Looking for the most exciting whiskey state outside of Kentucky? Try Texas. For years, their single malts have been marked as world-class, and at the recent Texas Bourbon Shootout in Longview, Texas, world whiskey reviewer and author of the Whiskey Bible Jim Murray called several Texas bourbons “among the best whiskeys not just in Texas, but in the world.”
More than their Kentucky cousins, Texas bourbons feature bold, dark flavors like cinnamon, black cherry and licorice, tied together by big, oaky tannins. Bourbon gets the majority of its flavor by aging in barrels, and in Texas, where weather fluctuates more than in Kentucky, those charred-oak casks tend to pump more flavor in a shorter amount of time into their liquid bounties. Here are some of the standouts from the inaugural Texas Bourbon Shootout.
Garrison Brothers Balmorhea
The winner of the Texas Bourbon Shootout became Texas’s first (legal) distillery in 2006. Balmorhea is named after a state park, and it’s aged for four years, first in smaller 15-gallon barrels then in 27-gallon ones. Bottled at 115 proof.
Tasting Notes: A deep mahogany color, its nose is ripe with black cherry and butter. On the tongue, a wave of brown sugar and ginger snaps gives way to toffee, coffee, molasses, and chocolate. The finish lingers with chocolate and a slightly bitter espresso note.
Balcones Texas Blue Corn Bourbon
The second place winner of the competition is also the second-oldest distillery in the state. Since its first distillate in 2009, Balcones has become perhaps the biggest name in Texas whiskey, winning golds and silvers at national and international spirits competitions. The grain-to-glass ethos has radiated to other Texas distilleries, as has their deep, pungent, spicy flavor profiles. This one’s made with blue corn and bottled at more than 120 proof.
Tasting Notes: Even darker than the Garrison Brothers’ bourbon, it has a nose of classic bourbon vanilla and caramel. On the tongue, it explodes with red licorice and red hots, then transitions to dates dark fruits, and maple syrup, with heavy tannin notes and even a gentle smokiness.
Herman Marshall HM Texas Bourbon
This bourbon’s high-corn mash bill is apparent immediately, thanks to its light color and nose full of cornbread. The duo behind it (Herman and Marshall, who met at a Starbucks 14 years ago) are based out of Garland, Texas, and have focused ever since on making a smooth, drinkable bourbon — which even caught Jim Murray’s attention. It made his top four at the Texas Bourbon Shootout.
Tasting Notes: Straw-colored, with a nose full of cornbread. It’s sweet and creamy, with vanilla, butterscotch and a touch of coffee. One of the few bourbons Murray called “delicate.”
Ranger Creek .36 SB
Ranger Creek, out of San Antonio, opened in 2010. The .36 Texas Straight Bourbon is its flagship, made with Texas corn and bottled at 96 proof. It had a tough draw at the competition — it was knocked out by Balcones during the blind tasting.
Tasting Notes: Heavy tannins on the nose, with caramel and butterscotch on the tongue, and a long, spicy finish.
Yellow Rose Outlaw
Yellow Rose opened in 2010 and launched its first whiskey in 2012. It’s made quick progress since: Straight Rye won a double gold at the San Francisco Artisan Spirits competition several years ago. Yellow Rose started bottling its Outlaw bourbon in 2013, and the experience shows.
Tasting Notes: Lighter color, with sweetness and nuttiness on the nose. It had one of the more buttery notes of the entire competition, with bright fruits at the finish.
Firestone & Robertson TX Bourbon
TX is wheated, made using a house strain yeast. The distillery uses two custom pot-column hybrid stills. Firestone & Robertson has been experimenting with a range of scientific and traditional techniques since it started making TX in 2012. “So often, we’re working backwards, from something tasting good and trying to figure out why that is, rather than the other way around,” said Rob Arnold, the head distiller there.
Tasting Notes: It’s dark in color, with a nose of cinnamon and allspice. On the tongue, it’s heavy on caramel and oak, with a touch of chocolate late.
Ironroot Republic Harbinger
During the competition, Murray called Harbinger a “class act” after it was knocked out by one vote. The Likarish brothers make their flagship bourbon with heirloom corns and bottle it at 118.5 proof; it’s won a number of golds and double golds since 2016, including at the 2017 San Francisco World Spirits competition. In the blind tasting, it was beaten by the eventual winner, the Garrison Balmorhea.
Tasting Notes: Black cherry on the nose, with loads of fruit and oak on the tongue. Later, it transitions to licorice and spice on the back of the tongue, and finishes with a slight coffee note.
Treaty Oak Ghost Hill
In 2016, Treaty Oak moved from Austin to nearby Dripping Springs, Texas, on a beautiful 28-acre property. Its Ghost Hill is a two-year-old wheated bourbon, made using Texas heirloom grains.
Tasting Notes: Its nose of caramel also has hints of cinnamon—foreshadowing. On the tongue it has tannins up front, with spiciness and a citrus finish. “It’s one spicy son of a gun,” according to Murray.