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Whitmeyer’s Distilling Company

In Distilleries by Shawn Jackson4 Comments

There is a common exchange that I see regularly on Texas-based Facebook Bourbon groups. It usually goes something like this:

Online Texas Bourbon Conversation Image

When the topic of Texas bourbons comes up in conversation, they are often met with a lot of skepticism.  Unfortunately there are some Texas brands out there that have reinforced that skepticism, and Kentucky distillers have gone to great lengths to market Kentucky as the only place to make great bourbon.  However, there is something going on right now at a small distillery in Houston, Texas.  Whitmeyer’s Distilling Company is one of Houston’s best-kept secrets, but I’ve decided it’s time to share them with the world.

Whitmeyer’s Distilling Company Boxes PhotoThe first Whitmeyer’s product that caught my attention was their blue label single barrel cask strength straight bourbon.  They source the distillate and age it themselves in their warehouse.  The big box stores in Texas carry it, so it is pretty easy to find in the state.  It is non-age-stated, so it wasn’t a shock to me that they could make bourbon taste good.  What really blew my mind were their grain-to-glass single barrels, which do come with an age statement – around two years.  And it holds its own against a 12-year Kentucky bourbon! What?!

I asked Travis Whitmeyer what it was about Houston that makes it a great place to make whiskey, and he grinned from ear to ear, like I had asked the million-dollar question.  “The climate,” he responded before going on to describe how Houston’s generally hot climate with daily temperature swings of around 20 degrees Fahrenheit pulls the whiskey in and out of the barrels at a pace year-around that you wouldn’t see in whiskey-producing regions like Kentucky or Scotland.  Much like Amrut and Paul John in India and Kavalan in Taiwan, whose products compete against much older Scotch whiskies, he and other Texas distilleries can take advantage of a hot, humid climate to carve out a piece of the American whiskey pie.

Whitmeyer’s Distilling Company Single Barrel PhotoI have no doubt the climate plays a huge role.  In addition, however, the Whitmeyers have solved the calculus that many other Texas distilleries have not.  The 30-gallon barrels they use provide a very good surface-to-volume ratio to complement the warmer aging process at their location.  They also use a sweet mash that smells fruity and delicious while fermenting, so there are not as many off flavors that need to age out.

However, running a distillery in Texas is not without its share of challenges.  Texas liquor laws are very protective of alcohol distributors, permitting a producer to sell only two bottles onsite to each customer per month.  The grain-to-glass single barrel is available only at the distillery, and Whitmeyer’s typically sells out of a single barrel in about a month, making it tough for fans to stock up on their favorite single barrels.

Whitmeyer’s Distilling Company Bar PhotoThe Whitmeyer brothers, Travis and Chris, founded their distillery, the first in Houston since prohibition, in 2012.  They picked up their craft while stationed in Germany with the US Army.  Travis befriended a local woman whose grandfather produced an array of wine and distilled spirits on the family farm and was kind enough to teach them his ways.  After they got back, they went to school and put the final plans together to get everything started.

They have offered some un-aged spirits, like vodka and moonshine.  Occasionally they produce a unique barrel-rested sassafras gin, but their specialty is in their line of whiskeys.  They produce a Texas whiskey, which is a blend, and a Texas peach-flavored whiskey, which is popular to mix with iced tea.  However, their straight bourbons are what get the local enthusiasts excited.  With its dark amber color, medium body, and prominent flavors of toffee, vanilla, and baking spices, no one ever pegs it as a young whiskey when tasting blind.

Whitmeyer’s Distilling Company Malt PhotoWith the recent acquisition of two new stills, Whitmeyer’s have more than quadrupled their weekly distillation capacity from 2.5 to 12 barrels.  Although production continues to increase, Travis said it is still unlikely they would begin distributing in other states.  Demand within Texas continues to grow, and the regulatory environment (possibly before considering potential new tariffs) has made expanding across the United States costlier than exporting internationally.  The Whitmeyer boys have many irons in the fire right now, a lot of exciting projects in the works that cannot be revealed just yet.  Word is already out about some upcoming releases of American Malt Whiskey, but they have a few more surprises in-store and are certainly a distillery to watch closely in the coming years.  I have been impressed with their work so far, but I expect even bigger things from them in the future.

About the Author

Shawn Jackson

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Shawn was born and raised in Houston but followed his wife to Nashville where they spent a wonderful and exciting decade. It was there that Shawn established his photography company, Sundel Perry, which was focused primarily on serving the music business. While living in Nashville, he fell in love with bourbon and co-founded a club in 2010 called The Bourbon Trust with some of his neighbors and friends. He orchestrated several barrel picks for the group from different distilleries before returning to Houston in 2015 and has been there since. In addition to drinking, talking about, and writing about bourbon, he loves capturing the visual beauty of bourbon in photos. His wife and his two young daughters are all very supportive of his bourbon obsession. For now.

Comments

  1. There are a lot of “craft” distillers out there riding the contemporary bourbon boom and finding success. Many of them are especially focused on “artisanal” aspects of spirit production…the water (Widow Jane), the local grain (Hudson), the oak source (FEW)…or all of the above AND slim fit hipster packaging (King’s County). It is understood that in order to jump in and start generating income, they need to begin selling their whiskey quickly (although, really, that’s what vodka and gin are for), even though it has sometimes only aged for 2 years, or even less. But what qualities are lost by shortchanging the influence of time spent in the barrel? Do these characteristics matter as much as whether the grain is organic or not? Where the water is sourced from? If the bottle can slide into your hip pocket? I think we can all agree that assuming a spirit producer is maintaining the basic industry standards for everything else, no single component of whiskey making has greater impact on flavor than the years that the distillate spends interacting with charred oak. That is of course where the real magic happens. And it takes time! There’s a reason why even bottom shelf mass produced flagship expressions like those from Jack and Jim are aged 4 years minimum. Some of these “craft” companies do at least try to speed up the crucial effects of the aging process by using smaller barrels, thereby increasing the wood to liquid ratio and fast tracking the associated oak influence. But as Chuck Cowdery examines explicitly in his book on the subject of barrel size and whiskey quality, and Buffalo Trace determined conclusively through targeted Experimental Collection efforts, there may indeed be other chemical processes that can’t be rushed, elements that definitively contribute to the characteristic flavor profile of what we all know and love as Bourbon! There is of course room for continued exploration, and perhaps someday someone will indeed “build a better mousetrap,” or at least a younger one (see Lost Spirits’ technological wizardry)…but the deliberate and self-serving lack of acknowledgement regarding the essential importance of the aging process is, in my opinion, an unforgivable sin of the craft movement. I sympathize, and understand the economic conundrum inherent in a product that must be locked away for a matter years before it can be capitalized on, but this is in fact what makes whiskey great! Let’s ensure that as the whiskey enthusiast community, we continue to demand the proper consideration of this fundamental and crucial issue with clear-eyed honesty and integrity. So with all this in mind, I do look forward to blind taste-testing Whitmeyer‘s to see if it truly tastes like a 12 year traditionally aged bourbon. Cheers!

    1. Yes, aging matters, but actual age may not. Is a 12 year bourbon always better than a younger one, even a 2 year bourbon? I certainly don’t think so, and I’ve tasted plenty of 12 year (or older) bourbons that IMO weren’t that good and certainly not as good as all the bourbon ‘connoisseurs’ would have you believe they were. Bottom line…taste it and then judge. If you like it, it is aged ‘enough’. Don’t fall for the hype of older is always better, as this simply is not the case. Good bourbon is good bourbon regardless of its age.

      1. Did I somehow give the impression that my point was simply reduced to “older is always better?” Certainly, Diageo’s Orphan Barrel series would easily cure anyone’s palate of that misconception. With over 100 open bottles of whiskey in my bar, I definitely wouldn’t rank my favorites based purely on age. But surely there is a reason that master distillers from Elmer T Lee to Booker Noe to Jim Rutledge to Jimmy Russell have believed that there is a minimum amount of time bourbon needs to spend in a barrel in order to take on the complex and balanced characteristics of quality whiskey. Just how long is indeed a matter of personal taste…6 years?…8 years?…12 years? Experienced palates may respectfully disagree on the “best” basic standard, but I’m pretty sure none of the great distillers whose wisdom, skill and legacy have paved the way for the modern “craft” movement would suggest that 2 years or fewer is adequate. This doesn’t mean that it is impossible to make something that tastes good in 2 years (although generally that is in fact how it turns out), but simply that there are likely to be certain nuances of the flavor profile that are underdeveloped, and perhaps less desirable elements that haven’t been allowed enough time to evolve properly. It also does NOT mean that anything that sits in a barrel for “X amount” of time will always taste great. There are no simple absolutes. My intention however, is to raise the too often overlooked issue that as a practical matter purely born of economics (ie: time is money), the current wave of craft whiskies is generally shortselling the importance of aging…Hudson seems to believe that 3 months is long enough to make whiskey in small barrels (barrel size is a subject in and of itself to be further discussed). At the very least, the role of aging is a real and substantive issue, one that is inextricably linked to the rising modern craft whiskey industry, and the importance of which should be honestly and intelligently addressed by those of us who care deeply about the rich history and promising future of America’s native spirit!

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