Ranch Water – Origin of the Name

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.

Kate Bernot has written a good analysis of the phenomenon for Good Beer Hunting, see hereFor a short, Texas-flavoured description, see Paula Forbes’ 2018 article in GQ.

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.







3 thoughts on “Ranch Water – Origin of the Name”

  1. Something tells me that LBJ, who was a big guy, had a different version of daily bourbon and branch water than most people.

  2. Topo Chico just started showing up here several months ago. I like mineral water so I noticed it when it hit the shelf and it instantly became my favorite. I really like it.

    I’m not the only one, to be sure, and the local grocery stores can barely keep it on the shelves. I’ll frequently go to the shelf where it’s supposed to be, and it’ll be gone.

    Having said all of that, I don’t know that I’d care for “Ranch Water”. I knew that it was used for a cocktail, but I don’t care much for cocktails that feature mineral water or bubbling water of any kind. Indeed, while I’m not much of a hard alcohol consumer, about the only hard alcohols that I like that much tend to be really good bourbons, which I’m far too cheap to ever buy, and Irish Whiskey, which I’ll rarely buy.

    I do like tequila but I haven’t bought it for years. Anyhow, when I was much younger another lawyer exposed me to a drink he called “Crisps” which he had named after a Texas lawyer he’d once worked with. That drink was Corona Beer (which I otherwise don’t really like that much), a slice of lime, and a shot of tequila, which was mixed in the Corona bottle after a gulp of it was first consumed. I do recall those as being tasty at the time, but at that time I was also much, much younger than I am now (although certainly an adult). A few years after that some brewer actually sold a version of the same drink commercially, although they weren’t as good.

    As for the name, I suspect that’s just a fanciful bar tender’s or drinker’s term, sort of like that for the French 75, which has nothing to really do with artillery. While Texas is a very heavily urbanized state was a massive population, in a lot of people’s imaginations and in the self proclaimed image of the state, ranching is one of the things that defines it. Texas itself has a strong if somewhat uncomfortable cultural relationship with Mexico and it isn’t surprising that Mexican water, like so many other Mexican things in Texas, would have been first popular there before spreading to the rest of the country. So, I suspect that the name is probably just some fanciful name that doesn’t bear much of a resemblance to the drink itself.

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Yeoman, very interesting. The Corona gulp then shot of tequila added is paralleled in the Ranch Water version where taken from the bottle, and maybe inspired it. (A little less lethal).

      Point taken about urbanization but I was thinking more back in the 60s or even earlier for a naming made as a jape on branch water, out in West Texas too. But who knows, it’s a mystery unlikely ever to be solved with real certainty (like many historical naming questions. A reasoned approach to the problem can still have value absent a smoking gun).

      We like bourbon too, and unfortunately unlike 15-20 years ago longer-aged bourbons have reach stratospheric price levels. But some inexpensive bourbon offers good quality. I like Ezra Brooks (had a blogpost on it recently). And Jack Daniel’s today has never been better, IMO.


Leave a Reply to Gary Cancel reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: