Texas liquor laws relaxed for the first time since Prohibition in 2013 when Texas legislators passed significant changes to the alcoholic beverage laws that allowed Texas distillers to sell their products directly to consumers in limited quantities. This opened the door for craft-style distilleries to take root and flourish. From El Paso’s recently launched coffee and cocktail bars to Houston’s nitro-muddled mint and hand-chiseled ice, Texans are making their mark with homegrown liquors and crafty cocktail combos. Handcrafted distillers are creating innovative signature drinks and making twists on old favorites for their own venues and event spaces across the state.
“We’ve seen a lot of young entrepreneurs who’ve gotten into [the industry] to create these great distilled spirits and they have the opportunity to build event centers and facilities similar to Napa [Valley in California],” says Richard Evans, a representative for the Texas Distilled Spirits Association.
Hill Country has the largest concentration of distilleries with as many as eight TDSA members offering tours and tastings, but craft distilleries have popped up in record numbers across the state since the laws changed in 2013. The association estimates only eight distiller licenses were issued in Texas between 1995 and 2008, but that number has skyrocketed to more than 80 issued as of 2015.
“[The new laws] definitely changed the landscape for Texas distillers,” says Nicole Portwood, the vice president of brand marketing for Tito’s Handmade Vodka. Portwood is involved in managing the company’s many large-scale events and the creation of signature drinks for events ranging from SXSW to Lollapalooza.
“Let’s say you have a showplace distillery that has rolling hills and you put in a lovely meeting place and a place for weddings—[under the new law] you can put in a restaurant and do events [where you couldn’t before],” she says.
Tito’s Handmade Vodka focuses on sponsorship events developed with production partners, Portwood says, but the craft distilling movement in Texas has led to industry changes across the board when it comes to craft cocktails.
“We heard from our fans; they really wanted to know more usage ideas,” Portwood says of the company’s website, which now has infusion and cocktail recipes. “It used to be you were relegated to Tito’s and 7Up in a can [at events], but people are paying a lot for these events and they’re looking for a higher level of experience now.”
BATCH AND GO
Portwood says Tito’s events team comes up with batch-ready cocktail recipes that can be customized and served to large groups with minimal effort. Her top tip when it comes to serving batch cocktails? Keep it simple.
“We started hearing from our partners, ‘How can we make this more customized?’ and we started using infused Tito’s to make cocktails,” Portwood says. “For example, make a blueberry infusion [by dropping fresh blueberries in vodka] and mix it with lemonade. You can do the same thing with mint. Infuse it in Tito’s and mix it with lemonade. It doesn’t have to be overly complicated.”
In Dallas, Texas native Chad Solomon partnered with Christy Pope from New York City’s beverage catering company Cuffs & Buttons to open the Midnight Rambler craft cocktail salon in the basement of The Joule Hotel.
“We were New York City’s first exclusively craft beverage caterer,” Solomon says. “There are a lot of logistical challenges [when serving craft drinks at events]—all of these elements that have to go into an off-site space—over the years we’ve figured out how to do that very well.”
Solomon says providing good craft cocktail service comes down to logistical problem solving. How will the integrity of the ingredients be maintained? How will drinks be served in an efficient way? Will there be enough ice to go around?
A craft beverage specialist manages those details and makes sure guests receive the best possible cocktail consistently throughout an event. Many times, that means preparing elements in a batch before the event to make service easier.
Simplicity isn’t just for the sake of the bartending staff. Portwood notes it also cuts down on expense. The more ingredients in a cocktail recipe, the more time-intensive it is to prepare. If highend liquors are used, the cost per drink will go up exponentially. Portwood says there are ways to use simple ingredients and innovative serving methods to create a standout cocktail on any budget.
“You can batch a carbonated cocktail and put it on tap—you just have to have someone who knows how to put things into a keg,” Portwood says. “We also do a Bloody Mary garnish bar that has become our signature thing and they get really crazy! It’s not just standard garnishes. We do pickled okra, sliders, shrimp, cheese cubes, Sriracha. You’re not complicating the cocktail for service. You’re just using a really good Bloody Mary mix and Tito’s and turning it over to the guests to customize.”
MIX IT UP
Customization is key when it comes to the craft movement. From unusual ingredients to unexpected preparation methods and garnishes, people have come to expect a certain level of interaction and entertainment with their craft cocktails.
Marco Guerrero is co-owner of Gustology, a craft cocktail studio in San Antonio’s Alamo Heights area. Guerrero’s father led the sales and marketing team that introduced the U.S. and Europe to Corona back when it was still a local cerveza in Mexico.
After working in bars and restaurants and running his own bar, Guerrero co-founded Gustology as a way to provide craft cocktail classes to the public, private events and corporate off-site events. “We’re not bartenders, we’re more like entertainers. We’re not trying to show off. We’re here to have a good time,” he says, adding that customer enjoyment is the priority.
Guests can either attend one of Gustology’s nearly daily craft cocktail classes or schedule a private party or teambuilding exercise.
Guerrero says the sip-and-paint franchise influenced the business concept, except in his case, guests are learning to make the drinks. “We’ll talk about the liquors, about history, but we keep it light and funny. We never take it seriously—we’re there to have fun,” Guerrero says.
Portwood says Tito’s has also seen a trend in consumers wanting more interactive fun with their cocktails.
“One thing we really try to do is listen to our fans and provide fun, interactive things for them to do—it’s not just about providing a drink, it’s about providing an experience,” Portwood says.
HEAVY ON THE HISTORY
The team at Austin’s Speakeasy has taken a 9,000-squarefoot historic indoor and outdoor venue space and turned it into a 1920s-style speakeasy, complete with a vintage bowling alley and plenty of live local bands.
“Our gaming mezzanine is a hidden gem in the middle of the venue,” says Karen Lasher, the director of sales and events for Speakeasy and its sister venue, TenOak Bourbon House and Lounge.
Both vintage venues are in historic buildings in Austin’s Warehouse District. Both host events with Prohibition themes and craft cocktails, although events don’t necessarily have to have a vintage theme in either space.
The Speakeasy has an outdoor patio space called Terrace 59 Rooftop with skyline views. Inside are two live music stages and the vintage game room. TenOak has Austin’s largest small-batch bourbon collection and childhoodinspired cocktails like the pop-rock-tini.
To create signature event cocktails for events, Lasher says the bar manager works with planners to come up with something that will fit the scope and theme of the event.
“We consider ourselves a full events venue at both locations. We accommodate from 10 to 1,000—anything from small bowling happy hours to full-blown corporate event handling,” Lasher says.
Scalability was forefront on Solomon and Pope’s minds when Midnight Rambler was designed. It was constructed in the basement of the 1920s neo-Gothic Joule Hotel in the Dallas central business district. The Joule was expanded and renovated to include more than 30,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor meeting space. Midnight Rambler was designed to complement the art-forward positioning of the newly refurbished hotel.
“The [Midnight Rambler] space was built to expand and contract. A series of curtains intentionally pull in to do a private event in the back. You want to keep the intimacy. If you’re looking for an intimate venue and delicious cocktails—we’re there,” Solomon says.
Solomon works with guests at The Joule to plan cocktails for intimate gatherings in the Midnight Rambler or to provide ideas for large-scale events in one of the hotel’s breakout rooms, open-air terraces or penthouse rooms.
“It depends—we do a lot of stuff off-site. Creating something unique—it’s all done on a case-by-case basis,” he says.
In the craft movement, whether with craft cocktails or distilleries, it’s all about bringing passion and a personal touch.
Brothers Robert and Jonathan Likarish started the Ironroot Republic Distillery in Denison and shipped their first batches of vodka and moonshine in 2015. The brothers are preparing to ship their first batch of bourbon made of local Texas ingredients, and also began shipping gin and brandy in 2015.
Their Carpenter’s Bluff Moonshine, made of a local heirloom red corn, won two top honors at the 2015 Craft American Distilling Institute. The brothers, one born in Texas and both living in Texas for more than 20 years, knew they had to come home to distill their spirits.
“About eight years ago we were in Spokane and wandered into Dry Fly Distilling and fell in love with the copper stills and the whole thing. Our dad said, ‘Maybe one of these days you guys will start a distillery.’ I decided [after graduating law school] I didn’t want to be a lawyer and rather than take the bar exam, I studied at distilleries all around the country, and I convinced my brother to get involved,” Robert says.
Since launching their distillery, the brothers have opened a bar and lounge on their distillery site that is used for public tastings and private events.
“We are a production facility, but we do allow it to be rented out, mainly on Fridays,” Robert says. “You have to buy your alcohol through us, but we allow food to be catered in. That’s the [Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission] rule.”
Providing alcohol for events creates some tricky situations for distillers. The laws in Texas may have relaxed somewhat, but there are still strict regulations about how much can be purchased per consumer at a distillerowned facility, and distillers can’t sell directly to venues. Texas has a three-tier sales system where distillers can only sell to licensed distributors, who can then only sell to licensed retailers, who can then sell to end users.
In October, the Ironroot Republic lounge had to stop serving the public temporarily until a local ordinance could be passed to allow them to serve alcohol again. The Texas constitution gives cities and counties the right to declare themselves wet, dry or partially wet.
For nonprofit events, the rules get a little trickier.
“In 2014 we donated more than a million dollars in product to nonprofit events,” Portwood says. When seeking out donations, she says it’s best to contact the distiller before booking a venue because the type of venue will determine whether or not a company can donate alcoholic beverages. A venue that has a TABC license or uses a catering license cannot allow donated product through the door. Portwood advises that it’s best to work with a nonlicensed venue if you want a spirits company to donate for an event.
Despite the confusion over when, where and how much distillers can provide directly, there is always the option of buying through a retailer and coordinating with a venue. For small distillers who are passionate about the craft of spirit making, it may be worth the extra effort.
“Texas is better than most [states] since the changes in 2013,” Robert says. “Over the long run it makes [running a craft distillery] more viable. We’ve had about 4,000 people visit and we’re [sold] in 38 states and four countries.”
The ability to support a distillery on tasting rooms and events is a relatively new concept for the industry.
“You can create a cottage business of your own on your property and not necessarily need broad distribution to make a living,” Portwood says. “You can invite people who are passionate [about craft spirits] to your property and create gorgeous places to have events. [Texas craft distillers] are a family of companies who really enjoy supporting each other.”
The Likarish brothers bring in guest bartenders from nearby cities to come up with innovative cocktail ideas—for example, the Ironrootbeer Float, made with Carpenter’s Bluff Moonshine, A&W Root Beer and Reddi-wip—to feature in their lounge and on their website.
“The TABC said over 80 distilleries have licenses [as of October 2015], but not all might be producing. Some haven’t built yet, some are in the early stages,” Evans says of the growing industry.
As the rules continue to change and more distilleries go to market, there are likely to be more craft-inspired venues and innovative cocktails across Texas to draw from.
The Three Tiers of Texas
The 2013 legislation change means distilleries can now sell a small amount of their alcohol on-site, directly to consumers. This opened the door for distilleries to become event venues (as long as it resides in a wet city or county). Typically, liquor in Texas can only be sold for events through a licensed retailer.
Tier 3: RETAILERS & CLUBS
Tier 2: DISTRIBUTORS
Tier 1: MANUFACTURER
The change led to a jump in licensed Texas distilleries— from eight in 1995 to more than 60 in 2015.
Texas Prohibition Timeline
The Texas Constitution gives each city, town and county the right to decide whether or not to ban the sale of alcoholic beverages. Places are considered “wet” or “dry” depending on how they restrict alcoholic beverages.
1908 » 152 completely dry counties, 66 partially dry counties and 25 wet counties.
1919 » National Prohibition outlawed all alcoholic beverages and shut down 13 Texas breweries. 1933 » Prohibition was repealed with the 21st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
1995 » 53 completely dry counties in Texas and fewer than eight licensed distilleries.
2013 » Texas law is changed to allow distillers to sell limited quantities directly to consumers at distilleries.
2015 » Seven completely dry counties, 51 completely wet counties and more than 60 licensed distilleries.
Texas has some strict, and some might say confusing, guidelines when it comes to liquor donations
for fundraisers and nonprofit events.
DOES THE VENUE HAVE A LIQUOR LICENSE?
YES » Sorry, donations cannot be accepted. But liquor can be purchased through a retail outlet.
NO » Good to go! Donations can be accepted for the event.