Co., Fort Worth, Texas
Price: $50

The Whiskey:

The bourbon is crafted with yellow dent Texas corn, Texas soft red winter wheat, 6-row distillers’ malt, and their own proprietary strain of yeast from Texas pecans, combined with pure Texas water. A pretty darn cool feature of the bourbon is the leather bottle caps unique to each bottle. A nice, cowboy-cool way to package the juice.

Tasting Notes:

There are so many good things going on with this bourbon. Pecan, banana, maple, and caramel aromas partnered with the light mouthfeel of vanilla, brown sugar, and spice all come together like a beautiful, melodic song. What it lacks in linger, it makes up for in a balanced finish of spice and subtle sweetness.

Ironroot Harbinger Straight Bourbon Whiskey

ABV: 57.5%
Distillery: Ironroot Republic Distillery, Denison Texas
Price: $60

The Whiskey:

Using a variety of local and heirloom corns, Ironroot whiskeys are crafted with traditional French brandy techniques, particularly the process of elévage — whereby close attention is paid during the aging process. This ensures that the extreme Texas climate has a positive impact on the whiskey. The bourbon is crafted with four heirloom corns and rye.

Fun fact: This bourbon won this year’s “World’s Best Bourbon” at the World Whiskies Awards.

Tasting Notes:

The nose is a trifecta of deliciousness — consisting of peppery spice, maple, and vanilla. Baking spices and brown sugar gives this bourbon a subtle sweet palate. Packed with heat and a nice linger with a hint of oak.

Still Austin Whiskey Co. Two-Year Straight Bourbon Whiskey

ABV: 50%
Distillery: Still Austin Whiskey Co., Austin, Texas
Price: $40

The Whiskey:

I saved a newbie, but goodie, for last. This forthcoming bourbon has a mash bill consisting of 70 percent white corn, 25 percent rye, and 5 percent malted barley. Most bourbon is traditionally made with yellow corn, so the white corn is a unique touch. The bourbon is all distilled on a one-of-a-kind custom 42-foot column still designed by head distiller Mike Delevante and custom-built by Forsyths in Scotland.

Tasting Notes: Though this bourbon has only aged for two years, the palate tastes more mature. I’m hooked on the spice from the rye, alongside the hints of brown sugar, caramel, and toffee. The smooth, lasting lingering finish is bliss. Though I sipped this neat, it will definitely be used in a mint julep this summer.