The Spirits of Treaty Oak
A Q&A with the owner of the Austin-based distillery, who talks about his passion for Texas spirits.
One of Texas’s older distilleries, Treaty Oak Distilling has spent the past few years proving itself as a mover and shaker among the growing collection of distilleries in the state. Its first release was the Treaty Oak rum in 2007, a white rum made from Texas molasses. Since then, it has produced a sweet tea-infused vodka (Graham’s Sweet Tea Vodka); one of the state’s first gins (Waterloo Gin), which is made with an assortment of Texas botanicals including lavender, pecans, and juniper; and a smooth vodka (Starlite Vodka). Just recently, the distillery released its first selection of aged spirits: Red Handed Bourbon, Treaty Oak Barrel Reserve Rum, and Waterloo Antique Barrel Reserve Gin.
We recently sat down with Treaty Oak owner Daniel Barnes and head of distribution, Joshua Holland, two of the core team members which also includes Nate Powell, Chris Lamb, and Rob Cantu. Together, they discussed the Treaty Oak portfolio of spirits, expanding their operation and the future of the Texas spirit industry.
Jessica Dupuy: How did Treaty Oak get started and how have you seen the Texas spirits industry grow since then?
Daniel Barnes: I started Treaty Oak about seven years ago in 2006 with my father-in-law, Bruce Graham. We hashed out the idea one night when we were sipping whiskey. He remarked that no one was making Texas whiskey at the time. Of course, there are a few people making it now. But that really got us talking about how we could do a wide range of spirits.
He comes from an engineering background and I came from the hospitality industry as a sommelier, so we had the mechanics we needed to build our own distillery. We started with Treaty Oak Rum, a silver rum that we could make in-house and release fairly quickly to get the ball rolling. From then on, it’s been a whirlwind of distilling.
Joshua Holland: Tito’s Vodka got started in 1996 with the first distilling permit in Texas since Prohibition. We didn’t get ours until 2006, but in those ten years, we were third to the game, with Paula’s Texas Spirits being second. Not much happened in those ten years. But today, there are more than fifty distilleries either in full operation or with a permit to develop a distillery. That’s a huge boom in the past seven years. From one to fifty in the span of twenty years is pretty impressive. And we only see that growing.
JD: There seems to be an undercurrent of dissent in the Texas spirits industry on what an authentic Texas spirit is. There are those who may be bringing in a neutral grain spirit into the state and then distilling or bottling it into a product of their own, and those who take the approach of gathering all necessary ingredients to be fermented and distilled in-house from scratch to create a “grain-to-bottle” spirit. Is this a relevant conversation for the future of the Texas spirits industry?
DB: I think it’s a conversation that’s gotten a little bit tired because it’s not a Texas issue, it’s a national issue. Take Pappy Van Winkle, for example, one of the most highly sought after whiskies in the country. But what a lot of people don’t realize is there is not such thing as Pappy Van Winkle distillery. And that bourbon is made in different years from different lots of bourbon that the distiller deems best for the blend at the time. It’s not “grain-to-bottle.” And it doesn’t matter. It’s just damn good.
I don’t think where fermentation occurs necessarily makes something a quality product. Especially when you’re talking about different types of spirits. Vodka is an entirely different thing than whiskey, for instance. At some point the conversation should be about getting passion and quality into a bottle for craft spirits. If you’re making a crappy product from scratch and charging too much for it, then you’re not helping anyone in this industry. You’ve got to have a product that backs up both your process and your price.
JD: How does Treaty Oak approach their production?
DB: We do a little bit of both. Our commitment is simply to be transparent about it. Any spirit that has “Treaty Oak” in its name is an in-house product that we’ve both fermented and distilled from scratch. We wanted to do grain-to-bottle with Treaty Oak Rum. And we wanted it to be 100-percent Texas, so we use Texas molasses and do the fermentation and distillation in house and do all the aging in house for the new Barrel Reserve.
That was important for the rum, because as opposed to a vodka, you have a flavor profile that you can play with from the beginning to get something specific in the final product.
But with our Starlite Vodka, we talk openly about the fact that we bring in two different neutral spirits that we then blend and distill together because we liked the way that the wheat and the corn blended for the taste. It doesn’t make sense for us to do all the fermentation for that and then the distillation, because then we’d be sitting at $35 a bottle on the shelf. And that’s not our model. This way we can get something we feel is a high quality product that is a good value to the consumer.
It’s similar with Waterloo Gin. We bring in a neutral spirit that we distill through Texas botanicals like lavender and pecan. If we had tried to do that from scratch, we’d be looking again at a $50 bottle. But by bringing the spirit in, we’re still doing so much to it once we get it, that it’s still very much a “craft” spirit. Other distilleries are working with that same model in mind, and I think that’s just fine.
Our aged Red Handed Bourbon is a blend of different whiskies from somewhere else, but we’re also making a Treaty Oak whiskey that has been aging for a few years and we’re looking forward to releasing in 2014. Because that one is made from scratch, it will be named Treaty Oak to signify its grain-to-bottle designation.
At some point, it shouldn’t matter quite as much where a chemical reaction is occurring, it should be about what’s going on in the bottle and what flavors are coming across when you drink it.
JD: Did this year’s recent legislative session help Treaty Oak now that distilleries are permitted to sell their product on site?
DB: Well, it’s made things really fun for us because we look at it as a way to educate people on how to enjoy our spirits. We’ve brought on two guys with a strong cocktail background, Curtis Cheney and Matt Moody, to help design a cocktail program with our spirits that people can enjoy at the tasting room. That wasn’t really possible before. Once people are able to taste different ways to use what we have in different spirits, they can just buy a bottle off the shelf right there. It makes things much more simple.
JD: Recently, you announced an additional space from your original location in North Austin that will be in Dripping Springs, west of town. Was that in response to the new law?
DB: Not completely. We really did it because we are out of space at our North Austin location. We can barely keep up with demand where we are here. So, we bought 27 acres on the corner of Fitzhugh Road and Ranch Road 12 in Dripping Springs. This will allow us to do a lot of things beyond just expanding the production of our current line of spirits. We’ll be able to venture into liqueurs and seasonal spirit releases like pumpkin spice rum or peaches and whiskey. We also want to grow a lot of the things that we’re using for our products like lavender. We’re even learning how to keep bees so we could make a wildflower and honey-based liqueur down the road.
We’ll have a larger tasting room and cocktail bar. We’ll get to do educational seminars and classes on fermentation and distillation for others who are interested in getting into the trade. And we’ll have people like David Alan, the Tipsy Texan, come out to teach people about building cocktails.
It won’t be ready for a good eight months, but we’re looking forward to the opportunities it will bring us. Especially with the way Dripping Springs is growing with distilleries, breweries, wineries, and culinary shops. It’s going in the way of a really cool food and beverage trail.
JD: Most Texas distilleries have one signature type of spirits, Tito’s Vodka being an example. What made you want to offer a wide range of different spirits?
JH: Tito’s invented Texas vodka, which is great! But for me, I think I would just get bored. We’re passionate about all kinds of spirits and want to be mad scientists and creative about different things.
DB: Tito’s has built a monster national company that’s true to its roots and its craft. I think that making only one spirit is what people think you’re supposed to be doing, but that’s not really craft distilling. Craft distilling is more similar to being a craft brewery. You wouldn’t walk into a brewery and expect to see one beer on tap. You’d see a whole range of things, including seasonal beers. That’s how we look at what we do.
JD: Talk about your new release of aged spirits.
DB: The Red Handed Bourbon was a really cool project. We brought together three different whiskies including a six-year aged bourbon and a two-year aged bourbon along with a rye whiskey. We made a blend with this that was a little heavy on the rye to add a little extra spice and then re-barreled it to to age as one whiskey for nine months in new American oak with a medium char and some blending staves. It’s a really unique whiskey that’s only going to be around for a couple of years or until we sell out. It’s not something we can make again.
The Treaty Oak Barrel Reserve Rum is something we’ve been looking forward to ever since we started making rum. Rum as a general category is a challenge in the market, but this rum really proves why we started this whole distillery to begin with. The molasses really comes through and there’s a real depth of flavor that makes it great for just sipping on its own. It’s been aged for two years in new American oak barrels on a medium char.
The Waterloo Antique Barrel Reserve is a blend of two different ages of our gin, an eighteen-month and a one-year. We did it because we liked different components coming out at those two different points. It has herbal and floral tones on the nose, as you would expect from a gin, with lavender that really comes out. On the palate, you get cinnamon and nutmeg, which is really unusual for gin.
JD: What made you want to barrel-age gin? It seems to be a new trend on the national market, but there aren’t a whole lot of people doing it.
DB: It was a complete accident. We wanted to play around with the Waterloo gin to see what oak would do with the botanicals. After a few weeks in barrel, we were disappointed. It smelled like cheap men’s cologne.
But as it turns out, gin is just a little bit different in barrels than other spirits, which take on the characteristics of oak in a more linear fashion. With whiskey and rum, there’s a lot that goes on, but it’s pretty straight-forward as far as the flavors of butter and caramel and the softening of the spirit.
With gin, different botanicals start to go away but other unusual characteristics come out that are playing with the botanicals. Like in the Antique, there’s a lot of cinnamon and nutmeg that aren’t in the gin at all, but the barrel brings it out.