Whisky fan Jake Clements, his wife Michelle and business partner Clayton Corn co-founded the Texas Whiskey Festival in 2017 out of their joy of whiskey. The initial idea came about over drinks at a SXSW networking event in March of 2017. “We started naming off different Texas Whiskeys we had tried and decided we could put on an event with just Texas Whiskey,” says Clements.
The first Texas Whiskey Festival, which happened in the spring of 2018, hosted 500 people and 11 distilleries; by 2019 they had grown to 22 participating distilleries. This year’s event will feature 26 distilleries with attendance expected around 1,000 people. It has also expanded into product collaborations and additional events.
“We have produced three Links and Drinks Golf Tournaments benefiting Impact a Hero, a veteran’s non-profit group the festival supports,” says Clements. “Through partnerships with distilleries, we released the first distillery collaboration blend in the history of Texas Whiskey. It involved Balcones Distilling in Waco; Ironroot Republic in Denison; Andalusia Whiskey Co in Blanco; and Crowded Barrel Whiskey Co in Austin.”
A second blend collaboration with Treaty Oak Distilling, Ranger Creek Brewing and Distilling and Lone Elm Whiskey will be available at this year’s festival, and there are other collaborative projects in the works with multiple partners and distillers. “Just like any good whiskey, these will take their time to mature and be announced,” says Clements.
The festival hosts a competition with a judging panel of industry experts assessing each whiskey based on smell, taste, and finish on a scale of 1 to 100. The only requirement is that every whiskey entered is available to the general public. “We want people to have the ability to buy these fantastic whiskeys,” says Clements.
As with most competitions, the opinions of the judges don’t always match what consumers like. So, to give the people their say, they have a people’s choice award. Each person is handed a wooden nickel when they walk through the festival gate to place in a bucket for their favorite distillery.
“What I know now is that many of the whiskeys mentioned during that initial networking event were misleading people through their label practices,” says Clements. “There is nothing wrong with sourcing whiskey but be truthful on the label. We bring in whiskeys that are sourced [elsewhere] but bottled in Texas if they are transparent with the consumers. If you are bringing in your whiskey and just bottling in Texas, let consumers know.”
To this end, the Festival works with the Texas Whiskey Association (TXWA ) and Texas Whiskey Trail, entities that are working diligently to promote transparency. While most of the distilleries who attend the Festival are also TXWA/Trail members, there are other distilleries who are not yet members of the Association
“I initially proposed the Association and the Trail in 2013 to several early Texas Whiskey producers including folks at Balcones Distilling, Garrison Brothers, Ranger Creek, Treaty Oak, and others,” says TXWA and Trail founder Spencer Whelan. “We discussed on and off for years, then incorporated formally in 2018.” The Trail was formed as a subsidiary of the association and launched in May 2019, developed at roughly the same time as the very first festival.
“The driving force behind the creation of the Association and the Trail is the desire to elevate the makers who produce whiskey within the state of Texas, then to educate consumers about what makes Texas whiskey unique,” says Whelan. TXWA launched with 9 original distilleries and rounded out their founding year with 12 members. Today there are 19 distillery members and 4 allied trade associate members who make up the Association. The Texas Whiskey Trail now has over 1800 Registered members who have visited distilleries over 5,000 times since launch.
Texas Whiskey is important in the world of whisk(e)y because it is changing the paradigm about what is possible. “People have been trained over decades that the age and location were the two most important attributes of what makes a good whiskey product,” says Whelan.
In just over a decade, Texas distilleries have shown that it is possible to make great whiskey outside of Scotland, Kentucky and Ireland and it is possible to have a younger whiskey that tastes amazing, “but only if you attract talented whiskey makers who understand their craft and the unique Texas climate and terroir,” he adds.
The climate, grains, and people are what make Texas Whiskey unique. The long periods of high heat and vast fluctuations in temperature create a unique aging environment. Most Texas whiskeys only need to sit in a barrel for a few years before they are ready, unlike in Kentucky and Scotland.
“While most places are trying to speed up the aging, our distillers are working hard to slow it down,” says Clements. Nowadays, many of the distilleries are using grains grown in Texas. These grains offer unique flavors based on their growing conditions which will impact the flavor of the whiskey.
“Most will tell you the whiskey community is full of great people and Texas is no different,” says Clements. “The distillers that have blazed the path creating an industry from scratch are not afraid to explore and push the boundaries. The creativity and willingness to experiment is something that makes Texas Whiskey unique and fun.”
The Texas Whiskey Festival happens on March 7th, at the Star Hill Ranch just west of Austin. Tickets are available now.