When it comes to whiskey, Texas is on a roll. Distilleries like Waco’s Balcones and Denison’s Ironroot Republic are winning acclaim at spirits competitions throughout the country, and Texas is suddenly making a grab for Kentucky’s flask of whiskey paradise glory, saying: We’ll have some of that, please.
One of several new spirits or liqueurs finding their way onto local shelves is Grayson Texas Blended Bourbon, the forthcoming project from three Texas whiskey aficionados.
It’s “a whiskey that captures that boldness of Texas while paying homage to the Lone Star State,” they say. In other words, it’s very Texas. Grayson also has the distinction of being Texas’ first Black-owned whiskey brand: Among its three founders is former Major League Baseball player Vernon Wells.
Wells, who grew up in Arlington and played mostly for the Angels and Blue Jays, had sampled his share of fine wines, whiskies and cognacs throughout his career, and he’d developed an appreciation for “the work that goes into every bottle,” he says.
He’d already jumped into the wine world with business partner Brandon Davis, and the two briefly considered making a brandy. But Wells, who now lives in Colleyville, had begun to note the quality whiskies starting to trickle out of Texas. There, he thought, was a home-run investment, and the moment to swing was now.
“There’s a timing for everything,” Wells says. “And this was the perfect time to jump in and learn and grow.”
Not that he knew anything about making a bourbon. But it was around that time that he and Davis were introduced to Nico Martini, a local whiskey fan and booze businessman working on a book about the Texas boom. Already in touch with distillers throughout the state, Martini pitched the idea of crafting a blended spirit drawn from the barrels from some of Texas’ best producers.
“I knew that would be the best-case scenario,” Martini says. “Let’s just work with everybody.”
Martini reached out to brothers Robert and Jonathan Likarish of Ironroot Republic Distillery in Denison, which is now producing some of Texas’ most acclaimed whiskeys since launching in 2014, to see what they thought of the idea.
As it turned out, Jonathan was so into it that he basically took over the project’s blending duties. “That’s every distiller’s dream, to play with other people’s bottles,” he said recently at Grayson’s launch party in downtown Dallas.
Once the group had a sit-down to hash out the flavor profile they were aiming for, “Jonathan took off in his mad-scientist way and brought back a bunch of samples” from barrel stashes developing at various Texas distilleries, Martini says.
The team narrowed it down to a handful of blends they liked, and then Likarish did some tweaking to zero in on what would become Grayson — a blend of whiskeys from Ironroot, Balcones and Forney’s Five Points Distillery, which produces Lone Elm whiskey. The result is a powerful, 119-proof whiskey that comes on innocently sweet before settling in with pleasant campfire warmth.
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