Treaty Oak Distilling: Come to Party
I'm a little apprehensive when I pull into the parking lot of Treaty Oak Distilling in Dripping Springs, TX. It's not the rows of cars. The lot is more of an open field than anything else, so there's plenty of room. No, what has me concerned is the set of booming party buses idling in one of the rows.
These buses, and the sloshy revelers spilling in and out of them, are a common sight on wine country weekends everywhere. It's typically a bachelorette or birthday party (though we took one to tour wineries at my brother's wedding), but the behavior always evolves the same way. Early on, everyone's excited just to be together and starts sipping on champagne or whatever has been stocked on board. At this point, the volume and antics remain minimal. Fast forward a few more stops, and the music onboard is blaring. If there's a pole provided, some of the more extroverted ladies will jump on it.. because, you know, Beyonce came on. Then there's always the few black sheep who have pulled out in front of the rest of the pack, in the race toward inebriation.
That's the point in the afternoon we're at right now for these folks, I estimate. Two of the rompered ladies are yelling, drinks in hand, at some of the gentlemen who have strayed off and are now getting on the wrong bus. Their yells devolve into a chant of one fella's name, "Ja-ames, Ja-ames," as the ladies chide on his stupidity. The music turns up louder and the parking lot is a mess of thirty-somethings, not in much of a hurry to get anywhere - except blacked out. As I walk up to the Treaty Oak welcome center, I turn back to see the last of their stragglers getting onto the bus.
Here we are in the tasting room at Treaty Oak. The combined distillery/brewery had the foresight to separate the tasting room/gift shop from the actual bar, "The Rickhouse," in a separate building. There's also a restaurant a short stumble down a hill.
It's crowded but I still manage to procure a tasting and a bit later, a tour, from the very accommodating bartender. Like the grounds itself, there's a lot of liquor to cover at Treaty Oak. I get the feeling the distillery-cum-events-space wants visitors to get comfy and stay a good while. The band has started up on the outside stage and I have nine samples in front of me. Time to dig in.
Starlite Vodka - It goes into the still as a 60/40 corn/wheat mix of neutral grain spirits, then distilled seven times. The nose is sweet with a bit of grain. The palate is also a nutty sweetness and hints of pepper. The Starlite names comes from an old theater in Brenham, TX, which is closer to Houston. I won't even try to guess why they chose a theater so far away, and the bartender isn't sure either. There's too many samples to get through for either of us to ponder for too long.
Texas Tea Vodka - This is Starlite Vodka that has been infused with Indian tea leaves (specifically from Saleen, for those keeping score) and simple syrup. It retains some of the pepperiness from Starlite in the nose. The palate is all sweetness, rounded out by that black tea edge. Note, the proof of this is a little bit lower than a typical vodka, at 70, which makes it all-the-more easier to drink.
Treaty Oak has a couple of gins. The Waterloo gin is made from the vodka, but bottled at 94 proof, and flavored from juniper, lavender, rosemary, pecans and citrus zest through vapor infusion during the second of three distillations. To me, juniper dominated on the nose and palate, though I was able to detect a hint of flowers in the taste as well.
There's an aged gin -Waterloo Antique- which rests for two years in new oak barrels of #4 char. The nose is grassy and floral, while the palate is spiced honey. I like it much better than the unaged gin, though I'm far from a gin convert yet. (Treaty Oak's website states this is a gin "made to drink like a whiskey." My response to that is: why not just drink whiskey? No one can answer and the barrel-aged gins just keep coming.)
Speaking of whiskey, the first one from Treaty Oak that I try is the Red-Handed Bourbon. They call it "red-handed" because this whiskey is stolen from bourbon distillers elsewhere and re-barreled in new oak casks by Treaty Oak for an additional two years. Ok, maybe I'm kidding about where they got the name. But Treaty Oak is very upfront about this product not being distilled on the grounds.
The nose is a sweet corn and wood, while the palate has the distinctive oakyness of a Kentucky bourbon. The bartender wouldn't tell me exactly where the bourbons originated from, or didn't know. Again I have to refer to the website, which states the Red-Handed has a high rye profile. But I think the additional two years in that Texas heat has mellowed out any initial spiciness.
Finally, their own whiskey, which they call "Experimental". The mash bill is 54% corn, 27% wheat and 19% barley. It goes into the same type of new barrels as the Red Handed, aged for three and a half years, and comes out at 100 proof. The nose is caramel candy and a palate of deep wood and char.
Next up, I try their brandy. It's distilled once from a pineapple cider made elsewhere (they wouldn't say where). It's aged in new oak for one year and comes out at 80 proof. The nose is a bit rusty to me. The palate is much better: spicy fruit.
Treaty Oak has two rums: aged and unaged, both at 80 proof and starting from a molasses mash fermented on the grounds. The unaged has an earthy, not-too-sweet nose, with a palate of burnt sugar or wood (I may be going a little tongue blind at this point in the tasting). The aged rum spends two to three years in new oak barrels. The result is a nose of honey and wood, and a palate of clean grass.
Another bonus about the size of Treaty Oak's ranch: plenty of hideaways for a nap. First, I thank my bartender profusely for her patience. You should see her attending to four groups at once, each is if they were the only ones there. The sun is on its way down, casting the sky, grassy hills and trees all around in beautiful purplish shades. Even though the band is still going full force, a calmness seems to have descended over the families, couples and parties hanging around at picnic tables and playing corn hole.
I think it's because the party buses, and the drunken idiots on them, have long departed, off terrorizing some other venue. That just leaves us more reserved (or older) drunks to find a nice cranny among tree roots and grass and sit a spell, as they say in these parts, drinking in the clear first notes of evening.