Bourbon may have its origins in Kentucky, but Texas is stepping up to the plate when it comes to whiskey production. The Texas Whiskey Trail shines a spotlight on the state's flourishing craft spirits scene. Comprised of three different routes—North Texas, Hill Country, and Gulf Coast—the trail offers insider access to whiskey producers like Balcones Distilling (Waco), Treaty Oak Distilling (Dripping Springs), and MKT Distillery (Katy).
The trail is a subsidiary of the Texas Whiskey Association (TXWA), whose goal is to "connect consumers with makers and foster education and industry support," says Spencer Whelan, TXWA's executive director. Participating distilleries must produce at least one whiskey verified to carry the Certified Texas Whiskey logo, which lets consumers know it's a brand they can trust. A Certified Texas Whiskey product is verified by TXWA to have started with grain (as opposed to bulk neutral grain spirit, or NGS) and have every part of the process done in Texas, from mashing and fermentation to distillation, maturation, proofing, and bottling.
"It sets a baseline standard that allows for lots of innovative styles and techniques, while ensuring that the craftspeople and environment of Texas do the rest," Whelan says.
Of course, anyone can visit distilleries that have public tasting rooms and tours, but the Texas Whiskey Trail operates through a three-tier, point-based membership system that provides members with swag, passes to private tours (many led by distillers or owners), promotions, exclusive events, and product releases. The three annual fees are free, $55, and $110.
Members who join for free can earn points just by signing up and checking in at digital kiosks at participating distilleries and receive different rewards based on the number of points they accrue. A soon-to-launch mobile app will allow members to track their points and progress.
On a recent Hill Country Trail outing (be sure to arrange for a designated driver), my companions and I enjoyed an in-depth tour and tasting at Garrison Brothers Distillery in Hye, but the highlight of our day was meeting Marlene Holmes, the distiller at Blanco's Ben Milam Distillery.
With three decades of experience in the industry (before joining Ben Milam Distillery, she was one of two female distillers at Booker's Bourbon, which is owned by Jim Beam), she provided in-depth insights during our tour.
Toward the end of our visit, Holmes treated us to an off-the-cuff cask tasting of her port cask-finished rye collaboration with the distillery's Master Blender, Heather Greene. Their other project, the recently released Milam & Greene Triple Cask Bourbon Whiskey, includes the distillery's first grain-to-glass release, made with 51-percent Texas corn. While we swooned over the high-proof cask sample, Holmes nodded sagely. "A bottle of whiskey should look good, but really, it's all about the quality of what goes inside of it," she said. "We don't settle for just okay. I love this work. That's why I'm here."
You might not always have the opportunity to taste straight from the cask—it’s all about right place, right time—but being a card-carrying member of the Texas Whiskey Trail (it’s recommended you book in advance for distillery tours) opens the door to truly special experiences.