The Hill Country is awash with natural flavor. Native pecan trees, rustic lavender, juniper trees—the landscape is replete with botanical inspiration. For spirits entrepreneur Daniel Barnes, the CEO and founder of Treaty Oak Distilling, those Texan ingredients add up to gin. In 2012, Treaty Oak launched the Waterloo No. 9 Gin, the first Texas gin on the market. At the time, people thought the idea of Texas gin was a bit odd, Barnes recalls. But he had a clear vision for the future of spirits in the state. “From the beginning, we wanted to highlight our specific corner of the world,” he says. “Gin was important to us, because it allowed us to show a sense of place using what grows naturally here.”
Waterloo is no longer alone in the Texas gin market. Today, the category has expanded to include roughly seventy producers across the state, and bartenders are beginning to stock up on locally produced gin. The state’s offerings include everything from elegant sipping gins to spicy cocktail bases. Nearly a decade after Waterloo first launched, Texas has upped its gin game.
At its core, gin is simply a neutral spirit that has been flavored with a specific recipe of botanicals (herbs, roots, and citrus). By definition, juniper berries must be a part of that recipe—they give gin its defining flavor. To create the unique flavor of an individual brand of gin, producers elaborate on the base recipe with botanicals such as angelica root, coriander, orris root, and rose hips. Some Texas producers, like Treaty Oak, Houston’s Fox & Seeker, and WildJune, make a point to use Texas-grown ingredients like citrus, lavender, rosemary, and red juniper in their recipes.
There are a few ways to make gin. Producers like Blanco-based Real Spirits create the base spirit in-house by fermenting a grain mixture called a “mash,” which is then distilled. Others simply cut out this first step by purchasing a base spirit from another producer, as is the case for Waterloo or Old Highborn gins. Botanicals may be steeped with the base spirit for a period of time to impart natural flavor; they can also be more subtly infused with the vapors from the botanicals, almost like steeping tea, which allows botanical essential oils to incorporate into the finished spirit. Some distillers, such as San Antonio–based Seersucker Southern Style Gin, opt to steep one gin, infuse another, and blend the resulting spirits together, which creates a compound gin.
In the thread of world history, Texas is late to the gin game. An early version of the spirt was used as a medieval medicinal tonic by the Dutch in the thirteenth century. It eventually grew in popularity among the British, and by the early eighteenth century, it had taken over as the “widespread social drug of the time” among the lower economic classes, according to Tristan Stephenson, author of The Curious Bartender’s Gin Palace. By the late nineteenth century and right up through Prohibition, it rose in esteem as one of the most popular base spirits for cocktails at some of the world’s glitziest hotel bars, thanks to its role in classic recipes like the gimlet, the French 75, and the martini.
Today, gin holds strong as one of the go-to base spirits for a whole slew of classic and modern cocktails. According to market data from Statista, gin sales in the United States are estimated at $2.46 million so far in 2021 and are projected to see 7.7 percent growth each year through 2025. As the Texas beverage industry continues to innovate, it’s a safe bet that we’ll see continued growth in the gin business statewide.
Among craft bartenders, gin is often heralded as one of the most versatile spirits. “Gin is a category I love because it provides a great landscape for experimentation,” says Jessica Sanders, owner of the Austin bar Drink.Well. “Depending on the season, you can play with the different botanical blends of the different brands out there. The gins I like to use in the summer may play better with lemon and lime, while the ones I like to use in the winter are better for building cocktails that would have grapefruit as a citrus component.”
And while some gins serve as a flavorful springboard, other gins are designed to stand on their own. “Some gin brands are so complex in their flavor profile, you can pull off simple cocktails without much thought,” says Robert Björn Taylor, an Austin-based beverage consultant. “Your classic Tanqueray London Dry is delicious enough to enjoy in a clean martini, while the spiciness of Bombay Sapphire can be enjoyed with tonic water.”
Since opening Drink.Well in 2012, Sanders has watched the steady progression of new Texas gins hit the market, most of them offered at a premium price that makes it difficult to achieve high-volume sales from a bar well. “You really had to weigh the pros and cons on selling a guest an expensive cocktail with a Texas brand they’d never heard of,” says Sanders.
Then enterprising producer Mike Groener created a Texas gin, Old Highborn, to make bar managers’ calculations a bit simpler. Groener, the owner of Austin-based Genius Liquids, had already been producing a few gin selections. But in 2015, he introduced Old Highborn, a London dry gin with bright citrus notes, to fill the void of Texas-made gin at an affordable price. “We really wanted to figure out a way to get an elegant gin to bars that was versatile enough to work in a variety of cocktails, but also reasonable in price,” says Groener. “We determined what that price would be and figured out how to back into it.”
These days it’s not uncommon to see Old Highborn as the standard well gin at a Texas bar, and a wider variety of other Texas gins such as Waterloo, Genius, and Real Spirits are top-shelf selections at bars all over the state.
Bar managers like Alex Negranza of Houston’s March are regularly on the lookout to showcase other Texas gins that really wow them. On a recent research mission to taste a sampling of local gins, Negranza was stuck by the prowess of Still Austin’s American Gin, a particularly spicy gin made with a high percentage of rye in the base spirit.
“This gin was a real standout for me. I was impressed with the ever-present taste and aroma of juniper, which can often be lost with more modern American gins,” says Negranza. “This gin is delicate enough for a gin and soda with a simple twist of a Texas-grown grapefruit, but packs enough of a punch for it to be in a martini. This is a delicious gin that just so happens to be made in Texas.”
Luckily for Texans, that compliment can be applied to a host of local gins. Here are a handful of standouts to seek out:
This small-batch, handcrafted gin is made from a corn base, giving it a sweet, silky mouthfeel. The botanical blend of juniper, rosemary, lavender, and lemongrass shines through, with an herbaceous mid-palate followed by grapefruit and peppercorn. It’s a refreshing sipping gin on its own, but also perfect for a dry martini with a twist of lemon.
This elegant gin is as pretty on the palate as its riveted-glass bottle is on the bar. Made from 100 percent winter wheat, this gin offers a soft, sweet palate with notes of grapefruit peel, chamomile, and aniseed. It’s an excellent base for building citrusy gin and tonics.
This is the second gin from one of the first vodka producers in the state, Dripping Springs Distilling. The company launched its first gin, Artisan Gin, in 2014, and followed it up in 2016 with this brawnier—read: higher alcohol content—sibling. It’s made in a classic London dry style, and juniper flavor takes the lead, followed by orange peel, cumin, and hibiscus. The spicy finish will add a nice punch to the average G&T—add a squeeze of lemon, rather than lime.
A recent addition to the Texas gin scene, this Houston-based brand boasts a solid grain-to-glass process, crafting a base vodka from Texas-grown corn and winter wheat that is redolent with vanilla and orange peel. This serves as the base for the flagship London dry, which is rich with sprucy juniper, lemon zest, and angelica root.
Ask your local bartender about Old Highborn. This crisp and earthy gin was designed to be workhorse for bar wells across the state, offering an affordable Texas-made option for artful cocktails. Offering subtle hints of tea, cinnamon, herbs, and orange peel, this gin is flavorful, yet has broad appeal for building a wide range of libations.
From the same producers of Real Ale beers, Real Spirits extends the all-natural concept into distillation. In a unique twist, Real Spirits first uses its recipe for the Real Ale White Belgian-Inspired Wheat Beer—only without the hops—to make the base spirit. This unusual gin offers a broader mouthfeel, with notes of orris root, grapefruit, lemon, and lavender followed by the sweet menthol flavors of bottlebrush. This brawny spirit is a perfect match for the smooth, bitter orange flavors of a Negroni.
From San Antonio–based Seersucker Distillery, this London dry style is one of four Southern-inspired offerings. Using a corn-based spirit, this gin offers notes of mint and honey, which carry through the palate along with lemon peel and pepper.
This urban distillery is primarily a whiskey producer, but while waiting for its artisan bourbons to age, the owners set about making a gin that whiskey lovers could get behind. Made from a house-made rye spirit, the gin offers a particular rustic spice along with notes of allspice, cinnamon, elderflower, and lemon pith.
Today, Texas gin pioneer Treaty Oak offers three distinct gins, each showcasing Texas-based botanicals: the flagship No. 9, with lavender, pecan, and grapefruit; Old Yaupon Gin, a sweeter, Old Tom style with Texas yaupon holly and wildflower honey; and the spicy, barrel-aged Antique Gin, aged like bourbon, with notes of cinnamon, vanilla and lavender cream.
This article originally published on June 23, 2021. An abbreviated version of it appeared in the August 2021 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Gin Yummy.” Subscribe today.