Back in 1997, when Burt Butler "Tito" Beveridge II brought his eponymous vodka to the market, he was stuck with 18 maxed-out credit cards, a pickup truck full of debt, and a piece of property that he kindly described as "the cheapest dirt in Travis County." He worked his tail off, crafting a great beverage and using cheap guerilla tactics to market it. Tito's Vodka possessed a powerful strength that helped launch it as a juggernaut: It tastes great. In double-blind taste tests all over the U.S. (including at The Austin Chronicle; see "Texas Gets Spirited Away," Dec. 28, 2007), Tito's wins or places in the top three. It is also quite inexpensive for the quality. By about 2004, Tito was making it look easy. Of course, it wasn't. Owning a business is never easy.
These days, Texas is home to distillers of good-quality vodkas, corn whiskey, malt whiskey, bourbon, rum, and various fruit liqueurs. For those of us who prefer to buy our foods from local growers and wines from local wineries, these new distilleries offer the opportunity to have some knowledge about what's going into our adult beverages.
For instance, Matt and Kelly Railean of Railean Rum sought out a specific unsulfured molasses. The sulfur probably would have disappeared in the distillation process, but they're being very particular about finding the best rum aromas possible. Chip Tate makes his Balcones Baby Blue whiskey with organic blue corn from the Hopi tribe in New Mexico. Bruce Graham and Daniel Barnes make Treaty Oak Platinum Rum from scratch, solely from Texas sugarcane.
Besides the distillers, Texas is home to another group of businesses – places that earn the title "Tex-Mex." These companies (four currently) are designing tequilas from the ground up and marketing them from Texas. Flavors, distilling methods, packaging, marketing, pricing, and all other important issues are decided here in Texas, but since anything called "tequila" must be made in a delimited area of Mexico, they are not strictly Texas companies. Hence, the Tex-Mex. They too are using the types of ingredients and care in manufacturing that foodies appreciate. Republic's tequilas are organic – something you usually won't find in the big brands. Z Tequila uses agave with a few years of extra age, and the hearts are cooked a few hours longer to help highlight the plant's delicate aromas.
Of course, one of the problems locavores can face is that eating local is rarely cheap, and most of these Texas liquor manufacturers are aiming at the premium end of the market. Small companies have to find a way to make enough money to stay in business, and most are choosing to try to sell fewer bottles of more expensive liquor rather than more bottles of a less expensive product. And while no one has yet topped Tito's profits, there are several Texas companies that are making a run at it (see "The Business of Booze," below).
While most of us would prefer to keep our hard-earned dollars in local folks' wallets, the Texas liquors have to taste as good as or better than the competition to maintain a place in the bars and on retailers' shelves. The good news is that all of the new Texas brands can stand up to the competition.
Federal law requires that any liquor with the word "vodka" on the label be made from almost pure alcohol with nothing but water added. So, in theory, they should all taste alike. Of course, they don't, and that comes mostly from the water used and partially from the distilling method. A lot of money in the world of vodka goes to the fancy bottles and fancier advertising campaigns. Tito's Vodka is so ubiquitous that it's easy to take it for granted. But remember, it has won a lot of contests, and the combination of a decent price point ($18, all prices for 750 milliliters) and delicious liquor make Tito's a hands-down winner. Savvy Handcrafted Vodka has been an instant hit, even at its higher price point ($26). Chad Auler, the owner, has a secret weapon. His family owns a long stretch of Fall Creek, which is where their water comes from. Dripping Springs Texas Vodka ($20) uses artesian spring water and a proprietary still to deliver a pungent vodka great for mixing.
Balcones Baby Blue ($38) is currently Texas' only whiskey (the company uses the traditional Scottish spelling of the word: "whisky"), though that is about to change. Balcones will also be making a malted whiskey, and Garrison Brothers Distillery in Hye is preparing to unveil an ultrapremium bourbon whiskey. The Balcones Baby Blue whiskey has a distinct aroma of blue corn, something the distiller, Tate, worked hard to preserve. It's often difficult to smell what a whiskey is made from, but Baby Blue is clearly corn.
Three Texas distillers are making rum: Balcones Distillery (Rumble, $38), Railean Rum (three levels, $17-$29), and Graham Barnes Distilling (Treaty Oak Platinum, $24). Other than the word nip, the five liquors bear little resemblance to one another. The Balcones Rumble is a dark rum, redolent of bananas and vanilla. Railean's rums are gloriously fruity and aromatic. My favorite, the white ($17), also happens to be the cheapest. Treaty Oak is a very dry, elegant rum aimed at being the friendliest of mixers, like a vodka but with a bit more oomph from the aromas.
Paula Angerstein (r) has this market all to herself; her Texas Orange and Texas Lemon liqueurs (both $24) are sui generis products. Though inspired by rustic Italian liqueurs, Paula's drinks have bigger fruit and more generous alcohol, perfect for blending in an artful mixed drink.
The tequilamakers are all aiming at the well-heeled drinker. For the Texas aficionados, Republic Tequila offers each of its three tequilas (plata, reposado, añejo) in bottles shaped just like the state. These are organically grown and made and run from $40 to $50. All three have nice flavors and tropical fruit aromas, with the reposado winning out for its blend of aromatic complexity and agave nectar nose.
Dulce Vida tequilas ($45-55) aren't as sweet as the name would imply. They're powerful, though. Each is a full 100 proof, compared to the normal 80. These tequilas are made from highland agaves grown closer to the ocean. Drinking them straight at room temperature is a powerful experience, though I found a few drops of distilled water helped the aromas bloom and the tequila to go down a bit more smoothly. The aged tequilas are rested in old bourbon barrels, yielding a smooth, vanilla-tinged taste.
Z Tequila is the brainchild of Pepe Zevada, a bon vivant well known in the Austin party world. Like the others, Zevada's tequila is 100% blue agave distillate. Pepe tends to harvest his plants when they are a bit older, hoping for additional aromas. He also uses cultivated yeasts directly from the agave. While all three of his tequilas have gorgeous agave aromas, it is his smooth and tasty Blanco that charmed me most. The Z tequilas run from $29 to $34.
The last Tex-Mex tequila isn't yet available in Austin (look for it starting April 1). Ambhar tequilas will sell for $45 to $55. Its añejo is so rich-looking, you could be excused for thinking it's a bourbon. The resposado is the color of most of the others' añejos. Both are rested for the maximum time allowed by the Mexican government, in used Jack Daniels barrels.
By this time next year, we'll probably have another 10 distillers operating in Texas, and who knows what they'll be making. But you can already stock a whole bar with just Texas spirits. Oops! We'd still need gin, but two Texas distillers are talking about making gin sooner rather than later. In the meantime, enjoy these tasty liquors. For the New Year, drink local.
Anyone interested in getting into the booze business is well advised to talk to some of these other folks about the barriers they've faced. Just getting shelf space is a challenge with all the other products available. Store buyers can demand incredible discounts and other inducements; one producer talked about how difficult it is to create bonus programs for the retail folks who sell the products in the stores. The huge companies pay for trips or offer all sorts of incentives for selling their products. Little companies can seldom offer much more than heartfelt thanks.
Still, the money can be intoxicating. The Austin Entrepreneur Network Blog interviewed Paul Groepler of Santo Spirits, the Austin company that is making Ambhar tequilas. He is excited about the profit potential of his business and has some good ideas about marketing. Groepler's tequila is aimed at the more mature and well-off clubgoer in the 28- to 45-year-old bracket. It's for sippers, not shooters, and rather than using print or broadcast advertising, the company uses brand ambassadors hanging out at the town's hippest clubs and bars.
The tequila is distilled and bottled in Mexico at a cost of about $6 a bottle. Add in the marketing and sales costs, and it's up to $10. Santo Spirits wholesales it to the distributors at $32, yielding a $22 profit. That tequila will then hit the shelves at around $45. Even with profit margins of more than 300%, Santo Spirits will have to sell a lot of tequila to pay the staff and keep the investors happy. Imagine then the dilemma of the Raileans, whose superb small-batch rum sells for $17!
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