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A sotol cocktail with a dried desert spoon plant
A sotol cocktail with a dried desert spoon plant
Desert Door/Facebook

Austin Distillers Embrace the Farm-to-Table Movement in Liquid Form

Spirit producers are turning toward molasses, lavender, juniper and more ingredients grown in Texas

With an increasing majority of chefs professing dedication to local ingredients, it’s no longer unusual to know exactly which farmer grew those greens and raised that chicken you’re about to eat. But what about the cocktail in that glass? Beyond fresh-squeezed juice and herbs grown on-site, Austin bartenders now have a wide range of options when it comes to local spirits, as more local craft distillers are interpreting the farm-to-table movement in liquid form.

The concept isn’t exactly new to town. After falling in love with limoncello during a trip to Italy, Paula Angerstein became the first woman licensed to distill spirits in Texas. Paula’s Texas Spirits was born in 2005. She uses as much Texas-grown fruit as possible to flavor the liqueurs, which also include orange and grapefruit bottles, the latter of which is made with 100 percent ruby red grapefruits grown in the Rio Grande Valley.

After Paula’s opened, Treaty Oak Distilling became the fourth distillery to receive a Texas permit in 2006 — and the first to produce a “grain-to-bottle” spirit. It’s best seen and tasted with its flagship rum, made using Texas molasses sourced from the last operating sugar mill in the Rio Grande Valley, called Rio Grande Valley Sugar Growers Inc. It also sources heirloom grains from Barton Springs Mill and has been experimenting with different varieties of corn for special bourbon and single-malt releases.

A cocktail made with Treaty Oak’s gin
A cocktail made with Treaty Oak’s gin
Treaty Oak/Facebook

In 2011, Treaty Oak released the first gin crafted in Texas: the Waterloo No. 9, using juniper, coriander, anise, and ginger, among other ingredients, as well as indigenous central Texas ingredients such as lavender, grapefruit, and pecans. Last year, the distillery released an Old Tom-style gin made using Austin-foraged yaupon shrub and honey from Wimberley, Texas.

“Procuring local ingredients gives the product a sense of place and time and contributes to the story,” says Philip Dormont, Treaty’s director of product development. “Knowing we are contributing to the success of Texas agriculture — the jobs being retained and created, the relationships we’ve established — is exciting to say the least.

“And of course there is sustainability,” Dormont continues. “The closer the supplier, the smaller the environmental impact.”

Peeling oranges for Paula’s Texas Orange
Peeling oranges for Paula’s Texas Orange
Paula’s Texas Spirits/Facebook

Distillers, much like chefs, have to deal with changing climates affecting crops and produce availability, and must often go to great lengths to source high-quality seasonal fruit, especially in the face of unpredictable Texas weather, in order to produce consistent products.

Over half of the citrus used in Angerstein’s orange and lemon spirits is local, and the rest is sourced from the Southern hemisphere when Texas-grown fruit is not readily available.

Treaty Oak purchases high volumes of grapefruit from the valley when the fruit is in season from US Citrus, zests it all, and freezes it to ensure year-long quality in its gin. The makrut lime used in the yaupon gin is also quite hard to obtain; so far, Dormont has found only one source — US Citrus — and the distillery must plan its production schedule around its availability.

When Brian Meola, John Henry, and Forrest Allen launched Revolution Spirits in 2014, they set out with the determination to source as much locally as possible for their craft gin, amaro, and liqueurs.

“We found out quickly that you have to help build that infrastructure,” said Allen, who holds a multifaceted role as co-distiller, sales representative, tasting room guide, and stakeholder.

Revolution continues to have problems finding local farms that can commit to growing the amounts of lavender, rosemary and lemongrass needed to flavor its flagship Austin Reserve Gin. Texas grapefruit also plays a huge role in the same spirit, and to date, they have sourced from at least 10 different producers, depending on which has the right size and quality of fruit.

Filling a barrel at Still Austin
Filling a barrel at Still Austin
Still Austin/Facebook

Still Austin co-owner Andrew Braunberg and the rest of his team at Still Austin Whiskey Co. faced challenges when they launched its grain-to-glass whiskey last year. Along with similar problems faced by Revolution, Still initially had trouble even getting farmers to grow the exact type of grains they needed.

“The trouble with Texas wheat is that 95 percent of the wheat grown here now is a hard wheat [used for bread] and distillers like soft wheat,” said Braunberg. “We’ve got to get a more diverse set of varieties of soft winter wheat.”

Still has been working with local grain guru James Brown at Barton Springs Mill and craft malthouse TexMalt to encourage Texas farmers to produce high quality, non-GMO barley, wheat, rye, and corn for its new-make white whiskeys, rye gin, bourbons, and rye whiskeys.

“The trouble is that most of the grains in Texas are just commodity crops,” explained Braunberg. “There’s no reason for them to do anything different or more expensive because the price is pretty much set by whatever the world grain price is at the time you pull them off your field. There hasn’t been a strong local market for any Texas grains, really.”

That is, until now.

Of course, certain ingredients just aren’t feasible to grow in the relentless heat of Texas. Jessica Leigh Graves and her Violet Crown Spirits partners Matthew Mancuso and Chris McLaughlin discovered this while sourcing ingredients for its flagship product, the very first absinthe to be made in the state.

There are 13 herbs and spices involved in Violet’s emerald absinthe, some of which were hard to source, since fennel, anis, and angelica aren’t grown in the state because they require colder weather.

While artemisia species grow across the globe, Violet couldn’t find any American commercial outfits selling it in the country. To remedy that, Graves enlisted the help of some small local farmers she already knew. Josh DeCamp in Elgin now grows Artemisia pontica (aka Roman wormwood or petit wormwood), and Ellen Waller of Little Bluestem Farms in San Marcos grows Artemisia absinthium (aka grand wormwood). Graves even grew all the peppermint for its first batch in her own backyard. The jasmine for its second release, a fragrant liqueur, came from various Texas vines.

Violet Crown Spirits’ Midnight Marigold bitter cordial
Violet Crown Spirits’ Midnight Marigold bitter cordial
Violet Crown Spirits [Official]

Many Austin distillers have struck a balance by sourcing as much as they can locally before filling in the gaps with imports as needed, either due to flavor or logistics. Mike Groener attempted to use local cedar berries to craft Genius Gin, but found he needed to also work with Colorado-grown juniper berries to achieve the correct peppery notes.

When perfecting its Austin Reserve Gin, the Revolution Spirits team searched high and low for a local pepper to use in its proprietary blend, but found that nothing fit the spirit’s flavor profile quite like pink peppercorns from Asia. They also discovered that Texas doesn’t have enough non-ash juniper, so they continue to import theirs from Italy.

As a small production distillery, Revolution still utilizes plenty of local ingredients and products to craft its spirits and, in doing so, the team has forged collaborations with many other like-minded Austin artisans. There are Cuvee coffee beans in the Cafecito liqueur, Srsly chocolate in the Chocolate Cafecito, and steeped, green, unripe pecans from Yegua Creek Farms in its digestivo Noce Pecan.

It is also constantly working on limited-release collaborations with other local producers: apple brandies with Argus Cidery and Texas Keeper Cider, apple eau de vie with Fairweather Cider Company, liqueurs made with spent fruit from Jester King Brewery, and the list goes on.

Like many moonshiners before them, Desert Door’s Judson Kauffman, Brent Looby, and Ryan Campbell developed their spirit around what was already growing in abundance. Kauffman was introduced to the desert spoon plant native to southwestern Texas and northern Mexico as a teenager hunting in West Texas with his uncles long before Desert Door sotol was a twinkle in his eye.

It was the history and versatility of the desert spoon plant that inspired the distillery. “We fell in love with the romance of it,” said Kauffman, “and the accessibility was a bonus.”

A bottle of Desert Door’s sotol
A bottle of Desert Door’s sotol
Desert Door/Facebook

Desert Door uses the Dasylirion texanum plant, aka the desert spoon plant, which is smaller than the usual Dasylirion wheeleri plant used by Mexican sotoleros. Each wild plant is hand-selected and harvested throughout West Texas, then the sotol hearts (or piñas) are removed, steamed, and fermented before the mash is distilled. The resulting spirit maintains the earthy, grassy notes typical of Chihuahuan sotol, but finishes with a sippable smoothness. And this Texas-born spirit is made from just three ingredients: sotol, water, and organic yeast.

Perhaps we can expect to see more spirits made from locally foraged edibles. Treaty Oak has begun experimenting with a new project in which they will collaborate with chefs to create gins exclusively from foraged ingredients to showcase the central Texas terroir. However, foraging for botanicals comes with its own set of challenges.

“The window to harvest ingredients can be extremely narrow, finding places to source is sensitive, and the labor can be time-consuming,” says Treaty Oak’s Dormant, before adding, “But the result of overcoming these challenges can make for a truly special product in a category of its own.”

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