Around Lake Travis, we have a literal collection of some of the best micro-breweries in Texas. Some Saturdays I realize how lucky I am to be able to grab a familiar pint glass and head out to the breezy Texas Hill Country to some of the newest up-and-coming brew houses, like Jester King, Solid Rock Brewing or Thirsty Planet Brewing Company.
Some days call for a nice cool beer, and others necessitate a different type of drink. Say hello to Kevin Kelleher from Dripping Springs Vodka.
While hosts of other distillers are busy filtering all of their tastes out of their vodkas and gins, Kelleher is ready to serve thirsty drinkers with a totally different approach. To let the impurities (shorthand for “flavors” in distilling terms) linger, and let your taste buds do the deciding.
“We wanted to give our customers an emotional reaction when they drink our vodka; they might not really know why they like a particular flavor or note, but it leaves them curious about it and hopefully they like it.”
Situated along Highway 290 in Dripping Springs sits a large yet unassuming building, the home for San Luis Spirits. Dan Kelleher, CEO and head brewer at the distillery, is active and bouncing between different departments in the warehouse on a warm Wednesday when I came to visit. When I tell him I’ve never had the chance to view an old-fashioned copper still, he beams as he leads me through the large bustling edifice, past never-ending bottling lines and pallets of outgoing liquid shipments, into the room where the real magic happens.
Small Batch Distilling
In the back room where their family of copper stills are housed, it’s dark and it’s hot. In fact, it’s a little over 100 degrees standing next to the eight foot tall copper body and that’s on a good day. But what seems like simple heat to me is really a complex series of tasks taking place within each 50 gallon still.
The mash starts out as corn and is fermented into ethyl alcohol, making it’s way around the machine, micro-distilling over and over again, totaling 20 times by the end. The whole process is exact and very scientific — capturing the heart, the best of each liquor and relying on tried and true distilling techniques to maximize the flavors in each bottle. They brew in small batches, 50 gallons at a time versus other craft distillers’ 1000 gallon stills, taking time to make sure all of the right flavors develop in the process.
If you’re left wondering why some distillers stick to copper — it turns out that the metal has special properties that bring out certain essences in ethyl alcohol during the distillation process, which is why they still use the relatively small stills over more commercially-friendly stainless steel ones.
“The reasons we did this — and there are two reasons. One — we thought it would create a better product. And two — we didn’t know what we were doing!” Kelleher relates as we go into the history of craft distilleries. The choice to use copper is not cheaper or easier by any means, but it does seem to impart a more complicated set of flavors into the vodka.
It’s a choice that has set Dripping Springs Vodka above many of their competitors over the years, which have increased from just two to over forty in Texas today.
That was back in 2007 when they first launched the brand, and other than hiring many more hands to help, not too much else has changed. While they have increased production to 15 full-time stills, they still have their original still from day one and their distillation methods have pretty much stayed consistent. Small batch distilling is here to stay, and they like it that way.
In the years following they have launched their own brands of gin and orange vodka, each traditional liquors with very Texas twists. Hints of Texas orange zest can be tasted in the subtler notes of their orange vodka, while their gin is also infused with many Texas flavors like lime to pair with foods such as spicy Tex Mex.
It’s Kelleher’s goal to bring his liquors closer to a drink that you would sip on ice than one that you always have to mix into a cocktail to enjoy.
If reading about the distilling process has piqued your interest, take a trip out to San Luis Spirits for a tour and tasting to see the whole thing firsthand. You can reserve your tour online for a spot on one of their Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday tours at 3:00 pm, where you’ll leave knowing a good bit more about the science and art behind distilling.
San Luis Spirits Inc. (map)
5330 Bell Springs Rd
Dripping Springs, TX 78620