Toward a Definition of Texas Whiskey
A chat with Grayson founder Nico Martini, who just published a book on the state’s growing influence in the brown spirits world
Is Texas the next great whiskey destination?
If you ask Nico Martini, author of the new book Texas Whiskey and cofounder of Grayson whiskey, the answer is a resounding yes. Texas whiskey production has come up from virtually nothing in 2008 to its current status as an innovative, award-winning and massively diverse distilling scene. In Texas you’ll find everything from bourbons and blends to Irish-style pot still whiskeys to whiskeys smoked with peach and pecan wood.
We caught up with Nico for the inside scoop on what whiskey drinkers should seek out in the Lone Star State.
InsideHook: They say everything is bigger in Texas, yet despite being a native Texan myself, I didn’t realize just how big Texas whiskey has become until reading your book. How did the state’s whiskey come up from nothing so quickly?
Nico Martini: You’re a Texan, you know damn well that when we get an idea in our heads, nothing is going to stop us. Truthfully, we’re blessed with some awesome founders. Balcones and Garrison Brothers have been instrumental in the progression of this industry and we’re very lucky they’re both open to conversations and both truly want what’s best for the industry as a whole.
Whiskey drinkers have a tendency to want a clear definition of regional styles, but one of the exciting things about Texas whiskey right now is that it’s too new to be bound by rules or tradition. There’s a freedom to try all kinds of things and see what works. What are some of the more unique ideas you’re seeing from Texas distillers?
We have distillers working with a dozen heirloom corn varietals, wheat, rice, rye and triticale, and then you have others that are using various techniques to accent the environment and put their own spin on whiskey here. Some of my favorite offerings right now are smoked, which makes sense because we BBQ everything down here.
One factor that does come up a lot in your book is the challenge of ageing whiskey in the hot Texas climate. How does that affect the whiskey and how are distillers adapting to it?
Whiskey doesn’t age faster in Texas, but it sure as hell interacts with the barrel more. The swings in temperature and humidity are just truly unlike any other whiskey-making regions. I’ve seen distillers using large wine butts, I’ve seen distillers using second-use barrels, and we also have a lot of elevage [careful, hands-on manipulation of proof in barrel] happening here. Mostly it’s just a bunch of trial and error because the industry is so new.
Texans drink a lot of bourbon, and a lot of Canadian whisky too, but Texas distillers have diverse approaches. What other whiskey types are you seeing work out there?
Lone Elm’s Wheat whiskey is incredible. TX and Still Austin have some incredible rye hitting stores next year as well and they’re delicious. The big one, however, is single malt. There’s some very special single malt happening here.
You also write about the problem of sourced whiskey, in which some brands just source whiskey from Kentucky or Indiana and slap some Texas design elements on the bottle. There’s no law defining “Texas whiskey” standards, but you do have the private Texas Whiskey Association creating its own certification program (which is a very Texas solution). What makes a true Texas whiskey?
There’s the rub, my man. To me, if you’re making whiskey using Texas grains, distilling it here, and aging it here, you’re a Texas whiskey. I think it will become more clear as the industry gets older, but to me, the terroir of Texas means something in the flavor and it’s important to acknowledge that.
Your enthusiasm for Texas whiskey now includes making your own blend, which is a very cool story. Tell us a bit about Grayson whiskey.
My business partners Brandon Davis and Vernon Wells approached me about a sourced whiskey project and thankfully they were into my idea of somehow working with everyone and not just one distiller. I wanted to work with Ironroot specifically because of their approach to blending, and thankfully they said yes. Grayson is a blended Texas bourbon including Balcones, Lone Elm, and Ironroot. We are going to be announcing a new mini batch this fall and the Batch 2 release will be on March 2, Texas Independence Day, because of course it is. It’s pretty good, man … I’m really proud of the blend that Jonathan (Master Distiller/Blender at Ironroot) put together.
Last question. I know there’s a ton to choose from, but let’s say you’re pouring a flight of three whiskeys to get someone excited about what’s being made in Texas. What’s on it?
I mean, it starts with Grayson, namely because we’d break down the flavors of the three distilleries involved. I’d also go with Andalusia’s Bottle-in-Bond Single Malt, the first bottled-in-bond in Texas and a beautifully round whiskey that drinks hotter than its 100-proof. And finally, I’d throw in Ironroot’s Harbinger 115. Regardless of your take on awards, there’s a reason it was named World’s Best Bourbon.
Most importantly, give Texas whiskey a try. It’s getting better with every single batch that’s released. If you’ve had one and bailed on the whole category, I truly encourage you to give it another try. It may not be for you, but it also might be home.
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