Anyone who’s spent time in West Texas between May and September has experienced the relentless desert sun, offset ever-so-briefly by a bone-dry, tumbleweed-stirring breeze. This is not the kind of heat quenched by mere H2O. Enter Ranch Water.
Though the exact birthplace of the tequila-based refresher is unknown, this unofficial drink of West Texas dive bars and house parties carries some Texas-sized fables.
“There’s a rumor that it was concocted by a wild-haired rancher in Fort Davis in the 1960s,” says Phillip Moellering, Manager and Food & Beverage Director of the Gage Hotel in Marathon, Texas. “Allegedly, the spirit of the drink had him following the West Texas stars all the way from Fort Davis to Marathon by foot, where he was found asleep under a piñon tree.”
Founded in 1927 by rancher Alfred Gage, the Gage Hotel has long been a stopping point for adventurers and artists like Western novelist Zane Grey and Mount Rushmore sculptor Gutzon Borglum. Ranch Water was a standard order at the historic hotel’s White Buffalo Bar for years, but it wasn’t until 2010 that the bar finally decided to make the word-of-mouth drink official on the cocktail menu, adding a bit of orange liqueur for deeper flavor.
Morgan Weber, a native of eastern Texas and co-owner of Houston’s Agricole Hospitality group (which owns Revival Market, Coltivare and Eight Row Flint) says he first experienced the West Texas favorite at a house party in Marfa two summers ago.
“The locals were pouring a sort of crude version of something that seemed half Tom Collins and half Margarita,” Weber says. “[They used] tequila, fresh lime juice, a splash of simple syrup and—the most important ingredient—Topo Chico mineral water. They were calling them Ranch Waters. I didn’t realize at that point that this was a legitimate micro-regional, Texas institutional drink.”
Coincidentally, a few months later, a customer from Odessa sat down at the bar at Coltivare while Weber was working and ordered a Ranch Water–by name. Mere mention of the drink sparked conversation between the two, as the West Texan native recalled growing up drinking Ranch Water with his friends. “There’s a deep love for that drink west of the Pecos River,” says Weber, who was inspired to make his own rendition.
In Austin, Kevin Williamson, owner of Ranch 616, devised his take on Ranch Water about 15 years ago when he casually added mineral water to his glass as his Margarita lessened. He tinkered around with the drink, swapping out silver tequila for an oaky reposado, plus a full ounce of fresh lime juice and a splash of orange cordial. He serves his version with an entire slim glass bottle of the requisite Topo Chico on the side, so that guests can decide the strength and effervescence of their drink.
“With Texas’ close historical connection to Mexico, it makes perfect sense to enjoy a tequila-based beverage with a mineral water from Monterrey,” says Ranch 616’s bar manager, Mark Yawn.
But is a Ranch Water the real deal if it’s not made with Topo Chico? Well, that depends on whom you ask. Diehards only make it with the über-bubbly mineral water, which has been bottled since 1895 and is sourced from an inactive volcano in northern Mexico. While legend has it the nutrient-rich water healed an Aztec princess of a disease no doctors could cure, modern disciples of the elixir praise its unparalleled effervescence and refreshing properties. Now that the water is gaining more and more of a cult following across the States, perhaps Ranch Water fandom will also continue to spread.
When planning the bar menu for Eight Row Flint, which opened in Houston this past winter, Weber wanted to perfect a superior Ranch Water, knowing it would become an instant favorite at the icehouse-inspired hangout. Shockingly, he left out Topo Chico, instead delivering a wealth of bubbles via force carbonation, serving the drink on tap.
His riff is much more complex than the original, starting with the base spirit, which pays homage to the region’s flavors. Weber swaps the tequila for sotol, made from the agave plant’s wild cousin that grows naturally in West Texas and Chihuahua. The lime flavor comes from two distinct sources: clarified lime juice and old-school lime oleo saccharum, a syrup made with lime peels.
“We turned back to our punch-making history of 200 years ago and made a lime oleo saccharum to give [the drink] a good lime-y backbone, and added a touch of salt to accentuate the flavors even more,” says Weber. In a final flourish, he spritzes local Rio Grande grapefruit oil onto the drink for a juicy, fragrant finish.
But the true beauty of a Ranch Water is that it doesn’t have to be gussied up to get the job done. The next time the air gets heavy with heat, pay heed to your southwestern neighbors, who know that liquid relief is just three simple ingredients away.