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John DeMers | Photo: Phoebe Rourke-Ghabriel | April 2, 2014
With vodka, ’shine and bourbon they can’t barrel-age fast enough, the Whitmeyer brothers toast Texas.
In the long history of humans making and drinking whiskey, no one else can say they started on the road to founding Houston’s first distillery by joining the Army in the weeks after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Indeed, local brothers Travis and Chris Whitmeyer, 32 and 29 respectively, took a circuitous route to launching their own brands of bourbon, vodka and even traditional moonshine.
Enlisting together in the Army’s “buddy system” would eventually take them to Iraq for 13 months. Yet before it did, the system let them choose their first posting—Germany. This proved a fine place to call home, and also provided a chance for Travis to date a young woman whose parents made their own wine, beer and spirits. He was fascinated, and remained so, even after he and Chris had returned from Iraq—he to start classes at UH and Chris to enter Lamar in Beaumont.
“I was always playing around with this stuff in those days,” Travis says, then laughs. “Let’s just say it’s illegal to distill alcohol at home in Texas. So of course I didn’t do any of that. But I certainly made some beer and other things. After bringing what I’d made to a couple Thanksgivings and to a few parties, people started asking why I didn’t do this for a business. There were, by this point, a number of craft breweries in Houston and lots of wineries in Texas, but there weren’t any distilleries in this city.”
The single Travis, and Chris, now married with a 3-year-old son and a daughter due this month, launched Whitmeyer’s Distilling Co. in 2012 and released their first four products last year. The operation in the Champions Forest area produces several spirits that have found a fan base via Spec’s Wines, Spirits & Finer Foods, as well as independent liquor stores. And the creations have, perhaps as crucially for the younger generation of drinkers, found a place behind hip Houston bars, turning up in innovative and even classic cocktails.
Space City Vodka is distilled six times from nothing but corn and filtered through activated carbon And the Whitmeyer line is a whiskey geek’s fantasy. The bearded brothers’ most popular product so far—which they call “kind of a Texas thing”—is an 80-proof bourbon with undertones of peach. Since no sugar or honey is added, the main sweetness comes from the whiskey itself, courtesy of barrel-aging. Several small-batch Whitmeyer bourbons are in barrels right now, awaiting limited release in the coming months.
“We are making Houston spirits in Houston’s own distillery,” offers Chris. “There are several in Austin, plus a few in Dallas/Fort Worth and San Antonio. We want Houston to have spirits we can be proud of.”