PaperCity Magazine

November 2014 - Houston

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Page 35 of 79

NOVEMBER | PAGE 36 | 2014 THE YELLOW S pend some time around the U-shaped bar at Warren's Inn on Travis Street, on a drizzly evening when a group of gray-haired typewriter jockeys, Linotype operators and courthouse hangers-on assemble. Perhaps they'll merely eye each other over their scotch-and-sodas, like a remnant herd of mastodons around a dwindling waterhole in the Late Pleistocene. On other evenings, they'll begin to recall old Houston, and you'll hear reminiscences and arguments — such as who first described Houston as "a whiskey and trombone town." Some will declare it was none other than the Chronicle's longtime hunting-and-fishing editor, Bob Brister; partisans of the Post will contend it was that paper's answer-man columnist Hubert Mewhinney. The oldest among them will name the entertainment editor of the old Press (the one that went out of business in 1964), one Paul Hochuli. Whoever declared Houston to be a whiskey and trombone town, they did it long before Houston had any trombone makers or distilleries. Houston, sadly, still does not have a single enterprise devoted to manufacturing trombones. But in the last few years, several distilleries have sprung up in and around the city. While there are records of breweries operating in Houston from the middle of the 19th century, what distilling was done in Texas was done in other parts of the state. After the repeal of Prohibition on December 5, 1933, happy days were here again for Texas brewers — but not distillers or winemakers. The Treasury Department's Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau only granted the first distilling license for a Texas company in 1997. That license went to Bert Beveridge II, who had to convince the TABC and then the TTB that their own rules allowed a privately owned distillery to exist in Texas before he could begin making Tito's Handmade Vodka. contraption of copper and gleaming stainless steel. Steam from the distillery's surprisingly compact 950,000 BTU boiler then gently heats the mash to the temperature where alcohol begins to evaporate out of the mixture. This is when master distiller Troy Smith goes to work. Smith — who left a career in the automotive sales field to take up whiskey making with his neighbor, Baird — shepherds the liquid through two distillations. The first produces a liquid that is around 35 percent (or 70 proof) alcohol. The second run brings the alcohol up to about 125 proof. From the still, the liquid goes into American oak barrels for aging: new barrels for bourbon, used barrels for whiskey and rye. After the aging process is complete, the whiskey is tested again for alcohol content, then water that has passed through a purification system is added to bring the percentage down — from 46 percent for Outlaw bourbon to 40 percent for the blended whiskey and vodka. The liquor then goes to the bottling room, where a set of devices fill the bottles, cork them and apply the labels. Afterwards, each bottle is hand-labeled with the batch and individual bottle's numbers. A machinist/inventor who normally fabricates helicopter parts made the corking machine for the distillery in Maine. Baird is particularly proud of the bottling room; a full-blown assembly-line bottling machine, he explains, would cost at least half a million dollars and would be able to bottle the distillery's monthly output in an hour or two. His collection of Rube Goldbergian devices cost the start-up $20,000. With the help of a few friends, Baird reports, the monthly bottling operation takes place over two or three days. A s part of their promotion plan, the Yellow Rose trio used Kickstarter to raise money for the distillery's tasting room. Until recently, a Texas distillery could not sell or even offer its products to visitors. Today at Yellow Rose, visitors can try cocktails developed by Bobby Huegel protégé and Icon Hotel alum Houston Farris, the firm's own consulting mixologist, and purchase one bottle per day from the shop attached to the tasting room. This is all radically new for Houston. As Despite being a very new operation, Yellow Rose whiskeys have already garnered some top awards in international competitions, including two double gold medals at the 2013 San Francisco World Spirits contest — the competition that turned Tito's Handmade from a limited-production Texas product to a national brand. Last year. two different Yellow Rose whiskeys earned a silver and a double gold medal at the New York World Wine and Spirit Competition. Currently, the distillery tasting room has six products. Perhaps the most Texan spirit is the Outlaw bourbon whiskey. For a liquor to be allowed by the TTB to be labeled a bourbon, the mash must be at least 51 percent corn, and the raw whiskey has to be aged in new American oak barrels. Outlaw is 97 percent corn mash with a 3 percent soupçon of rye, giving the whiskey an unusual sweetness. The straight rye whiskey is similarly pure in that its mash is 95 percent rye grain. The Yellow Rose Distillery claims that this is the way almost all American whiskey was made before Prohibition. Historically, corn whiskey was usually sold raw and given colorful names such as moonshine or white dog. Real whiskey was made from rye. There is even a small batch of the rye whiskey aged in barrels that were first used for aging whiskey, then were shipped to a sugarworks in Vermont, where they were filled with maple syrup and aged for six months. Then the syrup was removed, and the barrels were sent back to Houston, where they were used to age this batch of rye whiskey. There is also a bourbon named Double Barrel — not because it's shot from guns, but because after the legally mandated new American oak aging, the whiskey is placed in a used wine barrel for an infusion of different flavor notes. Now, if only somebody could start a handmade, small-batch trombone factory. ROSE GEORGE ALEXANDER GOES UNDERGROUND TO DISTILL THE STORY OF HOUSTON'S FIRST LAWFUL DISTILLERY. PHOTOGRAPHY JACK THOMPSON TEXAS Pot-still, vodka column, condenser and mash tun American oak barrels for aging Special-reserve limited release Yellow Rose whiskey Special-edition labels com- memorate a visit to the distillery. Co-founders Ryan Baird, Randy Whitaker and Troy Smith His project has grown from a 16-gallon pot-still cobbled together out of two empty Dr Pepper kegs and a turkey fryer in 1997 to a mechanized 26-acre operation near Austin that produced 850,000 cases last year, pulling in a reported $85 million in revenue. T oday, an argument swirls around whose distillery is worthy of the title of Houston's first legal distillery. The two main contenders are Yellow Rose Distilling and Whitmeyer's Distillery. If you expand your definition of Houston to the greater Houston area, then you would also have to add the Railean rum and agave spirits operation in the parrot-friendly bayside town of San Leon in Galveston County; the Dash vodka operation in Brookshire; and Big Thicket Distilling in Conroe, which makes rum, whiskey and vodka. However, Yellow Rose is the first distillery to have a license to operate from the City of Houston, rather than Harris County. So, let's go with that. Yellow Rose Distillery operates out of a spruce little industrial park on North Post Oak Boulevard, a little north of the Old Katy Road. The three principals — Ryan Baird, Troy Smith and Randy Whitaker — have two employees, giving the operation a total workforce of five. Persons wishing to see how brown liquors and vodka are made can pay $7 for a tour and tasting on any Thursday, Friday or Saturday. The day we went, sales manager Jason Valentine and company president Baird took us through the operation, starting with a room containing a one-ton sack of organic yellow corn grown in the Texas Panhandle and a grinder. The ground corn is conveyed into a mash tun — a large steam-heated boiler within which a mixture of corn and water is heated to the boiling point, releasing the sweet corn's sugars into a solution that, when cooled, goes into one of three fermenting tanks, where selected strains of yeast go to work, producing a mildly alcoholic mash. That slurry is then poured into the pot-still — a gorgeous two-story-tall steampunk-styled

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