Gathering pace in the last couple of years is ranch water. It originated in West Texas, in time spreading through the state. The drink is known elsewhere, too, urban areas and other trendy parts.
Classically it is a mix of tequila, lime, and bottled mineral water. Coca-Cola-owned Mexican Topo Chico mineral water is emblematic. In recent years ready-to-drink versions have been marketed in cans.
Emulations have appeared, too, not using tequila but perhaps a malt or neutral alcohol base with agave flavouring. These are not mocktails but half-way one might say. Articles have been written on the trend, with major beverage companies, craft brewers, and entrepreneurs all in the game.
My interest is the name – why ranch water? No one really knows, just as the actual inventor of the term is not known although various theories exist.
Here is my thinking. In the 1960s when Texan ranchers drank Topo Chico to refresh – the brand was first marketed in the 1890s – they made a joke on the term branch water. A branch in the South and Southwest is an old term for a stream, or offshoot of a river.
“Bourbon-and-branch” was – is – a highball – whiskey lengthened with cool, fresh water. Ranch water is also a highball, but the water is fizzy, as Topo Chico has always been. In this way of looking at it, ranch water was a bubbly counterpart to the still branch water.
While bourbon’s popularity has soared in recent years, branch water as an accepted term in drink terminology has dipped in proportion.
Summers are hot and dry in West Texas, a look at a geological map shows the river and stream systems mainly in the east and centre. Branch water in a drinks context was certainly known in Texas in the 1960s.
President Lyndon B. Johnson drank a bourbon-and-branch each day, according to a 1965 column in the Albany Times-Union:
President Johnson ordered his White House aides off the Washington cocktail circuit. All wind up 1964 as year-long teetotalers – except the President, who confides on the fourth to last day of the year that he’s been taking a daily bourbon and branch water.
L.B.J., for what it’s worth, was born on a riverside in the central state, the part for which Austin is hub. Emblematic Texan and rancher he was, although he started off as a school teacher.
Since fizzy water is the basis of ranch water drinks, it seems plausible ranchers in arid West Texas, in the L.B.J. era, wryly dubbed the bottled water in their Jeeps or wagons “ranch water”.
Tequila, from Mexico where Topo Chico is bottled, would substitute for bourbon in the spiked version.
The lore is Texans took a swig of Topo Chico neat and then poured in tequila in the bottle. It makes sense the term for the water attached to the drink.