Max Hoelker, Copy Editor • Hilltop Views • October 17, 2023
The Munday Library hosted a panel on craft spirit distilling on Oct. 12 to share with students the process and history behind the craft in Texas. The library has hosted events like this in the past, but this is the first time the focus has been on spirits instead of beer. The library is also host to an archive on the history of craft distilling.
Claire Edwards, Ph.D., who is an assistant professor of biology at St. Edward’s and an avid scholar of fermentation, was the moderator of the panel. The panel was composed of Gary Kelleher and Stephanie Houston, two big names in the craft distilling industry, and Amber Hausenfluck, a professional lobbyist.
Kelleher is the president of Dripping Springs Distillery, located in Dripping Springs, Texas. The distillery, founded to produce vodka in 2005, was the third distillery to receive a license from the state of Texas. For context, the first official distillery in Texas was Tito’s, a well-known brand that is synonymous with vodka in the U.S. Since Dripping Springs was licensed, over 200 distilleries have been built across the state.
Hausenfluck, who appears to be the odd woman out, was brought to the panel because of her experience dealing with the legal side of the craft distilling industry, representing the Texas Distilling Spirits Association.
In 2013, she was put in charge of a group of representatives from various alcohol businesses in order to resolve points of tension between the state of Texas, its laws restricting alcohol production and sale and the groups making alcohol. Hausenfluck describes this as “a very novel idea.” In the first session, they were able to pass five bills, which is considered an impressive number for such a young industry.
“That doesn’t happen in the alcohol industry,” Hausenfluck said. “The distilled spirits industry is heavily regulated, very heavily regulated, and so it takes a lot of time to sort of chip away at some of these regulations.”
In the decade since, the legal landscape surrounding the industry has been terraformed. Distilleries are now allowed to sell on-site, alcohol buying limits were drawn back and distillers are allowed to directly advertise to retailers. Those are only a few of the changes that have been made in the past 10 years, and Hausenfluck hopes that there will be more to come.
Houston is the CEO and co-founder of Island Getaway Rum, one of the fastest-growing distilleries in the state. Also located in Dripping Springs, her company is only 6 years old and barely survived the pandemic, but the business sprang back and Houston now travels across the world to bring her rum to countries like Japan and Spain. During the panel, Houston emphasized the struggles of getting her brand out. As a young business, it has been a constant fight against the status quo to get good product placement on shelves and to convince customers to buy Island Getaway Rum over more well-known brands like Bacardi.
“More and more consumers want to know who they’re buying from, what’s in (the product), where did it come from, how is it made,” Houston said. “Those are the things that people want to know, especially in this generation. We are in a marketplace that wants to be conformed (to people’s changing attitudes towards alcohol).”
The panel spent their hour-long block discussing all things alcohol. They tossed around topics like what qualifies as a “Texas distillery” or a “craft distillery,” how different types of alcohol are distinct from one another, and the struggles of producing consistent alcohol in the first place. Kelleher even gave explanations on alcohol tasting and how the different sizes of stills affect the taste and type of alcohol produced.
“There is an intense amount of camaraderie in this industry,” Kelleher said.
Those involved in the Texas distillery industry, even people on the outside like Hausenfluck, take a lot of pride in being a Texas distillery.
COVID-19 hit the industry hard; many distilleries had to open other outlets, like hand sanitizer and food, in order to survive. Nevertheless, they refused to back down. Now, the idea of smaller distilleries, brought forth by the explosive popularity of craft beer, is no longer a strange concept to the public.
The panelists ended their discussion with hope. Both Kelleher and Houston say that their distilleries are putting their “heart and soul” into the production of their spirits. The increased popularity of craft spirits has brought hope to an industry that has had to fight an uphill battle against obstacles like the law, and recently COVID-19, for over two decades, and they believe that their faith will be rewarded.