When we were trying to figure out what we were going to put on the cover of the January issue, one item was on just about everyone’s lips: booze. A few of us were in the process of cutting back on consumption, but others (like me) had taken advantage of the quarantine to up our cocktail games. So what if bars were closed: we were taking solace at home in a well-crafted G&T or Manhattan. We found ourselves using the ritual as a signifier of the otherwise vague transition from workday to evening, removing the laptop from the dining table and pulling out a cutting board and fresh citrus, a muddler and shaker, performing both an exorcism and a forearm exercise of sorts before changing into couch socks and settling in for an episode of The Repair Shop.
Some of my efforts were also partly research for the cocktail section of my cookbook. I was ordering obscure bottles for home delivery from Bar & Garden, experimenting with brands and flavors. I’m a sucker for a pretty bottle, and one day I spotted a beveled glass beauty from a distillery I had never heard of. It was a bourbon whiskey from Blackland Distillery in Fort Worth. I ordered it; I loved it. That led me to wonder how many other regional distilleries I was missing. Sure, I knew Balcones, Herman Marshall, Firestone & Robinson. But what I didn’t know or understand was that since Balcones and Garrison Brothers started the Texas whiskey revolution a little over a decade ago, North Texas is now dotted with nearly two dozen distilleries, crafting everything from Scotch-style single malts to Japanese-style non-chill filtered vodkas.
What is being crafted here reflects a world of influences, but also a distinct North Texas terroir and an independent Lone Star point of view. At the southernmost point, in Waco, you have Balcones, the standard bearer for Texas whiskey, which first made a name for itself with its Baby Blue blue corn whisky and then stunned the world in 2012 by beating out the top Scotch houses with its Texas Single Malt. At the northernmost point, virtually on the Oklahoma border in Denison, you have Ironroot, the more recent upstart from the Likarish family, which produced the world’s best bourbon (made from locally grown heirloom corn) in 2020, the first non-Kentucky bourbon to ever be so honored.
But it’s not just the booze that’s worth seeking out. A number of these distilleries have cool tasting rooms staffed by distillers who are more than willing to go into detail about the differences in flavor between Atomic Orange and Bloody Butcher corn or the effect of a 30-degree temperature change (like last weekend’s snowfall) on increased tannin extraction. So we’ve put together a guide on the best liquors to try and distilleries to tour, which you can read here. It is our January cover story and it’s online today. And we’ve added some ideas for overnight trips because, of course, you can sample more if you don’t have to drive.