For most of the past century, any spirit produced in Texas was moonshine, much of it low-quality hooch mixed for bootlegging. After Prohibition, it was legal to distill — once you obtained requisite permits — but few ever bothered to register their operation with the government. “The people in Texas come from a line of frontier marchers. They’re kind of like, ‘Who are you to tell me what to do?’ says Bert “Tito” Beveridge.
Beveridge, a square-faced fortysomething with a quick grin, is recounting his early moments in the liquor business: making habanero-infused vodka for friends, quitting his day job and finally licensing his distillery in the mid-1990s.
A fifth-generation Texan, Beveridge was no moonshiner; he wanted to start a business. In 1995, when he set about navigating the state and federal permitting process, there were just a handful of microdistilleries around the country (the first, California’s St. George Spirits, was founded in 1982). So Beveridge tangled with state and federal licensing authorities alone.
The state authorities were the most difficult hurdle: Texas has been producing beer since Germans brought their brewing traditions to the state in the 1840s, but until recently, legal liquor distilleries were was all but unheard of.
“When I found out there’d never been a legal distillery in Texas, I was surprised,” says Beveridge, leaning back in a swivel chair. We’re sitting in a small, sunlit office at his 25-acre distillery south of Austin, where, since 1997, the former oil geologist has been producing Tito’s Vodka — Texas’ first legally distilled spirit since before Prohibition, which ended in 1933.
“When [Tito] went to get permission [from the state], there was no procedure in place to get a license,” says David Alan, an Austin-based mixologist and writer. “He really cleared a path in the jungle.”
Bottles of Tito’s Handmade Texas Vodka (he has since dropped “Texas”) first hit stores in 1997; he sold nearly 1,000 cases that year. Today, however, he may no longer qualify as “micro.” With a bottling plant the size of two hockey rinks, over 300,000 cases distributed across the United States and Canada and some international awards to his name, Beveridge is poised to challenge some of the world’s bigger liquor producers.
This has left an opening for newcomers to make their mark in Texas. Today nearly 20 independent, small-scale distilleries are producing liquor in Texas. Their offerings run the gamut, from award-winning vodka to more unique tipples like limoncello and Texas bourbon.
Some of these micro-distilleries are simply seeking a piece of the $60 billion alcoholic beverage industry dominated by multinational conglomerates such as Brown-Forman and Diageo.
Others are following a road paved by the micro-brewing movement, carefully crafting small batches of complex spirits using high-quality local ingredients. “This is all part of a renaissance in our society where we’re making wine, bread, beer and cheeses,” says Bill Owens, president of the American Distilling Institute.