Last spring I heard from San Antonio cocktail guru Jeret Pena of The Brooklynite that a new Texas-made spirit would be hitting the shelves: Genius Gin. I’m an avid gin fan, but I’ll admit that it was the oh-so-humble name that caught my attention.
Genius Gin, which was officially released this summer, is the latest Texas-made gin to join a small-but-growing list including Roxor, Waterloo, and Moody June. (Austin-based Revolution Gin will likely see a release later in 2013.) It comes from a trio of spirit-savvy fellows that includes Genius’s owner and CEO, Mike Groener, as well as Charles Cheung and Chris Ruiz who craft distill their product in a modest industrial strip center in South Austin. Conceptually, the gin began its journey to fruition in May 2012, but it wasn’t until just a few weeks ago that Genius hit restaurant and retail shelves—with a lot of fine tuning in between.
Groener has a product development background in the tech industry, but when you talk to him about his gin, making spirits seems to have been his true calling.
“I’ve been in the tech industry for a really long time, but I’ve always had this creative side. I’ve explored, music, art and culinary outlets to create things from scratch. We made Genius so that we could contribute something to the world of spirits in a new way,” Groener said. “I hope we’ve achieved a spirit that people will regard as a high quality gin, not because it’s from Texas, but because it’s just really good.”
For many people, gin is a polarizing liquor. You either love it or you hate it—or at least, you think you hate it based on some ill-fated college experience (don’t drink the stuff in the plastic bottles!). And in the minds of many, vodka is interchangeable with gin—vodka tonic, gin and tonic, what’s the difference? A lot, it would seem.
“Vodka is fine, but it doesn’t represent anything,” Groener said. “It doesn’t take a chance. It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve distilled it, a neutral spirit is still a neutral spirit. But gin can be beautiful. We just have to get people talking about it.”
Gin is commonly referred to as a flavored vodka, but with a lot of depth and texture and a predominant flavor of juniper. Beyond that, there are an infinite number of botanical combinations distillers can use, and you’ll find any number of variations used in gins from Scotland, England, the Netherlands, America, and even Uganda.
Hendrick’s gin is known for its twelve-botanical blend with strong characteristics of rose petal and cucumber. Tanqueray is known for its four-botanical blend of juniper, coriander, angelica root, and licorice. In Genius, you’ll find notes of lime leaf, elderflower, lavender, angelica root, juniper, cardamom, coriander, and a certain east-meets-west characteristic. As for the full ingredients list, Groener prefers to keep it a secret.
“We had to play with a lot of different factors during the steeping process and with the different botanicals that work well here in Texas,” Groener said. “Cardamon is a texture that develops well, whereas coriander didn’t as much.”
Genius begins from scratch, which means that the base or neutral spirit is made in-house by Groener and his team rather than being purchased from a third-party distiller. Not all spirits are made this way in Texas. In fact, many producers buy their neutral spirit from a third party, distill it a few times through their own still with perhaps a few manipulations, before bottling it with a label that says it’s a Texas product. (To tell the difference, look at the back of the bottle for a disclaimer that says “distilled and bottled in Texas” to know it’s a true Texas product. If it says “produced in Texas,” you know it’s handled completely in-state.) A lot of producers do this because making neutral spirit from scratch isn’t an easy thing to do. It requires heat, patience, and a great understanding of the science. But while making a neutral spirit is an arduous process, it’s something Groener believes is crucial to his brand.
“Think about the best meals you’ve ever had. They’re always meticulously handmade and with quality ingredients,” says Groener. “At 24 Diner in Austin, you can taste in every bite of one of their hamburgers that everything has been touched. It hasn’t been shipped frozen to them, it’s fresh. It’s incredibly lively and has dynamic. If I said, ‘Well, I’m going to make a burger place, but I’m just going to assemble it and use frozen or shipped foods to make it, to me, that’s insulting to the customer. It’s the same thing with spirits. I know a lot of excuses and rationalizations to be made about this. It’s a pain in the ass to do, to be honest. But it’s what we’re going to do.”
According to Groener, it’s the neutral spirit that adds a unique warmth and character to the gin. But it took a lot of trial and error, different strains of yeast, and different process iterations to get it right.
“Sometimes you don’t know what you’ve done right until you’ve done wrong,” Groener said. “But at least we can honestly say that this gin is made in Texas.”
Genius’s neutral spirit is made from sugar, an ingredient commonly used for the production of rum. “We chose sugar because we can make it without having to make a mash like you would with whiskey. We’ll eventually do that with other products, but the sugar imparts this wonderful warmth and sweetness elevates all of the botanicals we use in the process,” Groener said.
On shelves, you can find two versions of the new gin, a regular strength at 45 percent alcohol-by-volume and a “Navy Strength,” which holds a historical meaning in the world of gin. Navy-strength gins must be 57 percent alcohol, or 114 proof, the same requirement that the Royal British Navy required for gins beginning in the early 1800s. The logic then was that gunpowder could still be fired if 114 proof gin was accidentally spilled on it. Anything with a lower alcohol content would render the ammunition useless.
“Ive been surprised by how many people who don’t even like gin, love the Navy Strength,” Groener said. “We really made it for people who love gin and want to take risks with it as a base spirit for cocktails. It gives a little burn and really pops in a cocktail. The regular strength is just as good, but renders a more subtle, approachable palate for less complex cocktails.”
While the Genius team intends to bring other spirits into the fold—including an American take on mescal using rye—gin is what they hope will put this Texas brand on the map.
“I just wanted to bring people into the dialogue about gin. If you’re for spirits and you’re for cocktails, let’s talk about it,” Groener said. “A lot of people have said, I don’t like gin, but I like Genius, and that’s a good enough conversation-starter for me.”
The first establishment to carry Genius was Austin’s craft cocktail bar Drink. Well., which also hosted a special cocktail preview for Genius introducing this bold and boozy play on the classic Corpse Reviver from bartender Aaron Kimmel using the Genius Navy Strength gin.
1.5 oz Genius Original
.75 oz Cocchi Americano Rosa
.75 oz Fresh Grapefruit Juice
.25 oz Fresh Lemon Juice
.75 oz Gran Classico
Absinthe Spray (Tenneyson preferred)
Pour the gin, cocchi, juices, and Gran Classico into a cocktail shaker with ice and shake. Spray glass with absinthe, or rinse if easier. Strain into glass. Garnish with grapefruit peel.