Has Texas Joined Kentucky and Tennessee as a Whiskey State?

by Leona Barr on May 17, 2023 in Food+Drink,

May 20 is World Whiskey Day and according to Richard Thomas, owner and managing editor of The Whiskey Reviewer, Texas is indeed the 3rd whiskey state, following Kentucky and Tennessee.

We caught up with local Austin whiskey distiller, spirits historian and author of FIRES, FLOODS, EXPLOSIONS AND BLOODSHED: The History of Texas Whiskey (Statehouse Press, May 2023), Andrew Braunberg, to get a few basics on the history of whiskey making in Texas and then highlight a few local distilleries to check out on World Whiskey Day.

TLM: Who distilled the first whiskey in Texas?

AB: It’s hard to say for sure who distilled the first whiskey in Texas. The Republic did not start taxing distillers until 1840 or so and by then there were several whiskey stills operating. My best guess is that it was Jabez Fitzgerald, who settled on the Red River in Fannin County. Fitzgerald arrived in Texas in early 1836, traveling overland from Tennessee and no doubt hauling a pot still with him. When his distilling operation was washed away in a flood in 1843 it was considered a great loss, according to a local newspaper account at the time.

TLM: What kinds of whiskey did Texans make and was it any good?

AB: A good rule of thumb is that distillers will ferment and distill sugar from any source they can get their hands on. In the early years of the Texas Colony that meant sugarcane, so rum was the first “ardent spirit” distilled. By the time of the Texas Republic corn, wheat, and rye are more available. My guess would be that Texas distillers were making a lot of corn whiskey, and bourbons (with wheat as the flavor grain). Good watertight barrels were hard to find, especially new ones, so most whiskey probably went into used barrels, if not straight into jugs. The quality was probably a mixed bag, but Wynn & Donalson, for example, was operating for more than 40 years in Lamar County, so I am going to guess they made pretty good whiskey.

TLM: How much did Texans really drink and when did drinking peak?

AB: The Republic of Texas was founded during the absolute peak of drunkenness on the North American continent. In 1830, per-capita consumption of hard liquor was more than five gallons annually, almost three times what Americans consume on average today. So yes, Texans drank a lot, but like the rest of the country, drinking trended downward for the rest of that century. With respect to the height of the saloon era, there are two ways to look at that. The total number of licensed solutions maxed out at more than 4,000 in 1890. But if you consider saloons per person, then the rowdiest saloon days were in the 1870s.

TLM: How wild were Texas saloons?

AB: Well, there is a reason that the most successful prohibition organization was called the Anti Saloon League. The Anti-Cocktail League would not have carried the same punch. And yes, Texas saloons were rowdy places. (And by the way, they might have looked just like you see them in Hollywood westerns.) There was a lot of drinking, a good bit of gambling, and they were often the site of extreme violence. 

TLM: With all that drinking, why did no classic cocktail get invented in Texas?

AB: This is a bit of a mystery to me. Of course, when you get out of the bigger towns, most of the drinking is a shot and a warm beer but Galveston and Houston had established cocktail cultures by the 1840s. Ice was not an issue, it was being shipped in from New England before statehood. Texans seemed to have been content to imbibe the classics of the day, Juleps, Cobblers, and Punches. The most famous drink invented in Texas is the frozen margarita, which was created in Dallas in 1971. By the way, that was a year after Texas finally made it legal again to sell mixed drinks in bars.

Local Distilleries


Photo courtesy Treaty Oak Distilling.

Treaty Oak Distilling: Dripping Springs. Treaty Oak is one of the oldest whiskey distilleries in Texas. They originally operated out of Austin and moved out into the Hill country in 2016. They have a beautiful 28-acre location that includes a brewery. Worth the drive.

Fierce Whiskers Distillery: southeast Austin. Fierce Whiskers opened in Austin in 2020 and is one of the few Texas distilleries with an authentic old school brick house (for barrel storage). It’s worth a visit just to get a tour of that building, which is filling up with whiskey fast. And a lot of their whiskies are still only available in the on-site tasting room.

Banner Distilling Company: Manor. Banner Distilling is a micro distillery located between Austin and Manor. They are one of the few Texas whiskey distilleries that just put out a wheat whiskey. Texas grows some great soft winter wheats and Banner makes them shine.

Still Austin Whiskey Company: South Austin. Still Austin opened in Austin in 2019, which means its bottled in bond expressions are just coming out this year. It is located in the heart of the booming St Elmo district and they give a great tour and are always mixing innovative cocktails in the tasting room.

Garrison Brothers Distillery: Hye (between Johnson City and Fredericksburg). Garrison Bros. was the first legal Texas whiskey distillery in operation since prohibition. They produce a great collection of small batch Texas bourbons.

“The quality of whiskey in Texas would be a frequent point of contention during the decades before Prohibition. An editorial in the Galveston Daily News in 1877 blamed bad whiskey for an intolerable level of lawlessness in Texas. ‘Whisky is a monster. No sensible man can deny its deplorable evils that band the world. But let us not charge all the villainy in Texas to whisky.’ – from FIRES, FLOODS, EXPLOSIONS AND BLOODSHED: The History of Texas Whiskey by Andrew Braunberg

Distiller and Spirits Historian Andrew Braunberg. Photo courtesy Andrew Braunberg.


Photo courtesy of Andrew Braunberg and Statehouse Press.

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Leona Barr is a freelance writer living her best life in the Texas Hill Country.