Texas Whiskey History

Texas Whiskey History (Photo from the author)

Texas Whiskey History

Shopping for Father’s Day can be difficult, but we’ve discovered an ideal gift for the whiskey lover in your life: a book! But not just any book – THE book – about death, destruction, mayhem, and madness, or as author Andrew Braunberg calls it, Fires, Floods, Explosions, and Bloodshed: A History of Texas Whiskey.

As you can tell from the title, this is not a dry academic history of Texas Whiskey. Author and whiskey maker Andrew Braunberg doesn’t just cover the drama – he delights in uncovering the fun side, including the many quirky and eccentric characters who shaped the Texas whiskey business. Nor is it a comprehensive account of Texas whiskey history. It begins with the arrival of the Spanish, building up to the founding of the Republic of Texas and its first few years of statehood. Each subsequent chapter covers roughly a decade, ending with the abolishment of Prohibition – I would have loved to see the book talk about more recent whiskey distilleries, like Garrison Brothers and Balcones.

Intertwined with Texas

According to the book, the first Texas grapes were planted in the Rio Grande Valley in 1659, and it wasn’t long before both wine and a distilled spirit dubbed ‘pass whiskey’ were produced. Although not a true whiskey – it was more like brandy – it was likely the first spirit distilled in what is now Texas.

The book provides fascinating insights into Texas liquor history. The first “official” Texas spirit was actually rum, thanks to a burgeoning business in sugarcane farming. Hard liquor was a huge part of Texas life. By 1830 the average Texan was drinking over five gallons of hard liquor a year, nearly three times what Americans consume today. In 1836 the territory was declared a sovereign nation: The Republic of Texas. It seems fitting that its first president, Sam Houston, was a notorious drinker. Houston had previously lived among the Cherokee; his tribal name was “Big Drunk.” Around this time, the first true whiskeys were made in Texas, although because distilleries weren’t taxed until 1840, not much is known about production volume in those earliest years. Additionally, much of the early distilling was by families – there were few commercial distilleries. That didn’t last long.

By the 1870s, Texas whiskey distilleries were starting to attract financial investment. Not all went smoothly, though. Builder and developer William S. Parker was a driving force behind the growth of Dallas. He built some of its largest buildings in the 1870s, intertwined with the newly-arrived railroad. One was a distillery, the Texas Distilling Company, founded in 1876. It was three stories high and longer than a city block – big enough to supply the whole of Texas with its whiskey needs. Unfortunately, it burned down in May 1877 when severe rains caused heavy flooding that caused the building to collapse.

Dramatic Stories and Dubious Characters

Fires, Floods, Explosions, and Bloodshed: A History of Texas Whiskey by Andrew Braunberg is full of dramatic and entertaining stories, many involving ambitious characters, some with colorful and rather dubious backgrounds. There are many surprising and fun facts, too:  did you know it was illegal to sell cocktails in Texas until 1970?!? There are even stories about the invention of the Colt revolver, the attempts to bring ice-making machines to Texas, and the notorious Whiskey Ring Scandal. I could retell story after story, but I’d hate to take the pleasure away from the reader. In short, this is a highly entertaining read whether you’re interested in Texas, in distilling, or history in general.