“A whole segment of our society is getting more adventurous,” says David Alan. “The palate is expanding.”
Yet it is vodka — easy to drink and mix — that dominates the Texas liquor industry. The state is awash with it; including Tito’s, there are at least ten different Texas vodkas, two of which, in a nod to Southern tastes, are blended with sweet tea. This deluge has occurred in part because Texans, like all Americans, have a taste for vodka. Last year, 30 percent of total liquor sold in the United States was vodka, according to the U.S. Distilled Spirits Council.
It’s a profitable venture for distillers because the spirit can be made in a relatively short period of time without a lot of fuss. Unlike whiskey, most of which requires aging, vodka is taken from the still, cut with water and bottled the same day.
“Whiskey is hard to do on its own, because if you’re going to open a business and not make a dime for six years, that’s tough,” says Alan. “If you started a vodka company today, it could be on the [liquor store] shelf within a year.”
American vodka, as defined by U.S. law, must be a neutral spirit: colorless, odorless and mostly tasteless. Most of the grain characteristics are removed in the distilling process; by the time vodka hits the bottle, most of its flavor comes from the water used to cut the proof.
Thus, the grain quality — and source — matters much less than in other liquors; as a result, some Texas vodka producers distill from pre-distilled corn-based spirits bought out of the state.
This is a source of consternation for those like Balcones’ Chip Tate, who see themselves as artisans first, entrepreneurs second. “Distilling is like starting with the best-quality paints on your palette, the majority of which will not end up on your canvas,” he says.
In other words, you have to use a variety of top-notch ingredients and select only the ones that really lend a spirit the best notes. “If you’re not doing that, you’re not really painting.”
But he’s also a pragmatist. With Tito’s popularity across North America, Tate told me that he’s grateful for any spirit produced in Texas, clear or brown, that helps business.
“Craft vodka sells, so we owe them for that. People like Tito are the reason we can get a contract with a big-time distributor,” Tate says.