As part of our ongoing distillery interview series Chicago Bourbon spoke with Mark McDavid of Ranger Creek Brewing & Distilling. Mark told us all about their unique “Brewstillery” operating out of San Antonio Texas. We talked about the beer, the whiskey, and Mark’s thoughts on educating their consumers and contributing to the craft distillery movement.
Chicago Bourbon: Give us a brief history of Ranger Creek Brewing & Distilling. What exactly is a “Brewstillery?
Mark: “Myself (Sales and Marketing), TJ (Operations Manager), and Dennis (Finance and Accounting) met in corporate America shortly after coming out of grad school. We were home brewers with a shared passion for beer and whiskey.”
Back in 2010 the three partners saw a gap in the San Antonio beer and whiskey market. They went back and forth between the ideas of starting a brewery or a distillery. Then they had an “ah ha” moment and that’s when their plan came together.
“For the first year of planning we were convinced we had to do one or the other [brewing or distilling]. Then we went to a distillation workshop at a brewery in Michigan and discovered that we could brew and distill in the same location.”
So in November of 2010 the boys set out to open what would be the first production brewery in San Antonio, the first combined brewery/distillery in Texas, and one of the first whiskey producers in Texas.
CB: What was the first product you brought to market and how do your beers and whiskey work together?
M: “Our OPA [Oatmeal Pale Ale] was the first product we released back in 2010. We released about 5 beers within the first year. That’s also when our first bourbon was barreled. The beer brought in cash flow and allowed us to keep the doors open while we waited for the bourbon to age. It makes a lot of sense when you think about it. The first step in making bourbon is making beer.”
Where a lot of newcomers to the distilling industry will release an unaged “white whiskey”, a vodka, or may source aged spirit from another supplier. Ranger Creek leveraged their love of beer to support their passion for whiskey.
“Our focus is producing authentic products from grain to glass. We started by releasing our aged Whiskeys, Bourbon, Rimfire, then Rye. We released our aged bourbon first and then our white whiskey. We wanted to establish ourselves first with the aged whiskeys before releasing our unaged white whiskey. In addition to a great selection of beers; on the market right now we have our flagship .36 Caliber Texas Bourbon, Rimfire Mesquite Smoked Texas Single Malt Whiskey, our .44 Texas Rye, and our White Whiskey.”
The original .36 Bourbon was released in November of 2011 and remains a staple in their Small Caliber Series annual release. Mark was excited to tell us that they use many of their beer grains and recipes as inspiration for their whiskeys.
“The most exciting products to us are the ones in that intersection between beer and whiskey. Our Rimfire Mesquite Smoked Single Malt was born from a beer that we brew, the Mesquite Smoked Porter. Our La Bestia white whiskey is a more direct representation of what a whiskey tastes like when distilled from a beer, our La Bestia beer. We do a bourbon barrel aged beer release once a year in November.”
The Rimfire Mesquite Smoked Single Malt is one of the unique products they produce. It’s made from 100% malted barley. Cold smoked, 200 pounds at a time, using local mesquite wood in a 20 foot long shipping container. The cold smoking infuses the mesquite flavor without roasting or modifying the grain.
For the bourbon barrel aged beer they use their own barrels as well as barrels from Four Roses, Wild Turkey and others.
CB: What makes your beer and whiskey unique?
M: “We like to focus on the relationship between beer and whiskey. As a combined operation, we can do things to highlight this relationship that no one else can, like age our own beer in our own bourbon barrels and distill our beers into whiskeys. We believe in using local ingredients to make quality products by hand. We’re grain to glass. Every step of production happens right here in our San Antonio facilities.”
Ranger Creek uses 5 gallon barrels for the ‘Small Caliber Series’ limited editions. About 25 barrels make it into each batch. They use 25 to 53 gallon barrels for the .36 Single Barrel limited release which is aged 4 to five years. They are currently out of stock and plan to release in larger quantity next year. Mark was proud to tell us that the 2014 vintage won ‘Best of Show’ at the American Craft Spirits Association Competition.
“Two to 4 years is what we shoot for. When we get to 4 or 5 years that’s what we earmark for our single barrel releases. The lower end of the spectrum goes into our straight bourbon releases. We use smaller barrels for the more limited edition releases. We can do some innovative whiskeys aged in small barrels which lets us experiment with small batch craft whiskeys.”
Mark tells us they are getting fully mature small barrel whiskey in 9 to 12 months. This is due to the Texas heat. They have had such great reception to these limited edition releases that they are turning some of them into year round staples.
CB: What role does education play in your interaction with consumers?
M: “When the lightbulb went off [to make both beer and whiskey], that educational moment is something we want to share with others. Education is a huge part of what we do. It [sourced vs. distilled bourbon] can be confusing to consumers. Sourcing has been going on forever. We don’t have an issue with sourcing in general. What we’re not ok with is leading the consumer to believe a whiskey was made somewhere it was not; that destroys the notion of terroir. That’s an important thing with spirits, wine, and some beer. Designated points of origin are there because of the notion of terroir, which dictates how spirits from a certain region taste.”
CB: Tell us about your tasting/tap room. Why should it be a stop on our next visit to San Antonio?
M: “Our distillers and brewers are constantly R&D’ing batches that we serve only in the tasting room. It gives consumers something really fun to drink when they come to visit.”
They have R&D whiskey that they only serve in the tasting room. And seasonal beers they turn into a seasonal whiskey that, again, is only served to those who make a trip to San Antonio. Mark told us about a coffee beer they made that he challenged the distillers to make into a whiskey. They served it as a Coffee Old Fashioned that Mark says was delicious. They serve their beer next to the whiskey that was made from that beer. Visitors are able to compare the beer and whiskey side by side.
CB: What does the future hold for Ranger Creek?
M: Mark told us that they will continue to find ways to incorporate local ingredients into their beer. They are making a Strawberry Milk Stout using local strawberries. They have a long term goal of finding someone to help them make barrels in Texas using Texas oak. Mark says, “We have more ideas than money right now!”
We finished our conversation by covering what can be a controversial topic in the bourbon industry. Mark shared his thoughts on the use of smaller barrels compared to standard 53 gallon barrels.
“There’s a whole conversation in the world of whiskey about whether you can make good stuff in small barrels. For a lot of people the jury’s still out. What I’m really proud of that we’ve done over the last five years is contribute positively to that conversation by showing people that you can make really good award winning whiskey in a small barrel. Larger barrels are different than small barrels. If you approach it with the right mindset you can make good stuff in small barrels.”
(This interview was originally published on Bourbon.com)