TRIBEZA and Texas distillers

The Spirit Makers

Texas craft distillers continue to diversify, offering ever more delicious and imaginative ways to drink local. Whether you’re partial to grapefruit-infused elixirs or pure barrel-aged bourbon, here are plenty of new reasons to belly up.

There must be something in the Central Texas water to explain the number of entrepreneurs fir-ing up column and pot stills to produce a wide range of Texas craft spirits. Texas whiskey, gin, rum—we’ve got it all and then some (and even the promise of a few Texas brandies and eau-de-viex). While you’ll find distilleries throughout the state, Central Texas claims the vast majority. In fact, it seems that every time you look on the liquor store shelf, you find a new Texas spirit to try, and you’re likely being handed a sample from the distiller in person.

With the emergence of a more spirit-educated consumer base, as well as a more integrated movement of mixologists who scour the market for new ingredients, the hype around craft spirits has exploded across the country. In Texas, the modern industry was pioneered by Tito Bevridge, who fought a long uphill battle to push legislation through to allow distilleries to legally produce in Texas. In 1997, Tito’s Vodka became the first official distillery in the Lone Star State since Prohibition.

Austin-based Paula Angerstein jumped into the mix, producing her (now ubiquitous) line of lemon and orange liqueurs under the label Paula’s Texas Spirits. In 2006, Treaty Oak Distilling and Dripping Springs Vodka followed. Only these four distilleries held permits to produce within that 10-year span. Today, there are more than 50 permits across the state—an impressive rate of growth that shows no sign of slowing.

“It’s a really exciting time to be a part of the distilled spirits movement in Texas,” says Daniel Barnes, cofounder of Treaty Oak Distilling. “We’re starting to see some of the best spirits made not only in Austin area but in the world.” Here, a roundup of staples essential to any local-minded bar, along with recipes for refreshing summer cocktails. Cheers!

RUM

In 2007 Barnes’sTreaty Oak Rum was the first rum produced in the state, using Texas molasses as its defining ingredient. The rum was fermented and distilled at Treaty Oak’s North Austin distillery to deliver a 100 percent Texas product, an important distinction to Barnes and his team, who wanted to enter the market with something authentically Texan. This year, the distillery released an aged version of their flagship rum, Treaty Oak Barrel Reserve Rum, a labor of love that took a few years to make its way to the shelf.

Treaty Oak isn’t alone—in 2009 Spirit of Texas Independent Distillery released Pecan Street Rum, and in 2011, South Congress Distillery, just east of Austin, released a lightly aged White Hat Rum with a distinctive molasses-rich taste.

  • TEXAS HONEY DAIQUIRI
  • From Matt Moody, Food and Beverage Director at Treaty Oak Distilling Co.
  • 1 1/2 ounces Treaty Oak Rum
  • 3/4 to 1 ounce (to taste) honey syrup (recipe follows)
  • 3/4 ounce fresh lime juice
  • Thin slice of lime, for garnish

Combine rum, honey syrup, and lime juice in a mixing glass filled with ice and shake well. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass and garnish with lime slice.

  • Honey Syrup Recipe
  • Combine equal parts Texas honey (e.g., Round Rock, Goodflow, or Gretchen Bee Ranch) and warm water. Let the syrup cool and store in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.
Tequila.jpg

TEQUILA

Texas tequila has also made its presence known—at least, tequila produced by Texas entrepreneurs. In truth, it’s legal to produce tequila in only five designated states of Mexico. All tequila is regulated by the Norma Oficial Mexicana (NOM) and the Mexican Consejo Regulador del Tequila (CRT), and it must meet a list of specific qualifications in order to claim status as 100 percent pure blue agave tequila.

In recent years, U.S. consumer demand for the traditional Mexican spirit has increased until it now accounts for more than 75 percent of tequila sales, a trend that has prompted the creation of more than 1,300 registered brands produced by only about 150 registered distilleries. Some of the larger brands, like Patrón, Cuervo, and Herradura, have their own distilleries, while others are co-opted production facilities that contract with many smaller producers. And a growing number of those producers are Texan, among them Ambhar, Dulce Vida, Man in Black, Pura Vida Tequila, SOAH Tequila, Republic Tequila, Tequila 512, and Z Tequila.

The uniqueness of the spirit led Ken MacKenzie and Tom Nall to begin tequila production for Austin-based Republic Tequila in 2008. Together the two set about finding just the right distillery that could produce a spirit born in Mexico and bred by Texans. But according to current Republic Tequila CEO John McCollough, there’s an even deeper connection between Republic Tequila and Austin. With an increasingly dynamic dining scene, an entrepreneurial spirit, and a large community of tech-savvy obsessives, Austin is a hotbed of innovation.

The producer’s Leyros Distillery in Tequila, Jalisco, was the first in the industry to introduce a diffuser in the tequila-making process. The method extracts up to 50 percent more juice from the agave than any other method, giving a much broader flavor profile. The leftover pulp is then used as fuel to create steam that powers the entire distillery, which uses 40 percent less water than traditional production processes. The circle is completed when the remaining agave ash is used by farmers to fertilize the fields for the next generation of agave.

  • BERRY MINT BREEZER
  • Created by Chris Marriott for Republic Tequila
  • 2 blackberries
  • 2 mint sprigs
  • 1 1/2 ounces Republic Reposado Tequila
  • 1/2 ounce orange juice
  • 3/4 ounce lime juice
  • 1 ounce organic agave nectar

Muddle blackberries and mint in shaker. Pour remaining ingredients into shaker and fill with ice. Shake vigorously and strain into a Collins glass over ice. Garnish with a lime wedge and a blackberry.

Vodka.jpg

VODKA

Known for its odorless and virtually tasteless characteristics, vodka is perhaps one of the easiest spirits to produce. And yet not all vodkas are created equal. In Texas alone, there are more than half a dozen, the majority from Central Texas, among them Dripping Springs Vodka, Cinco Vodka, Starlite Vodka (from Treaty Oak Distilling), and Savvy Vodka. Two of the fastest-growing brands nationwide are Tito’s, which has landed a spot as the house vodka served on United Airlines, and Deep Eddy, named after the popular Austin swim spot.

Arriving on the scene in 2010 with Deep Eddy Sweet Tea Vodka, the Deep Eddy brand is a collaboration between Sweet Leaf Tea founder Clayton Christopher and Fall Creek Vineyards and Savvy Vodka entrepreneur Chad Auler. It has witnessed exponential growth in its few years—about 200 percent year over year, with distribution in all 50 states.

In addition to the Sweet Tea Vodka, Deep Eddy has also released straight vodka, as well as grapefruit-flavored and cranberry-flavored varieties, both made with a concentration of fresh, all-natural juices rather than artificial flavoring agents.

Texas spirits have come a long way since Tito’s first launched in 1997. And the 2013 legislative session also lifted another great barrier for the industry by allowing licensed distilleries to sell their products at their facilities. This freedom has prompted a wave of spiffy new tasting rooms. Along U.S. Highway 290 toward Dripping Springs alone, you can see Revolution Spirits, the future site of Treaty Oak’s new tasting and production facility, scheduled to open in 2015, and Deep Eddy’s new production facility and scenic tasting room, slated to open in late September.

“It’s encouraging to see that more people are making quality spirits rather than just putting something out there on the shelves,” says Treaty Oak’s Daniel Barnes. “These days it’s not really novel to have a distillery. To be relevant in the market, you need to make quality spirits at a fair price point, and we’re seeing that more and more throughout Central Texas.”

  • TEXAS TWO-STEP
  • 1 1/2 ounces Deep Eddy Cranberry Vodka
  • 1 1/2 ounces Deep Eddy Ruby Red Vodka
  • Club soda
  • Lime wedge

Combine vodkas and ice in a tall glass, finish with a splash of soda, and garnish with a lime wedge.

Gin.jpg

GIN

For Treaty Oak, producing rum wasn’t enough. In 2010, the company released Waterloo Gin, using a handful of locally sourced ingredients including Hill Country lavender and pecans, and citrus from the Rio Grande Valley. Waterloo’s refreshing floral notes appeal to Texas gin fans, as does its economical $18 price. This year, the team surprised gin enthusiasts with something special, a barrel-aged gin called Waterloo Antique Barrel Reserve.

You won’t find many aged gins on the market; it’s a spirit that typically doesn’t need the additional components oak can impart, but Treaty Oak’s Antique is a compelling exploration into just how a little experimentation can result in something great.

“We did it because we liked different components that came out with oak over time,” says Barnes. “It has herbal and floral tones on the nose, as you would expect from a gin. On the palate, you get cinnamon and nutmeg, which is really unusual for gin.”

With only a couple of guidelines defining gin production, the most important being the presence of juniper in the botanical recipe for distillation, it’s not unusual to find a wide range of gin styles and consumer preferences. Central Texas offerings have expanded to suit the palate range as well. From Smithville’s Moody June gin from Bone Spirits Distillery to South Austin’s own Genius Gin, which offers two versions of its original recipe, including a Navy Strength (a blend that hark back to a time in the 19th century when the Royal British Navy required gin rations to be 57 percent alcohol, or 114 proof, in order to keep ammunition from being ruined if the spirit spilled on it).

Likewise, the two-man team behind Austin’s newest gin distillery, Revolution Spirits, has found a beautiful flavor balance from its six-botanical blend through a higher alcohol content—an average of 50 percent, or 100 proof, per batch. In one taste, the recently released Austin Reserve Gin reveals discernible notes of rosemary, lavender, grapefruit zest, lemongrass, pink peppercorn, and, of course, juniper. It’s a recipe that business partners Mark Shilling and Aaron Day meticulously devised during the many months leading up to the May 2014 release.

“There are several reasons we wanted to start with gin,” says Revolution Spirits cofounder Mark Shilling. “There’s more to play around with based on the botanicals you decide to use.”

  • REVOLUTION MULE
  • 1 to 2 ounces Austin Reserve Gin
  • Splash of Maine Root Ginger Brew
  • Crystallized Ginger Wedge

Pour the first two ingredients over ice into an old-fashioned glass and garnish with a crystallized ginger wedge.

Whiskey.jpg

WHISKEY

Whiskey has always resonated with Texans. Despite Kentucky’s and Tennessee’s reputations as the heartland of American whiskey production, there are now, a number of whiskeys that we can claim as our own. A handful of blended whiskeys, such as Rebecca Creek Whiskey and the soon-to-release 9-Banded Whiskey, are bottled in Texas. Added to those are craft producers, committed to the painstaking process of making a grain-to-bottle whiskey from scratch. Among the most noteworthy of those are Waco’s Balcones Distillery and Garrison Brothers Distillery in Hye (near Johnson City). The Balcones Baby Blue whiskey was one of the first post-Prohibition products to the market. Made with New Mexico Hopi Blue corn, its distinctive rich, nutty flavor quickly turned heads in the craft whiskey community nationwide and captured a number of awards from coast to coast.

The distillery also released a few cask-strength corn whiskeys, a whiskey-rum spirit made from Texas sugar, Mission figs, and wildflower seed called Rumble, and a captivating single malt whiskey that baffled a London panel of judges when it took first place in the 2012 Best in Glass competition in a class among top producers like Balvenie, Glenmorangie, and Teeling.

About 45 minutes west of Austin, at a rustic Hill Country distillery, Dan Garrison makes Garrison Brothers Texas Straight Bourbon. Using organic Texas corn from the Panhandle, his own estate-grown wheat, and Hill Country spring water, the Garrison Brothers bourbon has fast claimed a fervent Texas following prompting production to increase from more than 700 cases in 2011 to an estimated 15,000 cases for 2014.

“To me, authenticity is what makes a great craft product,” says Garrison, whose primary goal is to become the 10th-largest distillery of American bourbon in the country—Kentucky included. His current projections already include the addition of another still that could help bring his production to about 250,000 cases annually—about a quarter of the size of Maker’s Mark. “There’s a perception that bourbon can only be made in Kentucky. But we’re quickly changing that.”

  • TEXAS BOURBON PUNCH
  • For Dan Garrison, there’s really only one way to drink bourbon: neat. You can use Garrison Brothers Bourbon for any number of bourbon-based cocktails, at about $80 a bottle, but you may want to follow his advice and save the good stuff for sipping. If you long to mix it up, try his punch.
  • 1/3 cup water
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 15 fresh mint sprigs, divided
  • 4 cups strained fresh pink grapefruit juice
  • 2 1/2 cups Garrison Brothers Texas Straight bourbon whiskey
  • 12 dashes angostura bitters
  • 1 cup club soda

1. Heat water and sugar in small saucepan over low heat, stirring until sugar dissolves. Increase heat and bring to boil. Add 5 fresh mint sprigs. Remove from heat; cool syrup completely.

2. Strain the mint syrup into a punch bowl. Add grapefruit juice, bourbon, and bitters. Stir in club soda and 10 remaining mint sprigs. Add ice to bowl. Start party.

Credits

Photography by Kate LeSueur

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