Hill Country Distillers: They're doing WHAT with cacti?
Hill Country Distillers' cactus-based spirits have a lot going for them, just don't call it Moonshine!
This directive, delivered to me as soon as I meet Cayce Kovacs, co-owner along with her husband John, is confusing because "Moonshine" is slapped across all of their labels. John will explain all when we sit down for a cocktail at the end of the day, on the lovely grounds at the distillery in Comfort, TX.
For now, I'm handed off to Sean, their part-time bartender and tour guide. You couldn't ask for a better brand representative than him. That's because Sean has been around since the beginning of Hill Country Distillers. He is the son of distiller James, and went to a "moonshine school" in Kentucky with Kaycee and John before the distillery opened. He has been known to lend his two cents when the spirits need a skillful nudge.
Since John will be leading a tour in a little bit, Sean sets me up for a tasting at the front bar.
The prickly pear spirit, for which they are best known, is fermented entirely from the pads of the cactus, which are first chopped by hand. It gets bottled at 102 proof. The nose is just like tequila: that smokey, earthy, planty essence. The palate is even more plantlike; like drinking a greenhouse or rainforest on a very humid day.
The barrel aged version spends between one and a half to two years in a combination of new oak and used Garrison Brothers bourbon barrels. I think the aging tames and salvages the wild cactus spirit. This one is also 102 proof and smells of wood, grain and everything I love about bourbon. The notes are of significant spice, and the overwhelming plantiness from the unaged version has mellowed into a more minerally bark-like flavor, from its time in the barrel.
Next is the spirit distilled from fermented Texas-grown jalapeños (also hand chopped), 80 proof, unaged. The nose is peppery and green, while the palate has some pepper, but is not as spicy as you may think. It finishes fairly smooth with just a hint of bite at the end. Even though John describes it as tequila-like, I can't see it displacing Don Julio at Mexican restaurants any time soon.
Sticking with the tequila analogy, there's a resposado version of the jalapeno spirit, aged in a combination of Garrison Brothers bourbon barrels and new oak for just over a year. It's at 122 proof, has a nose of pepper and caramel, and palate of burnt plants, which tastes better than it sounds.
Their gin starts off with the cactus mash. It is also 80 proof, distilled once, using a basket to vapor-infuse juniper, cinnamon, and orange and lemon zest. In keeping with the straight-outta-the-Texas-dirt theme of all their spirits, John stresses that the juniper is a local variety called cedar berries. I personally can't tell the difference - I am far from the juniper expert. The nose reminds me of wet earth and minerals. The palate is dominated by pine, of whatever variety.
I find the flavored cactus spirits the most enjoyable. (All are at 50 proof, except for the coffee flavor at 60 proof.) There's lemon, which is simply lemon zest and sugar steeped in the cactus distillate for thirty days. The nose is predictably lemony, as is the palate: a strong, sweet lemon taste. The ruby red grapefruit is similarly made from a thirty-day infused zest. It accordingly has a bitter citrus taste.
I like the coffee-infused spirit the most. Hill Country uses a local whole bean, roasted and soaked in the distillate for half a day. It has notes of tobacco and leather, with a lingering hint of chocolate. I know that description may sound like someone's grandpa, but it's delicious.
I'm able to join John's tour in progress, just in time for him to open up a couple gallon jugs of brandy that are hanging out in the upstairs loft of the distillery room. This is also where most of the barrels are housed, and it's mighty toasty for a mild April day.
The first brandy is distilled from raisin wine, donated by a local winery that said the batch was too spoiled to sell. It's aged in Garrison Brothers bourbon barrels for two years, then finished for a couple of months in new oak. This one is at 104 proof. The nose has that distinctive woody, deep fruity scent. The palate is more wood and spice, with a surprising chocolate-fruit finish.
Another version is 92 proof, aged for about the same time in similar barrels. It has a nose of plums and notes of cherry, with a less intense chocolate finish as the higher proof brandy.
John told a number of amusing stories on the tour. Highlights were how the 1910 farmhouse that is now the distillery was previously an off-the-books winery. When John was scouring the barn, he found three-hundred casks of leftover wine and started making brandy simply because the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission told him to "make it go away." Another story explains why Hill Country Distillers continue to chop the cactus pads by hand, when they have the machinery to macerate it (hint: CO2 buildup turns the fermentation tanks into ticking slime-time-bombs overnight, if the pieces are too small). But I want to fast-forward to that moonshine warning I teased with at the outset.
I've gotten myself a delicious-looking crawfish boil from the food truck parked on the property. It's pay by the pound, and you scoop up your own mess of whole-bodied crawdads, sausage chunks, potatoes, shrimp, and so on, out of a giant tub. I won't be making it to Louisiana on this leg of the trip, so this little concession will have to suffice.
I sit down at a picnic table and take in both the sight (and smell) of my telegenic meal, and the beautiful descent of evening.
John joins me, proffering a familiar sight: a frosty copper mug. We're definitely having a Moscow Mule moment in Craft Cocktails-ville. After a few more stories of how he and his wife got started in the distilling business (all comes back to his hillbilly moonshine teachers, hiding out in the Kentucky woods) I ask about Hill Country striking the term "Moonshine" from their labels.
It's all based on feedback from one of their retailers, a local liquor store chain. They say Moonshine as a category of distilled spirits is not only oversaturated, but waning from peak demand. I'm learning more about how different spirits are classified, and the requirements needed to label a spirit a certain way. "Moonshine" seems to be a good catchall for anything clear, since there are no legal requirements of the process or product in order to use the term. It's just "letters on the label, to the Feds" as one distiller told me. Historically, "moonshine" referred to spirits distilled from fermented sugar, water and fruit, was unaged, and -here's the biggest differentiator between today and back then- was not licensed or reported to tax-collecting authorities.
What's the alternative? John already has gotten approval on new labels that will simply describe the prickly pear cactus and jalapeno products as "distilled spirits." Straightforward? Yes. Does it have the bad boy mystique of "moonshine"? Hardly. But I think John may be onto something.
The new labels are on display in the tasting room. On them, the jalapenos and prickly pear cactus are prominent on each. By focusing on these unusual ingredient, Hill Country Distillers will be able to differentiate themselves from all other distilled spirits, no matter the category. Who knows? Maybe the pumpkin spice craze will give way to UGG-booted hordes demanding Prickly Pear Cactus Frappucinos at Starbucks. When they do, you will have Hill Country Distillers to thank. Or, you know, John and company could just keep coming up with spirits made from Texas' wildest and best flora, and call it a successful day.