America (and Texoma) is undergoing a sea change when it comes to fine spirits. For decades a well appointed liquor cabinet held bourbon, Scotch, rye, and gin. Over time rye lost favor with the public and vodka replaced it as a staple, but the production of these liquors remained, for the most part, with well-established, well-known national or international distillers.
Beer, on the other hand, was very local commodity. Before Prohibition, there were hundreds of breweries, large and small, turning out beer that had only local distribution. Over the years, these small operators were swallowed up by their larger competitors until, most of America’s beer was provided by a handful of national brewers. Wine, with the exception of traditional consumption among certain ethnic groups, was a drink for the upper classes in the country, and Mr. and Mrs. Average American were uncomfortable dealing with the complexities of different types of wine and vintage.
How alcohol became local
Over the last decade or so, all this has started to change. It began with the growth of microdistillers and brewers, and the spread of wine production beyond the traditional areas of California and New York state. Grayson County serves as an excellent example of this phenomena, with of local wineries, such as Homestead of Ivanhoe in Fannin County, the 903 Brewers in Sherman, and Ironroot Republic Distillers in Denison.
Joy Brooks, the manager of the manager of Fossil Creek Liquor in Denison, can testify to the area’s changing tastes in spirits. “All of the local producers are doing really well,” she said. “Right now, the Homestead is our best selling wine. The Homestead Red and their Rose of Ivanhoe seem to be our two top sellers. People come in and ask for it specifically, and we sell a lot of it by the case.”
“The Ironroot whiskeys are fantastic. We sell a lot of their bourbon, a lot of their gin and a lot of their vodka, and we have a lot of customers who come in from the Metroplex to buy it from us. We had a customer the other day who came up here from Dallas to buy a case of their Promethean Bourbon,” said Brooks. She also said that the Denison distilled spirits are good sellers in Fossil Creek’s Metroplex stores. “The 903 folks are fantastic too. We get anything new they come out with, put it on the Facebook page and it sells itself.”
The Driggs family has been operating liquor stores in Denison for almost 60 years. The current owner, Robbie Griggs, now runs the business started by her grandparents, Clyde and Clarice Driggs, in 1960. Driggs agrees that the interest in high-end spirits is growing rapidly. “Bourbon, vodka, tequila, single malt Scotch, and Irish whiskeys have become the most popular in the high-end market. I have to order the $100 bottles of tequila and the 20- and 30-year-old bottles of single malt Scotch, and they are pricey. We’re seeing the change in beer as well. The more expensive brands are taking more of the market.”
Driggs said the higher-end products account for about 30 percent of her sales, and the percentage is growing. This move to something different, particularly by the younger consumers is also driving the success of locally produced brands from Ironroot Republic, the 903 Brewers and the Ivanhoe Ale Works. “The first brewery to go in here was 903. They produce craft beers with unusual flavors, and that really appeals to the younger crowd.”
At Knollwood Liquor, manager Tabitha Cory echoes the conclusions of the other liquor stores. “We do really well with the Ironroot whiskeys and the Homestead wines. We have really good sales with those. With Ironroot, it’s the bourbon, and with Homestead, it’s the Rose of Ivanhoe.”
One way the local liquor stores promote their high end spirits as well as products from local producers is to sponsor tastings. At these events, patrons can learn the finer points of liquor, wine and beer from experts in the field and get a chance to sample the products.
The more expensive products are moving at Knollwood as well. “The Jameson Irish whiskey and the Famous Grouse Scotch have become so popular I’m having to buy both by the case,” said Cory. “Over all, we sell more vodka than anything else. The Texas vodkas are pretty good quality vodkas, so they are doing pretty well, especially the Tito’s from Austin and Dripping Springs from San Luis Distillers in Dripping Springs.”
Cory puts the sales ratio of local products to national brands at about 30 to 70, and growing.
Where did it start in Texoma?
So how did the production of alcoholic beverages come to Texoma? The Homestead Winery is senior among area producers, so we spoke with owner, Gabe Parker. “We have vineyards and production facilities in Ivanhoe, wineries and tasting rooms in Grapevine, and Denison, and in Denison the winery also owns a brewery, the Ivanhoe Ale Works. It’s a craft brewery, and we’re already serving a lot of beer. We are a ten-barrel system, which is pretty large, small system. Ten barrels is 320 gallons and we probably can run two batches or more a day, so that’s 640 or 960 gallons a day. It’s available locally at Griggs, at Knollwood, at Fossil Creek and most of the retail stores in the area.”
Homestead got its start in the wine making business, and that is still its primary product. “I produce table wine. It’s around 14 percent alcohol; it can be sweet, it can be dry, but generally it’s a wine designed to be consumed with food. We have 24 different types of wine with the differences based on the grapes, the sugar levels, the taste and blending. We make chocolate wine, peach wine, almost any thing people want to consume.”
Homestead’s distribution is primarily in Texas.
“We sell a lot of wine locally, not only through regular retailers, but we have a tasting room in Denison, which sells a lot of wine. Our wines are around $10 a bottle. My wine does not fit in your back pocket; it’s an everyday food wine. Our most popular wine is Rose of Ivanhoe, a sweet wine that pairs well with pastas, Tex-Mex, and spicier foods, and Texans love spice.
“We produce Moscatos, Cabernet Sauvignons, Malbacs, Tempranillos. These are distinguished by the type of grapes and the styles. A Moscato is a wine which has CO² in it that makes it a little fizzy. We are always trying to develop wines which fit with our food profiles. The styles are largely influenced by what the winemaker wants to do and by the grapes, the sugars, the alcohols content, and so forth.” And that “so forth” is making Homestead wine more popular all the time.
Also located in Denison is the Ironroot Republic Distillery. The names of their products echo their Texas origins, Promethan Bourbon (103 proof), Harbinger Bourbon (118.5 proof), Hubris Corn Whiskey, Blue Norther Vodka, Carpenter’s Bluff Moonshine, and Texas Drought Gin. The business was started by the Likarish brothers, Robert and Jonathan. We spoke with Jonathan, the head distiller.
“A couple of years back we wandered into a small distillery in Spokane, Washington and fell in love with the copper stills and the whole idea of being to make your own whiskey. I was still in school, and my brother was not even able to legally drink yet, but we decided then and there to pursue that, maybe when we retired. Fast forward a few years; I was an engineer working in Fort Worth and Robert was about to graduate from law school. He decided he didn’t want to be a lawyer. He finished law school, but instead of taking the bar, we started the distillery.
“Robert went to Austin College, so he was familiar with this area. We looked all over the DFW area before Robert suggested the Texoma region. Denison was the first community that sort of welcomed a distillery with open arms.”
How does one transition from being an engineer to being a distiller? The Likarish brothers went back to the distillery in Spokane and did a short apprenticeship, read the few textbooks on the subject, and got help from some mentors at other distilleries in Texas. And they were on their way.
“You could drink the first stuff we made,” said Likarish, “but I don’t think we could have sold it.” So it was back to the copper still for more experimentation and tweaking. “Actually, it’s a lot easier when you scale things up. When you get the still into equilibrium, you pick out the good alcohol from the bad alcohol based on the boiling points, and on a smaller setup all of that happens much more quickly.”
Needless to say, the experiments bore fruit — or in this case drinkable, marketable whiskey.
“We’re running at about two-thirds our capacity, and we can make about ten barrels a week.” The major product of Ironroot’s efforts are their bourbons. “They have no only different proofs, but different flavor profiles as well,” said Likarish. “We distill several different mashbills — recipes. We predominantly use a non-GMO dent corn that is grown within about 30 miles of the distillery. This accounts for about 95 percent of the recipe, then we’ll vary the other 5 percent with other corn and grains.”
Once produced, the different recipes are aged in new, chard, oak barrels and then blended to the final product. “It’s like painting a picture with multiple colors,” said Likarish. And his efforts product a very fine picture indeed.
The world of beer
In Sherman, Jeremy Roberts is the co-founder and brewer at the 903 Brewers. “All across the country there is a trend toward local. People want to know who’s making their beer. We are just blessed to be a part of the timing when that change started coming back. We started 903 because my wife, Natalie, and I home-brewed beer, and we loved the process. We saw that the rise of these microbreweries helped to revitalize the communities, and since we are both from Sherman, we thought, this is what our area needs. We opened our doors in May 2013, and it’s become a bigger success than we could have ever imagined. It’s very rewarding when people drink only your beer, and that’s what we’ve seen.
“About 20 percent of our sales are local, but 903 has been available all over North Texas since we opened. Last year we started seeing it in South Texas, and just this year we are now statewide. We have a presence in southern Oklahoma, in the casinos, and by 2020 we plan to be statewide in Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana. We already have the demand; we just can’t produce the quantity yet. For us, it’s still quality over quantity.”
903 is a true craft brewery, with a variety of special flavors. “We brew 30 different types depending on the season,” said Roberts. “Right now you’ll find a lot of our dark beers out on the market. In the summertime you’ll find our lighter beers. We always have eight beers in cans, packaged, and on the shelf.”
So what is the best seller? “We have a beer called Cervaza Por Favor that is a Mexican lager, and we have one called Land of Milk and Honey, which is a golden milk stout with honey. The beer we are best known for is a chocolate stout called Sasquatch. That’s the beer we won all of our big awards with. Last year, 2017, it was rated one of top stouts brewed in America.”
Just imagine if 903 had been brewing back in the days of old West. A weary cowboy, parched from the dust kicked up by a herd of longhorns steps up to the bar and says, “Hey, barkeep, I need a beer, how ‘bout one of them Imperial Chocolate Milk Stouts with Toasted Marshmallow and Double Fudge.” Now that would have been something to see.