Still Austin Whiskey Co-Founder Explores a Spirited History in New Book
Colonialism, distilleries, potations, and probity
Well-structured, meticulously footnoted, and spicy as hell, Fires, Floods, Explosions, and Bloodshed: A History of Texas Whiskey goes down with a smooth complexity. As the title implies, author Andrew Braunberg details what went wrong, along with what went right, as whiskey distilling came to be in the state of Texas. His blunt prose might even make you laugh, as he connects the most surprising details and lays out how distillers first made whiskey in our wild, emerging region.
A palatable element of Braunberg's book is that it isn't branded with his own made-in-Texas whiskey brand, Still Austin Whiskey, but functions as a stand-alone about the history of the drink itself in our state while subtly questioning the efficacy of banning things outright. And, while he mentions the huge success of Tito's, he also calls vodka "a kind of dull market" and mentions that while many people drink vodka, "you don't hear them bragging about it."
"I think Tito's gets credit for a few things in the craft business. He did reintroduce distilling in Texas. As did Dan Garrison and Chip Tate [the founders of Tate & Co. Distillery], who really thought about what Texas whiskey should taste like. What should people expect when they pick up a bottle of Texas whiskey? And that's a good question, without an answer."
Braunberg's book focuses on the period from 1830, before our state was founded, to when Texas prohibitionists achieved success in the 1870s. Essentially, the early Texans used to drink alcohol a lot, from sunup until pass-out. In 1830, the American Temperance Society classified a person who consumed 24 ounces of spirits, or 12 drinks a day, as a "confirmed drunkard." In 2004, the biggest drinkers in America were clocked at having 74 drinks per week, or about 10 drinks per day. Braunberg makes the point (and backs it in the book's index) that Texas was formed during "the height of America's inebriation." And that Sam Houston was called a drunk by his opponents, and was still elected over them. And that as early as 1837, taxing liquor was vital to the state's coffers.
One moment of levity is a look at what Braunberg calls the "worst thank you letter ever," from Stephen F. Austin to the state's first rum distillers, who had given him a case as a gift. Braunberg laughed, "You can tell how disgusted [Austin] is. But liquor is the easiest thing to tax." But then the Prohibition movement took off, driving distilling back underground.
It's worth noting that before Prohibition came the concept of temperance, which was posed as a personal failing, not a collective one. Braunberg said, "The Protestants drove that charge, and the people against Prohibition were the ones in communities where temperance worked. In the German and Mexican American communities, the idea was, 'Why don't you check your own behavior instead of trying to prohibit things for everyone?'"
The people pushing Prohibition would lose big and then come back again and try something different. One statewide measure got zero votes in New Braunfels. Braunberg said, "The whole community was like, 'You want us to stop having a beer?"'
Fires, Floods, Explosions, and Bloodshed: A History of Texas Whiskeyby Andrew Braunberg
State House Press, 202 pp., $16.95 (paper)