We’re not talking about Star Wars Day. We’re talking about May 4, 1964, the day the U.S. Congress designated bourbon as a distinctive product of the U.S.A.
While the ‘bourbon law’ is not yet 60, distilling spirits — whiskey (including bourbon), vodka, rum, gin, and agave spirits — follows an age-old path. The distiller heats water and starches (usually grains), then adds yeast. During fermentation, yeast converts the carbohydrates to sugar and alcohol. Distillation then separates the water and alcohol. Some spirits are bottled at this stage; many are aged. Bourbon, by law, must be made in the U.S. from at least 51% corn and aged in new, flame-charred American Oak barrels.
Before we move on, it’s time to dismiss the notion that only silver-haired, cigar-puffing gents drink bourbon. Drinking distilled spirits is on the rise with more women and younger people imbibing than ever.
Native Houstonians Caleb and Crystal Butler, have in-depth knowledge of distilled spirits and the beverage industry. They enjoy exploring Texas’ beverage scene and sampled spirits in area tasting rooms just in time for May 4th, 5th — Cinco de Mayo, and 6th — the Kentucky Derby. Their recommendations begin in Houston.
William Price Distilling Company, located on Wakefield Drive in Central Northwest Houston, specializes in rye whiskeys, aged five to six years, and single malt whiskeys sourced from Balcones Distilling in Waco. “We enjoyed a flight including their mainstay Straight Rye 101 and the sherry-finished single malt,” Caleb said. From the spacious bar, you can view the colossal 1500-gallon copper still, which you’ll learn more about during a distillery tour. A food truck serves tasty edibles on weekends.
Just 700 feet away from William Price Distilling Company, you’ll find Avonak Distillery, Texas' first certified organic distillery. Work by local artists adds a pop of color to the clean, contemporary tasting room. It’s a perfect backdrop for sampling spirits crafted from locally sourced ingredients. “You won’t find punchy high-proof whiskeys here,” Caleb said. Their bourbon is “a tame 80 proof but drinks even lighter and would be a great introduction to anyone just looking to dip a toe into drinking their spirits neat.” The Post Oak Straight Bourbon is their slightly more complex, caramel-colored iteration thanks to aging longer in charred oak barrels. Avonak Distillery excels in its cocktails. Caleb noted, “We found the “Suffering Bastard” to be the standout of our visit as it allowed gin, their specialty, to shine.”
Next stop: Kooper Family Whiskey, off Highway 290 in Ledbetter, Texas. Troy and Michelle Kooper opened the state’s first whiskey-blending house in 2015. They source whiskey from Kentucky, Tennessee, Illinois, and Indiana, age it, and either blend it or bottle it as a single-barrel whiskey. You’ll see barrels aging in the tasting room, which has a cozy cocktail bar feel. “We can vouch for both the Smoked Old Fashioned and Whiskey Sour as well as pours of their limited-edition distillery-only whiskeys,” Caleb said. “Rye drinkers will appreciate the blended Barrel Reserve Rye . . . a rye full of spice, fruit, and a hint of tobacco.” If you’re interested in sampling their single-barrel whiskeys or their bestselling Prodigal Son Straight Bourbon Whiskey, which is aged at least four years, head to Ledbetter, as they’re only available there.
A short drive west on Highway 290 brings you to Giddings. The historic freight depot is home to Dime Box Distillery Tasting Room and a 3000-strong collection of vintage cocktail swizzle sticks. Friendly bartenders poured Caleb and Crystal the distillery’s Sixth Street bourbons and ryes, named for Austin’s legendary live music scene. The family-owned distillery ages its award-winning Sixth Street bourbons for at least four years, according to owner Peter Leidel. A label on the spirit’s guitar-shaped bottle specifies the number of years it’s aged. “If you’re a little more adventurous, you’ll find barrel strength (higher proof) options aged for six to nine years,” Caleb said, “and a selection of sotol, a close cousin of tequila and mezcal.”
Closer to home, Bartletts Distillery in Conroe is Montgomery County’s only distillery. The entire process from fermentation to bottling is done locally. Owner and distiller Van Brackin serves malted whiskey, rum, and agave spirits in his Cheers-like tasting room. Head there for Cinco de Mayo. Van said, “we’re making the best margaritas in town!”
Back in Houston, Poison Girl and Eight Row Flint round out Caleb and Crystal’s list. They highly recommend visiting Whitmeyer’s Distillery Tasting Room when it reopens.
In the meantime, May the Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth be with you.
"It’s time to dismiss the notion that only silver-haired, cigar-puffing gents drink bourbon. Drinking distilled spirits is on the rise with more women and younger people imbibing than ever."