Texas Gets Spirited Away

Taste-testing Texas liquors against the world

Texas Gets Spirited Away
Photo by Wes Marhsall

There's a new trend in the Texas adult-beverage business: liquor. Locally produced vodka, rum, limoncello, and orange liqueur are all available now, and shortly we'll be seeing cask-aged spirits, boozed Popsicles, and gin. We're always happy to see new gustatory businesses in Central Texas, especially if they're making good products.

To answer that question, we decided to put all the Central Texas liquors to the test, double blind, against some of the best competitors in the world. Do they deserve a place on your liquor shelf? For Texas brands like Savvy and Tito's to attract buyers away from Grey Goose or Skyy, they have to be as good or better. We'll get to the results in just a minute.

Tito Changes Texas

After hundreds of wineries, breweries, and brewpubs had gotten Texans' attention, we knew one day someone would jump through all the federal and state regulatory hoops and start offering distilled spirits. That someone was Tito Beveridge, creator of Tito's Handmade Vodka. Beveridge worked hard, from creating a new vodka recipe to searching out the cheapest real estate in Travis County for his facility. In the beginning, he marketed with guerrilla tactics. He'd go to liquor-store parking lots in his old pickup, and when he'd see a customer walk out of the store, he'd rush up and ask them if they'd like to try his vodka. He'd take them back to the truck and give them a pour. A few turned around, went back in the store, and bought a bottle. That gives you an idea of how hard he worked to make his brand a success.

Beveridge is a charming, handsome guy with an aw-shucks attitude, and he did a fine job selling to bars and stores. But he recognized that if he was going to move to the next level, he'd have to get some professional help. Instead of having fun with the money he was making, he kept plowing the profits back into the company. It's now worth millions.

People who do things well make it look effortless. Think of Tiger Woods or Stephen King or Eric Clapton. Well, you can add Beveridge to that list. He is smart, daring, and blessed with great timing. And he's now a multimillionaire. You can understand why others might want to emulate that success, especially when Beveridge made it look so easy. What most don't know is how Beveridge couldn't get financing and had to max out every credit card he could get his hands on. Or how, until recently, most of his employees made more than he did. Or how many miles he had to put on his truck trying to get anyone anywhere to put his vodka on their shelves. Beveridge's road to success only looks easy because none of us was riding around with him every day or watching him sweat trying to pay his bills. Still, it's very tempting for a confident entrepreneur to try to match Beveridge's accomplishments. And we're seeing plenty of others who want to join the club.

First out of the gate was Paula Angerstein, an Austinite with a taste for rustic Italian liqueurs. Paula smartly decided that her best shot at the Texas drinker would be something for a margarita, so she started with Paula's Texas Orange, a strong orange liqueur. She ended up capturing a big market quickly. First, her product is delicious. But she's also a charming seller, her product has a catchy name, and it looks good on a shelf. She also earned points in the Austin area by visiting lots of bars and liquor stores. She added a Texas limoncello that aims straight at the Italian version (we'll have the results of that test, too). She's now in the position of having lots of potential market but also having to decide whether she wants to invest the extra money and time it would take to supply that market. Like Beveridge, she's made her success look simple. It's not.

Everyone Else in the Pool!

There are now six more brave souls who have decided to jump in this pool. First in was Arctic Spirits, a company in Spicewood whose owners wanted to find a way to have a frozen margarita out on their boat. They came up with a recipe they liked, packaged it in a handy plastic squeeze tube, and put it in the deep freeze. Everyone they knew liked it, so they decided to go commercial. They should be out in the near future in margarita, strawberry margarita, rum punch, Cape Cod, hurricane, and piña colada flavors.

The next permit went to Savvy Distillers. This is a brand with a pedigree, since it is owned by Chad Auler of the Fall Creek Vineyards family. Auler's family has connections all over the state, so he has had a very fast ramp up, and you can now find Savvy Handcrafted Vodka almost anywhere in Texas. Chad took a page from the Tito book and spent a very long time working on his recipe, his column still, and his new proprietary filtration system.

These steps are more important than you might think, because, by definition, vodka is supposed to be neutral grain spirits at 190 proof or higher with water added to bring the alcohol down to the chosen proof. In theory, they shouldn't taste all that different. Conse­quent­ly, many huge companies just throw some vodka in a bottle and spend all their money on marketing. You know the sales pitch: "Our vodka is produced with only organic grains, pressed between the thighs of young Swedish virgins, mixed with pure water from deep under the northern mountains of Iceland. Blah, blah, blah." When you focus on marketing, it is easy to be nonchalant about the quality of the vodka, so taking the time to think through the product and showing some pride in your creation are good things.

Savvy uses a column still. There is a lot of controversy about whether a column still is better than a pot still. The simple answer is Stevie Ray Vaughan would sound better playing a $40 Sears guitar than I would sound on a $3,000 Strat; it's all in the hands of the artist. Pot stills are traditional in the small single-malt distillers in Scotland and the Cognac area of France. Column stills are popular with corporations making trillions of cases. What's important is how it tastes. Auler tried it both ways and feels that he gets a better and more consistent vodka using a column still.

Savvy has one other ace in its arsenal. The family owns the part of Fall Creek that falls into Lake Buchanan, and it is some of the best spring water in Texas. That's what goes into Savvy Vodka.

The next local license went to San Luis Spirits in Dripping Springs, makers of Dripping Springs Texas Vodka. The Kelleher brothers, Gary and Kevin, are the owners, distillers, and sales force. Kevin has spent the last 30 years working all over the world in the machine-tool business. When the first Gulf War hit, no one was buying the huge toolmakers he was selling, so he moved back to the U.S. Gary worked for Bos­ton Market and got downsized by McDonald's when the company bought the chain. After talking it over, they decided to sink their life savings into creating a distillery. Gary is the vodka-maker, and he has designed his own still, which has a few fascinating design elements aimed at leaving a little more flavor in the product. You can see the system on their website (www.drippingspringsvodka.com), but they claim it effectively creates a microdistillation process equal to distilling the product 20 times. In any case, it's not like any still I've ever seen.

Graham Barnes Distilling makes Treaty Oak Platinum Rum. Owners Bruce Graham and Daniel Barnes are aiming at a dry, neutral style rather than the big, dark, brooding Jamaican style. And while most everyone in the spirits industry buys their alcohol already made from a company like Archer Daniels Midland and distills it from there, Graham and Barnes start from scratch. Their concept is to make it solely from Texas ingredients, even to the point of helping keep a few sugarcane growers in the Valley stay in business by buying their real Texas molasses, the basis of Treaty Oak Platinum Rum. After filtering the sulfur and other nasties out of the molasses, they ferment the pure sugar, drop it into a column still, cook it slowly, then mix it with Hill Country spring water and filter it twice through activated carbon. Treaty Oak started distribution this past summer, and you might have to do a little looking for it, but if you like your rums dry, it's worth a search.

There is also a distillery outside Corpus Christi making a similar style of rum and another close to Stonewall just gearing up.

So, with that background, let's go to the competition.

The Tasting: Us Against the World

The first thing I wanted to do was make sure I set the bar high for these Texas products. I am as much a Texas chauvinist as anyone, but when it comes to plopping down hard-earned currency, I want the best I can get for the price. If that is a Texas product, hooray. If not, so sorry. Try harder, please.

So for vodkas, I put our three – Tito's ($18), Savvy ($26), and Dripping Springs ($18) – up against some of the best: Skyy 90 ($38), X Rated ($38), Grey Goose ($35), plus a small brand from Colorado called Altius ($25).

Among rums, we pitted Treaty Oak ($30) against Charbay Tropical Islands Cane Rum ($38) and a wonderful, lower-priced rum, Flor de Caña 4 Year Old Extra Dry Rum ($20).

Paula had two entries. We put Paula's Texas Lemon ($25) against Caravella Limoncello ($22) and Paula's Texas Orange ($25) against Patron Citrónage ($30).

Our panel convened in a gorgeous room at the top of the Four Seasons Hotel (whose staff we thank profusely). While the judges spent a little quality time in the downstairs bar, my sweet wife and a half-dozen workers from the hotel poured everything into glasses that were numbered and placed by category as either vodka, rum, lemon, or orange.

We put together one of the most astute tasting panels you could imagine. Every panel needs a consumer. We chose Claudia Aechter­nacht – whose spirit of choice is vodka – as our consumer. Devon Broglie is the regional wine and beer buyer for Whole Foods and the 2006 winner of the Texas Best Sommelier award. Chuck Huffaker is the founder of Grape Vine Market and a general manager for Majestic Fine Wines & Spirits. Mindy Kucan is this year's winner of the best mixologist for all the Hilton hotels worldwide. Rebecca Robinson is the executive director of the Wine & Food Foundation of Texas. Mark Sayre is the sommelier at the Four Seasons and 2007 winner of the Texas Best Sommelier award. James Tidwell is the co-founder of the Texas Sommelier Conference and the sommelier for the Four Seasons Resort and Club at Dallas at Las Colinas. I had a vote, too.

The tasting itself was double-blind. None of us had a clue what we were drinking. The bottles were numbered in brown paper bags and out of sight. We tasted all the spirits at room temperature – not something I would normally recommend but a method that worked for us because it accentuates the aromatics; warm alcohol is more volatile than cold alcohol.

Sayre taught us all a trick that will help if you are ever asked to taste a few spirits and pick the best. Put the tip of your tongue on the outside of the glass. Avoiding spillage is a little tricky at first, but the benefit is that your tongue tip is what registers alcohol's burn. By leaving it out of the flow of the alcohol, you get a better chance to taste the spirit's true flavors.

It's one thing to know that vodka is made of neutral grain spirits and water. It's quite another to taste seven vodkas that all taste completely different. Open records here: I should say six, because when we started, there was no Grey Goose. I didn't think of it, and, at the end, after the final tabulation when everyone knew what they were drinking, one of the judges asked me why we hadn't included it. Sayre was kind enough to send downstairs for a bottle, so we did taste it in the competition, but it was not double blind.

The Results

We tallied the votes and started opening them from last to first. X Rated got sixth place. Dripping Springs was next, at fifth. As one of the judges commented, the medicinal notes were just too pronounced. On the positive side, I can tell you there was a wide discrepancy of scores on the Dripping Springs, with both Broglie and Tidwell picking it as their second favorite. Fourth place went to Altius (in a tie with the Grey Goose – again, not double blind). Skyy 90 was in third place, and the judges were just about unanimous that that was where it belonged. And the top two places went to Texas brands. Second place went to Savvy. Only Tidwell picked it as No. 1, but everyone else ranked it very high.

If you're keeping score, you've probably figured out that the winner was Tito's. And Tito's didn't just win by a hair; it trumped the competition, with Kucan, Robinson, Huffaker, and Broglie all picking it as the top vodka, and most everyone else ranked it very highly.

Texas Gets Spirited Away
Photo by Wes Marshall

Next up was the rum. If you've had the chance to try Charbay Tropical Islands Cane Rum, you know it is the gold standard. I have never found a better silver rum at any price. So the Treaty Oak Platinum Rum had some serious competition. Third place went to the Flor de Caña, a rum I've always enjoyed, especially at the price. Treaty Oak beat it out, though, with both Sayre and Aechter­nacht picking it as their favorite. Charbay took first with five first-place votes.

Finally, we moved to the sweet drinks, where Paula's took top honors. Paula's Texas Lemon was judged better than Caravella Limoncello, one of the better widely available limoncellos available in Texas. As Aechter­nacht put it, "The Cara­vel­la tastes like lemon pie, and the Paula's tastes like a lemon tart." And Paula's Texas Orange beat Patron Citrónage with what the judges referred to as having a truer fruit flavor.

After All That Hard Work, the Creativity Comes Bounding Through

Despite having spent a couple of hours ingesting hard liquors, none of the judges wanted to leave, and we started talking about the results and what it meant for Texas spirits. As everyone dropped their "judge" uniform and started drinking, Kucan, who is just as incredibly creative as you would imagine the best mixologist in all of the Hilton hotels worldwide would be, started tossing out ideas she had used for Texas drinks so fast that none of us could keep up with her. I asked if she would write a couple down so that we could all enjoy them. She did not only that, but she created a brand-new dessert cocktail – without Texas ingredients – just for our readers.

Hot Summer Night

Grand-prize winner of the 2007 Mixology Contest for Hilton Hotels Corp.

Three sprigs thyme

Drizzle honey

¼ ounce lemon juice

1¼ ounces Tito's Handmade Vodka

½ ounce Paula's Texas Lemon liqueur

2 ounces Sprite

In a rocks glass, muddle two de-stemmed sprigs of thyme, honey, and lemon juice. Add the ice, vodka, liqueur, and Sprite. Roll between a mixing tin and back into the rocks glass. Garnish with remaining thyme sprig. This is the perfect drink to enjoy on a hot summer night.

Front Porch Swing

Second-place winner of the 2007 Hotel F&B magazine mixology contest sponsored by Gran Gala

Two orange slices

Two de-stemmed strawberries

1 ounce Paula's Texas Orange liqueur (substituted for Gran Gala)

1 ounce Southern Comfort

2 ounces club soda

Splash of pineapple juice

In a rocks glass, muddle one strawberry and one orange slice. Add ice, Paula's Texas Orange, and Southern Comfort. Top with soda and the splash of pineapple; then roll into a mixing tin and back into the rocks glass. Garnish with remaining orange slice and strawberry. I enjoy this cocktail on my front porch swing.

Texas Ruby Red

1/16 of a Ruby Red grapefruit

½ teaspoon raw sugar

2 ounces Savvy Handcrafted Vodka

1 ounce of Good Flow grapefruit juice

Muddle the grapefruit and sugar together; add the ingredients to ice; chill and strain. Rim the glass with sugar.

Tiramisu Martini

Special for Chronicle readers

½ ounce Van Gogh Espresso Vodka

½ ounce Absolut Vanilla Vodka

½ ounce Disaronno amaretto

½ ounce half-and-half

Pinch of cinnamon

One small piece almond biscotti

In a mixing glass with ice, combine the liquors and cream. Chill and strain into a chilled martini glass sprinkled with cinnamon. Garnish with almond biscotti. When the biscotti soak up this liquid delight, they mock ladyfingers in a tiramisu.

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Texas liquors, Tito's Handmade Vodka, Tito Beveridge, Savvy Distillers, Treaty Oak Rum, Paula Angerstein, Paula's Texas Orange, Texas Limoncello

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