Texas distilleries growing as spirits expand in popularity

Texas distilleries growing as spirits expand in popularity

DALLAS (AP) — When Mike Cameron was young, his grandfather gave him a piece of pottery that inadvertently set the course of his professional life.

Cameron’s grandfather Gordon used to take the juglike vessel to the local saloon and pick up whiskey for his grandfather before him. The family heirloom, now more than 100 years old, sits in a glass case in Cameron’s home office as a reminder of the spirit that brought the two together.

“He always drank bourbon, always in the evening,” Cameron, a distillery owner for eight years, says of Gordon, who introduced him to the liquor. “It became part of family events.”

Cameron’s journey in the spirits industry came full circle in March when he launched his first bourbon, called Devils River Whiskey, which is produced in Dallas and is now available in stores and bars.

Devils River is the latest to join North Texas’ burgeoning small-batch distillery scene, which is gaining momentum like the craft brewery movement before it.

Between 1995 and 2008, the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission issued 10 licenses to spirits manufacturers. Now there are more than 100 active distillery licenses in the state, and experts don’t expect a slowdown anytime soon.

What drives growth?

Distilling, like brewing and winemaking, is a fairly young industry in Texas. Prohibition quashed the majority of manufacturers early in the 20th century.

The first Texas distillery of the modern era was Fifth Generation Inc. in Austin, creator of Tito’s Vodka, founded in 1995. Even when some of the early local distilleries, such as Firestone & Robertson Distilling Co. in Fort Worth and Western Son Distillery in Pilot Point, fired up stills in 2011, they were ahead of the curve, though not by much.

Shortly thereafter, the thirst for locally made spirits exploded, driven primarily by a renewed interest in whiskey from young drinkers.

Between 2010 and 2016, sales of U.S. bourbon and Tennessee whiskey increased 41 percent to 21.7 million cases, according to the U.S. Distilled Spirits Council. Couple that with the amount of American bourbon and whiskey exported around the world and you’re drinking up a $3.3 billion industry — a bona fide boom, as some have called it.

While whiskey is leading the spirits renaissance, it’s not the only one becoming increasingly popular. America’s thirst for Irish whiskey, mezcal and tequila has catapulted their sales.

Cameron at Devils River Whiskey also serves as president of the Texas Distilled Spirits Association.

Bourbon is thriving not only because it’s “truly an American spirit,” Cameron says, but also because millennial culture revolves around products with an artistic edge that support local businesses.

And he doesn’t mean just food and beverage: “It’s everything. It’s fashion, food choices, music,” Cameron told The Dallas Morning News (http://bit.ly/2oOKV5T). “Consumers are demanding more variety, and I think creative industries are delivering.”

Rob Arnold, head distiller at Firestone & Robertson, is a fifth-generation booze-maker who forwent a doctorate in biochemistry to begin producing spirits. He credits bartenders and the craft cocktail revival with educating drinkers about what’s in their glass, generating enthusiasm for spirits.

But there’s another, less obvious champion, Arnold says: craft brewers.

Many breweries, such as New Holland Brewing in Michigan and Texas’ own Real Ale Brewing Co., have jumped into the spirits game in recent years because the production process is largely the same. To make Firestone & Robertson’s signature TX Blended Whiskey, for example, Arnold first uses a mix of grains and brews a wort, which he lets ferment for a couple of days before distilling it into whiskey and aging it in barrels.

“Some of these brewers already kind of mastered the hardest part of making whiskey,” Arnold says. “You really show off your skill by making the beer. Distillation is not easy, but it’s much more of a static process.”

There is, however, a stark difference between the craft beer movement and craft spirits movement, according to Chris Leurig, head distiller at Lewisville’s Witherspoon Distillery. The trend toward local distilling wasn’t to combat flavorless, mass-produced beverages from the big guys, such as Jack Daniel’s or Jim Beam, he says.

“The big companies actually make really good, flavorful whiskey and spirits,” Leurig says. “Why just settle because something is good when you can make it better?”

Today, there are at least 13 distilleries open in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, and several more are in development. If you haven’t heard of them, it’s not because their products are subpar.

 In 2013, Firestone & Robertson’s flagship TX Blended Whiskey was named Best American Craft Whiskey at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition and earned a double gold honor.

In 2016, Iron Root Republic Distilling in Denison and Witherspoon Distillery in Lewisville snagged silver medals at the New York International Spirits Competition.

Three vodkas from Dallas’ Duckworthy Distillery, including a truffle-flavored one, were deemed “exceptional” by the Beverage Testing Institute last year. And that’s just to name a few local accolades.

The rise in distilleries in North Texas also offers residents new ways to drink local.

Some distilleries, including Devils River, manufacture their spirits to be sold at retail stores and enjoyed at home. Others, such as Western Son Distillery, have on-site taprooms where locals can have a cocktail and take a tour.

Acre Distillery in Fort Worth sells pastries, coffee and tea alongside its house vodkas, gin, rum and whiskey. It’s not unusual to see patrons working on their laptops in the shadow of the liquor still.

Whatever the business model, Arnold says, a variety in distilleries means North Texans have plenty of inventive libations to come. The newly opened Black Eye Distilling Co. in Fort Worth, for one, makes its vodka from black-eyed peas.

“Craft distillation is going to be its own thing,” Arnold says. “These new distilleries are going to bring something novel to the industry, whether it’s a flavor or the way we approach the craft in general.”