Age Before Beauty? With Treaty Oak, You Get Both.
Local distiller is making world-class aged spirits
We've just had a chance to taste something that could become an iconic Texas product: Treaty Oak Distilling Co.'s Waterloo Antique Barrel Reserve Gin ($29). How good is it? Ridiculously good, with stunning botanical aromas and multilayered flavors, its complexity actually competes with international whiskeys. Granted, seeing something the color of Maker's Mark married to the aromas of classic gin provides an initial shock to the senses. All thoughts were gone the second Matt Moody, Treaty Oak's beverage director, offered me a perfectly designed old fashioned that substituted Waterloo Antique Barrel Reserve Gin in place of the whiskey. French distiller Citadelle is the originator of aged gin, a concept that is still rare. That is soon to change. Industry insiders say the aged gin category is poised for explosive growth. If the Treaty Oak version is any indicator, I can see why.
The Waterloo Antique Barrel Reserve Gin is one of three barrel-aged products from Treaty Oak. They are also making Treaty Oak Barrel Reserve Rum ($29) and Red Handed Bourbon Whiskey ($34). All share a keenly balanced flavor with just enough of the buttery vanilla aromas from the barrels to add some interest. We sat down with CEO Daniel Barnes in the huge barrel room at their facility off Rutland Drive to hear about their genesis while sipping Moody's cocktails. Barnes is clearly proud of what he and his tiny team have accomplished. Wandering through the Treaty Oak offices, the obvious camaraderie feels like a cross between a squad of Navy Seals and an eager crew of techies conceiving a Silicon Valley start-up.
"We're all committed to what we're doing. I know it looks like a lot of fun, but we're working hard," Barnes said. "For instance, we've been working on our barrel-aged rum for about five years now. It was always a goal to release them; it just took a while to perfect the recipes." We wondered if he was using the same recipe for his aged gin. "That was the result of some mad experiments and fun discussions with our distilling team. We thought we'd hit a dead end when we tried it after a few weeks in the barrel. However, it completely changed after about 12 months and became something extremely different, and a product we're very, very proud of."
One of the dead ends they hit was when they tried small barrels with different levels of charring. Because their ratio of wood to liquor is higher, these little containers have the benefit of yielding enormous amounts of smoky oak aromas quickly – sometimes too quickly. "Part of our experimentation focused on the various sizes and char levels of barrels," Barnes explained. "We found that the smaller 15-gallon barrels offer a lot of quick wood tannin and color, but don't do much to soften the spirits over the course of several years. The young harshness was still there, something you expect to dissipate over time. So we moved to the larger 53 gallon barrels. Unfortunately, they take a lot longer to work their magic, but it is definitely worth the wait as they produce sweet and soft flavors that we never got from the 15-gallon barrels."
All this experimentation takes a long time and, between the costs of barrels and the time required for barrel-aging, can be quite expensive. But Treaty Oak also lavishes the same detail on the clear spirits, which have their own difficulties. "All of our spirits are challenging for various reasons," Barnes said. "Waterloo Gin is tricky for the exact amount of each botanical that we distill through. Our Treaty Oak Rum is complicated by the nuances of fermentation and distillation. But overall, I think our Red Handed Bourbon is the most difficult and painstaking." Some of Texas's brightest stars buy pre-made liquors and blend them until they like the taste, like Firestone & Robertson Distilling Co.'s TX Blended Whiskey. Treaty Oak distills all its products except the Red Handed Bourbon. This is a blended product, but Barnes goes a few steps further. "We're not simply bringing in random bourbon and rebottling it as is the common practice," he said. "There was a lot of care and precision put into not just selecting the individual barrels, but also the percentages at which we blend them. After the blending, we re-barrel them in first-use barrels again to further alter the flavor. The process is painstaking, but we're very happy to be showing off the end result now."
A Transformation in Texas Regulations Means You, Too, Can Experience a Texas Liquor Tasting
As I was formulating this story, I was twisting around the FM dial, hoping to find some great music on Austin radio. My first try is usually that beacon of musical diversity, KUTX. When I tuned in, there was good old Michael Martin Murphey reminiscing about himself and folks like Buckwheat Stevenson, Steve Fromholz, Three Faces West, Jerry Jeff Walker, and all the other members of what Fromholz called "the Great Progressive Country Scare of the Seventies." Murph recalled the great clubs and talked about the sea change that occurred in 1972 when the Texas Legislature finally decided the populace would be able to enjoy a mixed drink without having to join a private club. It's hard to imagine, but just over 40 years ago, most of the music acts either had to play coffee houses or private clubs. Picture going to a music club and not being able to order a drink!
Hopefully, Texans 40 years from now will find it just as odd that there was a time when you couldn't visit a Texas liquor-making enterprise and get a tour and a taste. Thanks to the work of Treaty Oak's Daniel Barnes and the group he co-founded – the Texas Distilled Spirits Association – legislation now allows Texas distillers equity with their brethren in Kentucky and Tennessee. "We've been working on the on-and-off premise sales for distilleries for several sessions," Barnes said. "We were extremely lucky to have Sen. Leticia Van de Putte [D-San Antonio] and Rep. John Kuempel [R-Seguin] support us this session. It was also very rewarding to see the various other stakeholders come out and support the growing Texas craft distiller movement. These changes give Texas distillers the opportunity to grow our industry even further and become leaders at a national level."
Most important to consumers, these new laws allow us to go to a liquor maker and get samples, try cocktails, take tours, and buy directly from the distiller. Anyone who has spent time visiting winery tasting rooms and enjoyed the experience will now be able to do the same at specially licensed distilleries. Treaty Oak is one of those distilleries, and sometime in mid-January, they will open their doors for tours, tastings, and sales at their cozy location at 10109 McKalla Place, just north of Rutland Drive. They're planning on charging $15 for a tour, a cocktail, and a tasting flight of all their products.
Treaty Oak is just one of a bunch of distillers that will have tasting rooms, and while I love their Waterloo Antique Gin, you can also check my Top 10 Texas Liquors list next week for some other options. Still, just to get an idea of the success Treaty Oak is having with its liquors, go no further than the Great American Distillers Festival Bottle Competition in Portland, Ore., this past October. They only awarded 18 gold medals. I've judged competitions where they give out more than a hundred gold medals, so, believe me when I tell you that this is a tough competition. Treaty Oak won the Gold and Best in Category for their Starlite Vodka, and each of their aged spirits picked up a gold medal, with their Treaty Oak Barrel Reserve Rum also getting Best in Category. That's like UT winning the Bowl Championship Series, the Final Four, and the College World Series, all in one season. Congratulations to their team and do go visit them. You'll love it.
Antique Gin Old Fashioned
› 2 ounces Treaty Oak Distilling's Waterloo Antique Barrel Reserve Gin
› ¼ to ½ ounce simple syrup
› Angostura Bitters
Into a rocks glass with one large ice cube or a few medium-sized ones, add 2 ounces Waterloo Antique Barrel Reserve Gin, simple syrup, and 2 to 3 dashes of Angostura Bitters. Gently stir your drink so you don't create too many air bubbles. With a vegetable peeler, remove a strip of orange peel and fold the peel in half over the top of the glass to express the orange's essential oils. Rub the rim of the glass with the orange peel and drop into the glass. Serve and enjoy!