by Bill Norris • Photography by Jenna Northcutt
When Tito Beveridge negotiated Texas’ governmental red tape and was able to sell his first case of Tito’s Handmade Vodka in 1997, no one could have predicted the nationwide craft-distilling explosion that has led to local spirits popping up all over the country. In Central Texas, other producers followed in Tito’s footsteps with liqueurs, more vodkas, rums and whiskeys entering the fray. But gin took a little longer to capture our local distillers’ imaginations.
First out of the gate was Waterloo Texas-Style Gin in late 2011. Produced by Treaty Oak Distilling Co., makers of Treaty Oak Barrel Reserve Rum, Graham’s Texas Tea, Starlite Vodka and Red Handed Bourbon, Waterloo starts with a neutral spirit made from corn and wheat and is flavored with a mixture of traditional and nontraditional botanicals—including local juniper and lavender; zest from oranges, lemons and grapefruits; rosemary, anise and coriander; licorice and ginger roots; and pecans. Bottled at 94 proof, the nose shows a moderate juniper character, undercut by pervasive floral notes, with citrus flower and zest sitting atop an almost smoky earthiness. The licorice root makes its presence felt on entry and leads into a nicely balanced mix of juniper, citrus and spice. It’s all anchored by an alcohol-heat finish carried by baking-spice notes, and followed by a long finish that’s properly “oily” and somehow reminiscent of barbecue—perhaps from the pecans.
Waterloo also produces Waterloo Antique Barrel Reserve Gin, that’s aged in charred American whiskey barrels for one to two years before being blended and bottled. Also released at 94 proof, it looks like a young whiskey in the glass. The nose is chock-full of vanilla and baking spice upfront, with the gin botanicals lurking in the background. In the mouth, it’s the love child of whiskey and gin, with big clove flavors from the barrel showing first, and the spice botanicals of the base gin enhanced—especially the coriander and licorice. The floral notes mutate into something more akin to Meyer lemon blossom or honeysuckle before the juniper kicks in on the oily finish. This is a complex spirit with huge cocktail potential, even if it doesn’t show as a traditional gin.
Just after the launch of Waterloo, Bone Spirits in Smithville launched their Moody June Gin in 2012. Made with a true farm-to-glass ethos, Moody June—labeled as an “American dry gin”—starts with a base liquor fermented and distilled in Smithville from Texas corn. The gin is flavored with locally grown botanicals wherever possible—including hand-picked Texas juniper; orange, lemon and lime peels; coriander and cinnamon; and licorice and angelica roots. Bottled at 84 proof, the nose shows muted juniper and is dominated by floral citrus notes with the spices lurking in the background. In the glass, it pops with bright citrus, especially orange, upfront, with mid-palate notes of juniper before the earthy kick of the spices. The licorice and angelica show on the moderate, oily finish. Less juniper-forward than the other local gins and with a noticeable sweetness, this is an excellent starting point for the gin-phobic.
In 2013, Genius Gin launched two gin labels and there’s a third on the way. Genius starts with a neutral spirit distilled from sugar and is made, from fermentation to bottle, in South Austin. Its standard strength begins as an homage to classic London Dry gins that are built around the botanical mix of juniper, cardamom and coriander, but Genius is supplemented with lime peel, lime leaf and lavender to round out the flavors. This is extremely well-balanced on the nose and dominated equally by lime-driven citrus and juniper with an almost haunting floral hint lurking in the background. That balance extends to the mouth where the spice notes also make themselves known. But it’s the constant interplay between the lime and juniper that really stands out before the lingering, well-integrated floral-ghost finish.
Genius Navy Strength adds orange peel, ginger root and cubeb (a spice native to Java and Sumatra that tastes like a cross between allspice and black pepper) into the mix, and is bottled at a more robust 114 proof. The nose shows more spice than the standard bottling, with noticeably more alcohol heat, but it still maintains the incredible balance. The higher alcohol also carries greater intensity of flavor in the mouth, but still hits juniper and citrus, while being rounder, with nice bass notes of earth and spice leading the way into a long, coating finish.
In the spring of 2015, Genius will release an oaked gin, with French oak chips steeped in the Navy Strength formula for three to five months. A prerelease sample shows enhanced spice notes on the nose, with the ginger really singing and the orange peel coming to the fore. In the mouth, the cubeb asserts itself more strongly, along with some caramelized orange notes, before the juniper leads the way into a finish that’s more creamy than oily, and with a profile that’s much more recognizable as gin than the Waterloo Antique.
Revolution Spirits launched their Austin Reserve Gin in 2014. Bottled in the neighborhood of 100 proof (Batch 16 is 100.2 proof), Revolution starts with a base of neutral distilled Missouri corn and leans toward the “new gin” profile with a botanical mix of juniper, rosemary, lavender, lemongrass, grapefruit peel and pink peppercorn. Unabashedly nontraditional, the nose has very muted juniper, with moderate citrus and floral notes, and a hint of spice. In the mouth, the light body—surprising for a 100-proof gin—continues with citrus and floral notes anchored by bass notes of juniper and spice, which lead to a pleasant, though short, finish that lacks the coated, oily character associated with traditional gins.
2014 also saw the entry of Dripping Springs Gin into the market. Made from the same neutral, Midwestern, non-GMO corn spirit that serves as the base for Dripping Springs Vodka, it’s produced in 40-gallon batches, and designed to be juniper-forward like a London Dry-style gin, but with more pronounced floral notes, softer spice and bright citrus from the Rio Grande Valley. Bottled at 85 proof, the nose shows juniper upfront, with a hint of citrus and noticeable hints of lavender. The mouth shows a pronounced sweet-citrus character, with a juniper and spice backbone, and finally those lavender notes lead into a moderate finish that’s less oily than some other gins.
Because of the different variables in gin production—base spirit, botanical mix and bottle proof among them—it’s the most versatile of all the white spirits. You may only need one brand of vodka on the shelf, but different gins will show better in cocktails depending on the other ingredients in the glass. While you could, in theory, use any of these local gins in any gin-based cocktail, when mixing, it’s best to try to enhance the flavors promoted by the distiller.