“When I think of people from West Texas, I think of this kind of no-frills, get-the-job-done attitude. And that’s very much the spirit of Ranch Water,” says Katie Beal Brown, a native Texan and founder of Lone River Beverage Company.
In terms of ingredients, the cool mix of tequila, lime, and Topo Chico is as Texan as the Whataburger Honey Butter Chicken Biscuit is Mexican. But it’s in the Lone Star State and not south of the border that the simple cocktail known as Ranch Water has become a cultural icon.
Texas natives, particularly those in the west and south of the state, have enjoyed the humble take on the highball for decades. But only in the last 10 years has the one-time ranch-worker refresher found statewide success, equally at home in dive bars, cocktail lounges, and music festivals. Now, it’s starting to sweep the nation.
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In the past five months, Google searches for the term “ranch water” spiked to an unprecedented high. Browse #ranchwater on Instagram, too, and you’ll just as likely find posts from North Carolina, Maryland, and Utah, as you will from the Great State of Texas. With a flurry of canned versions hitting supermarket and liquor store shelves, the Ranch Water craze shows no sign of slowing.
Like most drinks trends, it’s impossible to pinpoint one event that brought on this success. Instead, the rise of Ranch Water is a combined tale of cultural identity, iconic brands, and good ol’-fashioned marketing.
What Is Ranch Water?
Behind every iconic drink lies a tale as opaque as a freezing cold bottle of bubbly mineral water. And Ranch Water is no different.
We will likely never know if a wild-haired 1960s rancher did indeed first concoct the drink, as local lore suggests. Nor will we know if he was inspired by the “spirit” of said drink to follow the West Texas stars and trek a lonely 50 miles from Fort Davis to Marathon before falling asleep under a piñon tree.
The other common tale for Ranch Water’s beginning seems much more plausible. “It was a way for ranchers to have a happy hour,” says Taylor Samuels, owner of Dallas-based Mexican spirits bar Las Almas Rotas. “They’re out riding the fence line all day, making repairs, and checking on cattle. Ranch Water was the refreshment for the ride at the end.”
In such a situation, simplicity is key. Sure, the ranchers could have cracked open a Shiner Bock. But would that have been as refreshing as taking a swig from a bottle Topo Chico, topping with a splash of tequila, and squeezing in a zesty lime?
Almost certainly not.
The who’s and where’s of how the drink got its evocative name are also murky. Some attribute it to Kevin Williamson, chef and owner of Austin’s Ranch 616. Others link it to The Gage Hotel in Marathon, Texas, which first put the cocktail on its menu in 2010. By this point, however, Ranch Water was well known enough in West Texas that locals had been ordering it by name at the hotel’s bar for some time.
How Has Ranch Water Become So Popular?
It’s taken a decade since the Gage Hotel first added the cocktail to its menu to arrive at the current-day Ranch Water craze. How we got here is once again largely based on speculation.
Nico Martini, Dallas-based author of “Texas Cocktails,” says industry events and bartender culture both played a role in spreading the drink across the country. “Thousands of industry people come to Texas every January to go to the San Antonio Cocktail Conference (SACC). They experience Ranch Water here then take it back home,” Martini says. “Texas also has a massive presence at Tales of the Cocktail,” he adds.
It’s easy to imagine swathes of New York and Los Angeles bartenders returning home from these events and eagerly sharing their latest discovery. While tequila, lime, and soda is by no means a novel combination, when made with a regionally specific mineral water you have the perfect build for a geeky, insider cocktail. “All those New York bartenders going down to SACC, drinking the hell out of Ranch Waters, then going back home and not being able to get Topo — it becomes a challenge,” Martini says.
The drink’s mysterious moniker only adds to the allure. Ranch Water sounds infinitely cooler than tequila, lime, and soda. (See also: Cuba Libre and Moscow Mule.) Once again, there’s also insider appeal because there’s no way of knowing from the name alone what Ranch Water contains. Instead, you need to be au fait with the latest drinking trends.
The Topo Factor
At this point, we can no longer ignore the bubbly, mineral-rich elephant in the room: Topo Chico. Bottled near Monterrey, Mexico, since 1895, Topo Chico built up a loyal following in Texas because of the state’s close culinary ties to Mexico. Speak to any Ranch Water aficionado and they’ll tell you there’s simply no substitute for Topo Chico.
Despite operating under capacity restrictions because of the coronavirus pandemic, Dallas-based JAXON Texas Kitchen and Beer Garden sold 1,800 Ranch Waters last month. “It’s gotten to the point where I’m trying to buy pallets of Topo Chico versus ordering by the case,” says Alexander Fletcher, JAXON’s beverage director.
Outside of Texas, bartenders likely still struggle to buy Topo Chico by the pallet-load. But the “challenge” to get their hands on it (as Martini describes it) at least subsided in 2016, when the brand was acquired by Coca-Cola.
“Suddenly the distribution was just so much larger,” says Andy Arrington of Texas-based wine and spirits distributor Victory Wine Group. “Ranch Water has really benefited from that.”
Beyond regional connections, there’s good reason for using Topo Chico in Ranch Water. Las Almas Rotas’s Samuels says the water’s high mineral content provides a natural partner for peppery, earthy tequila, allowing the spirit to shine rather than overpowering it. And as all Ranch Water diehards will attest, Topo Chico’s turbo-charged effervescence provides the final piece of the puzzle.
“When you open a bottle of Topo Chico, you can leave it out overnight at room temperature and the next day it’s still going to have strong bubbles because of the carbonation that’s been pumped into it,” says Racheal Buie, Topo Chico’s brand development specialist for Houston.
Buie, of course, has a horse in this race. But she’s been a fan of Topo Chico for over a decade and started drinking the water long before she worked for the brand. “I’ve literally been able to witness Topo Chico go from 75 cents a bottle to being sold for $5 in fine dining places,” Buie says. “I really think the surge in popularity of Ranch Water is coupled with Topo Chico’s success over the years. As a Texan, a Topo employee, and a lover of Ranch Water, it’s an exciting time.”
Enter: Ranch Water Hard Seltzer
Whether a sign of Ranch Water’s success or a possible contributor to its recent popularity, the drink entered a new era these past 12 months when multiple canned versions hit the market.
Lone River Beverage Company debuted its Ranch Water Hard Seltzer in May 2020. After learning the legend of the “wild-haired rancher” and realizing it took place in the same area as her grandparent’s ranch, founder Brown felt there was an opportunity to tell that story to a wider audience and give people a taste of West Texas. The fact Ranch Water also lends itself to the wellness trend that’s seen hard seltzer surge in recent years also made it the perfect fit, Brown says.
Like many other hard seltzers, Lone River’s Ranch Water uses a brewed-malt rather than spirit base. The brand is currently only available in Texas and Tennessee, though expansion is on the horizon, Brown says.
For those looking to sample a tequila-based version on a national level, Cutwater Spirits launched its own Tequila Soda in March 2020. Flavored with a hint of natural lime, it’s a canned carbon copy of Ranch Water — in all but name, at least.
“[I]t’s important to clearly communicate that we use real tequila to make a signature cocktail known by many as ‘Ranch Water’ but known by all as ‘Tequila Soda,’” says Yuseff Cherney, Cutwater Spirits’ co-founder and master distiller.
Depending on how much Ranch Water’s popularity continues to grow, the decision to drop the iconic name may or may not prove savvy. To borrow (or butcher) a famous Shakespeare soliloquy: What’s in a name? That which we call Ranch Water by any other name would surely taste as refreshing and delicious.
But would that same drink be so damn popular?