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Ranger Creek: Texas' First Brewstillery

Ranger Creek Brewing & Distilling
In The Still Of The Night

by

Mark McDavid and his partners at San Antonio's Ranger Creek Distillery are on a quest. They've got their gear, they've got their plan and they've got mountains of enthusiasm. All they need now is a target.

They're out to make Texas bourbon. The only problem is nobody knows what Texas bourbon is. And it's going to take some time to figure it out.

What Is Texas Bourbon?

"There is no defined Texas bourbon," McDavid explains. "Our philosophy is to be a truly craft distillery. To us, that means using local ingredients in interesting ways with innovative recipes."

Ranger Creek is among the trailblazers in craft distilling. The concept of making and selling liquor in small batches is today where craft beer brewing was 20 years ago. Where Texas was a follower on the craft brewing curve, it's on the leading edge of craft distilling.

And when McDavid says "craft" he means it. Ranger Creek is a truly do-it-yourself operation. The team mills its own corn and barley. Bread box-sized barrels are aging in a 40-foot shipping container and grains are smoked in a 20-foot container that's had a firebox welded onto one end and a flue at the other.

What Ranger Creek is actually making out of Lytle, Texas corn and Edwards Aquifer water is called "white dog." It's the clear alcohol that comes out of their custom-built Hungarian pot still. And while it's not as eye-watering as single-distilled white lightning, it's still powerful stuff. It's not until it's been in charred oak barrels for at least several months that it mellows and picks up the amber color and smoky flavor that will make it bourbon.

"We're making a traditional bourbon-style whiskey," McDavid says, "but we're also going to be doing some more innovative things as well like a mesquite-smoked whiskey."

Ranger Creek is experimenting with three different cooperages and two different chars on its barrels. With six possible combinations of wood and a handful of recipes, the startup operation is casting a wide net.

"All that is to say we don't know what Texas bourbon is supposed to be so we're experimenting," says McDavid. "We want to set up that conversation with consumers. We want them to tell us. Our job is to try a few different things, release them and get feedback."

Ranger Creek doesn't have any delusions about taking over the whiskey world, they just want to carve out a niche in it.

"We're not trying to replace what you normally drink," adds McDavid. "We just want you to add a bottle to your liquor cabinet so when somebody comes to town and they want to try something very special and unique you'll have something Texan for them to try.

Ranger Creek Distillery
"Honestly, we can't make enough to replace your MacAllen or your Maker's Mark. We're not at that volume."

In the meantime, there are bills to pay. That's when the distillery turns into a brewery. It's as simple as Head Distiller T.J. Miller handing over the keys to Head Brewer Rob Landerman.

The idea came to McDavid and his partners after months of ongoing arguments over whether to open a distillery or a brewery. Why not both?

"We all have a passion for beer," says McDavid, "and we started brewing beer together. We were talking about starting a business and T.J. kept sending us articles on craft brewing. We were making fun of him about just wanting free beer.

"We started talking about the idea of a Texas bourbon and we thought, 'hold on, there's got to be a Texas bourbon already. And if there's not, there's got to be a good reason.' It turns out there wasn't a Texas bourbon and there wasn't a good reason either.

"That's when we realized we could do both of the things we're really passionate about."

Bourbon and Beer

"Barbeque in a glass"

On the beer side of the house, Ranger Creek is brewing an oatmeal pale ale, a mesquite-smoked porter McDavid describes as "barbeque in a glass," a Belgian dark ale called La Bestia Aimable (The Friendly Beast) and a lager.

"The reception has been really good," adds McDavid. "We sort of thought San Antonio would be excited about having a local brewery but it's been even better than we expected.

"What we're seeing is the 'craftier' beers are doing well in Austin because there's more of a progressive beer culture there. We're going to do a hefeweizen as a summer seasonal. That will probably resonate more in San Antonio. San Antonio's a little more of a bottled beer town. Austin's more of a draft town. People are typically younger in Austin and out drinking in bars. Where in San Antonio, it's grab a six pack and head home."

McDavid calls his lager a "gateway" beer, something casual beer drinkers will recognize. The idea is to create a Ranger Creek following that will then experiment with its more exotic offerings.

"Most people have tried a pale ale by now," he explains. "Our porter is really a beer drinker's beer. And our Belgian dark ale is expected to appeal to wine drinkers. It's dark in color and sweet in flavor and has all this nice, dark fruit."

The ultimate goal for Ranger Creek is to integrate its operations to the point it's making beer that's aged in barrels that once held its bourbon. "That would be the pinnacle to me," McDavid says.

"Once we release the bourbon we plan to start doing some really exciting stuff.

"Let's say we have a dinner at one of the restaurants here and we pair the first three courses with our beer and then the last two with our whiskey. And we have all kinds of bourbon barrel-aged beer going along with that and a mesquite-smoked bourbon you can drink with a really nice steak. That's what we're trying to achieve, that combination of flavors with the beer and the whiskey and the food element."

San Antonio, with its blue-collar reputation, may be a tough market to sell $100 bourbon-beef combos. But McDavid is eager to try.

"Part of our approach is to work with other people who are trying to make San Antonio into 'that kind of town.' I think there are enough people here who are excited about developing those interesting local flavors that I think it can work. It's going to be a challenge.

Ranger Creek Brewing & Distilling
4834 Whirlwind Dr.
San Antonio, TX 78217
(210) 775-2099
Tours available weekly.

Website: http://drinkrangercreek.com/




"We have a lot people here who are interested in it either naturally or because they're from California or Austin or Colorado and say, 'Let's bring that here.' We're all working towards kicking San Antonio in the ass a little bit into this food and beer culture."

Smokin' Glazed Chicken

Brine
  • 2 gallons water
  • 1/2 cup vinegar (white)
  • 2 tablespoons pickling spices
  • 1 teaspoon allspice
  • 2 teaspoons black pepper
  • 2 teaspoons garlic powder
  • 2 teaspoons onion powder
  • 2 teaspoons celery salt
  • 3 cups kosher salt
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 2 tablespoons maple extract
  • 2 teaspoons liquid smoke
Prep
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 1/4 cup cajun seasoning
Mop
  • 2 cups apple cider vinegar
  • 2 cups water
  • 2 tablespoons salt
  • 2 tablespoons black pepper
Glaze
  • 6 tablespoons butter
  • 2 tablespoons honey
Guest of Honor
  • 8 lbs chicken
For the brine: Combine the first 10 ingredients, bring to a boil, then let cool. Add maple extract and liquid smoke.

Rinse chicken and pat dry. Brine chicken for at least 4 hours. Overnight is best.

Remove pieces, rinse in cold water and pat dry. Coat with oil and season with Cajun seasoning.

Prepare smoker and smoke chicken at 230 degrees for about two hours, basting with mop every 30 minutes. For the mop: Combine vinegar, water, salt, and pepper in a pot and bring to a boil. Remove as set aside. When chicken is done, coat with glaze and move pieces to a hot grill to crisp the skin. This will only take a few minutes. For the glaze: Combine 3 parts butter to one part honey. Make as much as you need to finish the job.

Remove and serve immediately.

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