The industry is growing rapidly and there are many new names in the hat, but here is a good recap of the beginning years with a look at Texas spirits pioneers.
Article by Wes Marshall. A version of this piece first appeared in The Austin Chronicle.
The Spirits of Texas – Our State of the Union in 2011
Ever since Burt Butler “Tito” Beveridge II took the brave step of trying to make a Texas based spirit, folks have followed in droves, all hoping for a piece of the Tito’s Handmade Vodka multi-million dollar market. Of course, what they don’t know is how hard Tito worked to market his Vodka. He started doing rigorous taste tests with his friends where he would offer one of the world’s top vodkas aside his in a blind tasting. He kept working at his blend until it was able to beat almost everything. Then, he would park his pickup in parking lots in front of a liquor store and offer free tastes, encouraging and cajoling those who liked it to go into the store and buy some.
He offered journalists (myself included) the opportunity to come to his dilapidated distillery in Austin to sit alone in a room with every major Vodka on earth and taste to see if we could find anything better than Tito’s. He financed his early lean years by maxing out his 18 credit cards and praying for better days. He mortgaged the farm to start advertising in the New York Times. He hired heavy-weight management from major international distillers to learn about marketing.
In other words, it ain’t so easy.
Even with all the subsequent competition, Tito’s is still a marvelous blend of price and quality, and it’s available everywhere.
The second Texas liquor was from Austin’s Paula and Paul Angerstein with Paula’s Texas Orange. It’s hard to find a critic or consumer with anything but praise for PTO, as it’s called in bars. The drink has a delicious orange aroma and a heady alcohol level. Paula’s Texas Lemon is reminiscent of Limoncello. In fact, both Paula’s Texas Orange and her Texas Lemon are inspired by the duo’s trips to Italy. There is one major difference between her products and those from Italy: Paula’s are much stronger. Italian versions are usually 40-60 proof. Both Texas Lemon and Texas Orange are 80 proof (i..e. 40% alcohol, the same as most vodkas or whiskies). The 80-proof Orange works nicely as a substitute for Triple Sec. Just remember that Triple Sec, like most orange liqueurs, is 60-proof. Substituting Paula’s Texas Orange directly will offer a much headier drink.
Dripping Springs Vodka is the brainchild of brothers Gary and Kevin Kelleher. Both were in dead-end industries and they made the daring decision to sink their life savings into creating a distillery. They felt that in order to make a splash in the industry they would have to do something special, so Gary designed his own, proprietary type of still (described on their website) which he claims provides the equivalent distilling the Vodka 20 times, but without removing its distinctive flavors.
Also, since Vodka is, by federal definition, neutral spirits and water, they knew the water would have to be special. That’s why the duo are in Dripping Springs, where they have ready access to Hill Country artesian spring water. The water lends a flavor and mouthfeel rich with minerality. The combo of water and spirits allowed the brothers to take home the Purity Vodka trophy from 2008 International Wine and Spirit Competition, beating labels from all over Europe, including Russia and Poland.
Chad Auler started Savvy Vodka with one advantage over all other Texas distillers. He is part of the family that owns Fall Creek Vineyards. That opened a number of doors to distributors, liquor stores, bars and restaurants. It also meant that Chad could tap into the pure waters of Fall Creek to make his Vodka.
Savvy was an immediate hit in bars and restaurants, so Auler decided to roll out a separate company that is a joint venture with Clayton Christopher, founder of Sweet Leaf Tea. The product is called Deep Eddy Sweet Tea and the label doesn’t lie. The aromas and flavors will have you looking for an ice-packed 32-ounce plastic glass. As you might guess, they use premium teas, not flavored powders and as befits an Austin place, they use healthy honey instead of high-fructose corn syrup. The final product tastes like real tea, with honest tannins and just enough sweetness, just perfect for a hot Texas afternoon.
Bruce Graham and Daniel Barnes, owners of Treaty Oak Platinum Rum, treasure a dry, neutral style of Rum, one aimed specifically at the mixed drink crowd. Both were intent on using Texas ingredients, to the point they helped a family of sugarcane growers in the Valley stay in business by buying a huge quantity of their molasses. After filtering the sulfur out, they ferment it twice, add Hill Country spring water and produce Rum that is so clean and subtle, in a mixed drink it might be mistaken for Vodka.
The next product from Graham Barnes was Graham’s Texas Tea. Just like the Deep Eddy Sweet Tea, Graham’s uses premium teas and brews them up before blending, then they add turbinado sugar and Hill Country spring water. Given all these places are using Hill Country Spring water, you wonder about the future of the aquifer! The Vodka disappears behind the strong sugar and smooth tea flavors, which would make this 70-proof drink almost too easy on a hot summer day. Be careful.
Kelly Railean of Railean Distillers creates her Rum in the small town of San Leon, a place known more for its fishing than its fine liquors. That may change. She makes three different styles of small-batch premium Rums, all from un-sulphured molasses. My personal favorite is her least expensive – Railean White Rum. They recommend it for a mixing Rum, but give it a try with just some ice and a wedge of lime. It has delicious, fruity aromas that are so nice by themselves. The next step up is the Reserve XO, a cask aged Rum with enough tropical flavor for a Cuba Libre. The top of the line is Small Cask Reserve, a single selected barrel of Reserve XO that has twice as much age and is perfect for sipping.
Kelly has also started making a Texas 100% Blue Agave called El Perico Silver ($28). Notice there’s no mention of Tequila because real Tequila can only be produced from specific delimited areas of Mexico. Thus the simple name El Perico. Its flavors are spot on for Blue Agave fans with the light fruitiness and white pepper aromas you expect in the south of the border products.
Eyebrows were raised around the state when Dan Garrison started telling folks that he was not going to just make Bourbon, he was going to make the best Bourbon on earth. As the folks in Kentucky rolled over in their graves, Garrison set out to deliver on his objective. Unfortunately, he makes very small batches of it and takes his time letting each batch age for years, so not that many people have had the chance to actually try the final product, Garrison Brothers Texas Straight Bourbon Whiskey. In fact, it’s hard to even say how much it costs because the whiskey is actually selling briskly in the aftermarket for significantly more than its original asking price. Their first bottling was in half bottles and those sold at $50 each. Quickly.
So how does it taste? Does it deserve the hype? Well, there is definitely some salesmanship going on here, but the truth is, it is really nice Bourbon. Amongst other ingredients, they use organically farmed Texas corn and locally harvested rainwater. It is darker and richer than normal and the use of all new barrels lends a nice vanilla and caramel aroma. I don’t know if it’s the best, but it definitely deserves consideration.
Not to be left behind in the bragging rights’ competition, the folks at Balcones Distilling also set out to make world class liquors. Their business plan differed in that they decided to get products right out on the market so folks could taste for themselves. One tipoff on their philosophy is their first product, Balcones Baby Blue Texas Whisky ($38). Note that last word is spelled “Whisky,” not “Whiskey.” That is not an affectation, it is a spirited salvo. In the world of liquor, Whisky is from Scotland and to a Scotsman, Whisky refers to the water of life, while the term Whiskey refers to an unappetizing dark colored alcoholic beverage from somewhere other than home. So it should come as no surprise that the company’s signature product is a BA Peated ($55), a single malt made the same way they do in ye olde Caledonia. It will be available in about a year.
Balcones also makes Rumble ($38), not to be confused with a Rum. It is made from local wildflower honey, mission figs and turbinado sugar. The owners like to describe it as “what happens when whisky distillers play with sugar.” All of their products are well made and worth trying.
North Texas Distillers
North Texas Distillers is up in Denton. It’s a small, crafty type of place where the main product is DeLos Vodka ($18). They use Texas wheat as their base and their primary distinction is that they use a vacuum still. Now there are almost as many types of stills as there are spirits and everyone claims they have the only one that works right. The vacuum still separates the alcohol at room temperature by sucking the fumes off the mash. The theory is that heat hurts the final flavor. Only two other distilleries use a vacuum still, and they are small batch operations in Europe.
It’s taste is very fruity for a Vodka and quite smooth.
Spirit of Texas
Spirit of Texas is a small craft liquor maker with big ambitions. Their first product is Pecan Street Rum ($19). They make their rum from scratch using raw molasses, then add Texas pecans and let the rum infuse with their aromas. The resulting brew is a delicious concoction that makes a nice mixed drink. We tried it mixed with a touch of Jack Daniel’s Honey Bourbon and the combo was delightful, if heady, little drink. The folks at Spirit of Texas will be introducing a number of other drinks in the near future.
Cypress Creek Crystal Rum
David Watson is a welder from Wimberley who decided to make Rum after a trip to Mauritius. His job required that he be able to make anything from metal, so he built his own distilling operation. After a number of years trying different recipes and methods, he finalized his first product, Cypress Creek Crystal Rum ($20) followed by a Vanilla Flavored Rum ($25) flavored with whole Tahitian vanilla beans.
All this is just the beginning. Over the next year, Austin stores will be receiving products from new distillers showing up all over the state. Two to pay special attention to are in San Antonio: Ranger Creek Texas Bourbon Whiskey and Cinco Vodka. Right now we are pushing two dozen distilleries in the state and there will be many more.
The following liquors have wide distribution and should be easy to find or order:
Tito’s Handmade Vodka is made in Austin 512-243-2755 www.titosvodka.com
Paula’s Texas Orange and Texas Lemon are made in Austin. 512-636-6389 www.paulastexasorange.com
Dripping Springs Vodka is made in Dripping Springs. 512-858-1199 www.drippingspringsvodka.com
Treaty Oak Rum Platinum Rum and Graham’s Texas Tea are made in Austin. 512-826-8211 grahambarnesdistilling.blogspot.com
Railean’s Rums and El Perico are made in San Leon. 713-545-2742 www.railean.com
Balcones Baby Blue and Rumble made in Waco. 254-755-6003 www.balconesdistilling.com
These will take some time and trouble to find, so it is best to call the distillery and ask for help.
Garrison Brothers Distillery is located in Hye, Texas just west of Johnson City. 512-302-0608 www.garrisonbrothers.com
DeLos Vodka is available at Steve’s Liquors and several independent liquor stores. Made in Denton. 469-688-3174 www.delosvodka.com
Cypress Creek Crystal Rum and Vanilla Flavored Rum are currently only available at Wimberley Valley Spirits, though by September, they should be available at the larger chains. Made in Wimberley. 512-847-6874 www.cypresscreekreserve.com