Kevin Williamson, the award-winning chef-owner of Ranch 616 in Austin and the celebrated founder of Texas' iconic Ranch Water cocktail, died on November 26; he was 59.
Williamson was a charismatic food & beverage personality with a great love for Texas and a passion for Texas hospitality and food. He was also credited as the creator of the Original Ranch Water, the simple cocktail with tequila and sparkling water that went on to become its own mega-success story in the spirits world.
"The Texas sky will shine a little dimmer tonight," said a post on the Facebook page of Ranch 616, announcing Williamson's passing. "His larger-than-life life was truly a celebration of the best of life — with a distinctly Texan point of view."
Williamson was born in Austin on July 2, 1962; he grew up in Austin, then graduated from Southern Methodist University in Dallas. He worked on Wall Street before shifting to a culinary career, cooking at La Jolla in New York and Ajax Tavern in Aspen, Colorado.
In 1998, he opened Ranch 616, the iconic South-Texas-style ice house in downtown Austin — with a signature tequila-and-water cocktail called Ranch Water, presented as a classic margarita with a bottle of Topo Chico sparkling water on the side.
Williamson further expanded Ranch Water from Austin cult item into Texas-wide phenomenon by introducing it at the Gage Hotel in West Texas in 2010.
"If you follow the Ranch Water's chain of custody, one name keeps popping up: Kevin Williamson, owner of Ranch 616 restaurant in Austin," said a story by Thrillist author Kevin Gray. Williamson even applied for a trademark on the Ranch Water name, according to the Washington Post.
"He loved a good cocktail," said the Ranch 616 Facebook post. "In fact, he loved 'em so much that he invented the Original Ranch Water right here at Ranch 616."
He was known for his generosity, contributing his time and energies to organizations such as DIFFA (Design Industries Foundation Fighting AIDS) and the Austin Film Festival, says Greg Haynes Johnson, a close friend, former DIFFA board member, and DIFFA Chairman Emeritus.
"So many people today are saying he changed their lives," Johnson says. "He had a way of connecting people."
Johnson says he also had a robust sense of style.
"Colorful embroidered Western shirts were a mainstay of Kevin's wardrobe," he says. "He was chosen to be on the DIFFA Style Council in 2005, a group of ambassadors who help raise money. There's always a big photo shoot, everyone goes out and gets a stylist and spends tons of money, and Kevin was there with his Western shirt. He stood out."
Johnson co-hosted the legendary Texas Party with Williamson at the annual Aspen Food & Wine Festival for more than a decade.
"In the early days, they didn't let Texas wines in," he says. "That festival has tons of corporate brands putting on glitzy parties, but people were always trying to get an invite to the Texas Party. Texas wines have since become a big part of the festival, and that's the evolution of something he created in the '90s."
"That's one of the things he loved the most — representing Texas cuisine and products," Johnson says.
Williamson was diagnosed with cancer in 2019, but opted to go out on a high note in trademark Kevin form.
"Around this time last year he started on hospice care, but then decided he wasn't ready," Johnson says. "Instead, he spent the last year taking friends with him to Las Vegas, New York City, Cabo — frequently on a moment's notice. He also fulfilled his dream of having a home in Marfa, and spending as many days, nights, sunrises, sunsets as he could with his family and close friends."
Williamson is survived by his mother Jackie, sisters Lezlie Glade and Jennifer Lucchese, daughter Channing Wakeman, and five grandchildren.
A spokesperson says that a "Celebration of Kevin’s Life" is in the works.
"In the meantime, we’re thankful for what Kevin built here in Austin, the relationships with great folks he fostered, and we’re fondly remembering all the laughter, warm moments and good times, just like KWOW would want us to."