It Might Be The Whiskey – Rebecca Creek is Texas Whiskey With Attitude
Don’t think there weren’t times when Steve Ison wondered if maybe he’d bitten off a little bit more than he could chew when, back in 2009, he decided to start the first whiskey distillery in South Texas since Prohibition. “It was definitely a little nuts,” Ison, CEO and founder of San Antonio-based Rebecca Creek Whiskey, says about the early days. First off, he didn’t know anything about whiskey, other than the fact that he and his friends enjoyed it. Secondly, pretty much everyone told him his business model was a disaster waiting to happen.
“And I knew they were probably right,” he says, chuckling at the memory. “You have to spend a ton of money building a distillery, buying the ingredients, making the whiskey, paying taxes on it, and then just sit there twiddling your thumbs for three years while the stuff ages in a barrel. It sounds kind of crazy, but that’s what we did.”
Maybe it’s no coincidence then that on more than one late evening going over the numbers in his office, trying to figure out a way to make two and two equal eight or maybe nine, Ison—whose business career started in his family-owned insurance agency—found himself listening to the outlier sounds of Texas country, or red dirt music, which has sometimes been defined as “country music with an attitude,” and relating in a very personal way.
Take the song “It Might Be The Whiskey” from one of the early progenitors of Texas country music, Spur 503: “The only thing between me and you/It might be the whiskey/It might be the music/It might be those crazy friends of mine/But the more I think about it/It might be all of the above.”
Now there’s some music with attitude, thought Ison. Which was exactly the way he thought about Rebecca Creek—it was whiskey with an attitude. “Plus the way we were growing the business was the same way a lot of these Texas country musicians were trying to build an audience,” he notes. “It was all grassroots. Show up at an event—tailgates, some little bar—and let the public sample your product. And hope they like it and come back for more.”
Today Rebecca Creek Whiskey and their sister products—Texas Ranger Whiskey and Enchanted Rock Vodka—are available in 11 states. Ison hopes by the end of the year they’ll be in eight more, including Arizona and California. And red dirt music continues to be a big part of their success. Not only is there an open invitation for local musicians to come and play at the San Antonio distillery, which, normally, sees more than 50,000 guests stopping by for a tour and a barbecue, but several years ago they started up Rebecca Creek Radio, playing artists like Mario Flores, Bri Bagwell, and Drew Womack. The station is now part of the iHeart Radio streaming music network.
“We’ve had a really good relationship with Texas country music artists from day one,” says Ison. “I like their music, and I know how hard they work to get noticed since they don’t really get any air play on normal radio. So pretty much from day one, we’ve supported them, and in return they’ve been brand ambassadors for Rebecca Creek Whiskey, taking us with them wherever they play. It’s been a great way to get their music—and our whiskey—out to the masses.”
Of course, once Covid-19 hit last winter, the distillery closed to the public, which put a real crimp in events like the Midland Band debut album party a few years ago that drew 2,500 fans who came out to listen to the group from Dripping Springs, Texas. Since Texas country music fans couldn’t come to Rebecca Creek, Ison figured Rebecca Creek would go to the fans. So last April the distillery live-streamed a concert on their Facebook page featuring artists like Randall King, Sean McConnell, and Wade Bowen. They were able to raise some $10,000, all of which benefited Meals on Wheels.
Then Rebecca Creek pivoted again and started distilling hand sanitizer that they sent to area hospitals, police stations, first responders, and the many small businesses in and around San Antonio that were struggling to stay open. “We’ve probably given away 50,000 gallons of hand sanitizer throughout the state of Texas,” says Ison.
Meanwhile, they continue to also distill whiskey, focusing more these days on their blended whiskies, including Texas Ranger, which Ison describes as slightly sweeter on the palate than a traditional bourbon. “It’s got a lot of vanilla and caramel notes to it and drinks lighter,” he says, which may be why it’s particularly popular with hunters and fisherman who, at the end of day, may want to wind down with a cocktail but not get smacked in the face with a hot whiskey.
Though things at the distillery still aren’t back to normal, Rebecca Creek, which is on two and a half acres of land, reopened on a limited basis in October. “We haven’t been able to resume the tours yet, but we have pavilions set up outside and picnic tables spread out over the grounds, and we’ve got a little restaurant that serves barbecue so you can sample a little Rebecca Creek whiskey and enjoy yourself.”
And, of course, there’s live Texas country music from up-and-coming artists just about every day. Because the way Steve Ison sees it, what good is Texas whiskey without some smokey barbecue and a little red dirt music in the background to lift your spirits?