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The New Texas Tea

A humble Austin native has clawed his way into the cutthroat world of premium vodka, where his firewater is catching on, one potent drop at a time.

Author EDWARD LEWINE Photography VAN DITTHAVONG

JUST OUTSIDE AUSTIN, TEXAS, a little to the southeast of the airport, there’s a dusty compound where an appropriately named eccentric, Bert Butler “Tito” Beveridge II, makes vodka with a few homemade stills. Vodka is a spirit people associate with wintry Eastern European countries and deposed Communist dictators; Tito’s Handmade Vodka, as Beveridge’s product is called, hails instead from this sun-baked lot deep in Texas Hill Country.

Across the street from the distillery, there’s a Mexican rodeo stadium. Honest-to-god sagebrush rolls in tumbleweeds along the curbs. Dogs and goats wander onto the local roads and 18-wheelers rocket past. “I try to go out there as little as possible,” says Beth Bellanti-Walker, who handles marketing for Tito’s from an East Austin office. “Between the trucks, the dogs and the road kill, the place scares me.”

Despite its odd origins, Tito’s vodka has been a hit with critics and increasingly with consumers as well.

In 1997, the first year of production, Tito’s sold 1,000 cases, mostly in the Austin area. Last year, sales were just shy of 250,000 cases in all 50 states and Canada. According to stats compiled by Impact, a wine and spirits newsletter, this makes Tito’s the 38th most popular vodka in the country.

Thirty-eighth place may be nothing to brag about in a pro golf tournament or big-time spelling bee, but it’s darn good for a vodka made in a little corner of central Texas. Especially when you consider that vodka is the most popular kind of liquor in America, accounting for a third of sales, and that everyone who makes booze these days makes vodka, from the international conglomerates to local artisans. In some ways, it’s supplanted bourbon as America’s spirit.

“The Tito’s brand is still pretty new,” says David Fleming, executive editor of Impact. “But the growth it has shown in that time is impressive.” The question now is whether Tito’s is growing too fast. Can it continue at this pace and still remain true to its handmade, small-batch roots?

Just past noon on an overcast spring day, Beveridge pulls into the yard in front of his distillery, which looks a bit like every other tidy light-industry compound along Texas’ back roads. He’s 47 and handsome in a beefy, ranch-hand kind of way, with sun-browned skin, thick graying hair and slightly bowed legs. The distillery itself consists of five ramshackle warehouses and a shed. Inside these buildings is an equally ramshackle collection of stills and bottling machines. All of it—the buildings, the stills and the machines—were built by Beveridge himself, using whatever materials he could find.

When he opens the door to the shed, the original building where Beveridge still has his office, out bursts the sharp, sweet smell of booze. Nearby stands a pair of what look like kettle drums partially wrapped in shiny duct tape with tubes sticking out all over. These are Beveridge’s version of old-fashioned pot stills, the kind people have been using since ancient times.

With a quick turn of a quarter-inch spigot, Beveridge releases two fingers of vodka into a test tube. He takes a sip, ruminates a while and then swallows. “I’m not a spitter,” he says. Beveridge makes all the vodka himself. In the beginning he had one still, but he built two more to meet the growing demand. Now he’s building 10 more.

“When I started this company,” he says, sitting back in his cluttered office and kicking his boots up, “I just wanted to make enough money to spend my afternoons swimming in Barton Creek. Well, I’ve done that. Now, I want to see how far I can take this operation.”

On the surface, Beveridge is all laid-back Texas, with his lazy twang and his daily uniform of work boots, jeans and denim button-down shirts. Underneath is a relentless businessman who has had to struggle for every bit of success he’s had. He grew up in San Antonio in a formerly wealthy trucking family— “One generation made it, the next lost it,” he says—studied geology at the University of Texas and spent the 1980s wandering the hemisphere in search of a living in the oil business.

He never struck oil and felt out of sync with the backwoods culture he encountered, which was a little macho for his tastes, he says. “I just wanted to move to Austin and get away from all that.”

In Austin, he tried his hand at being a mortgage broker, but that too came to nothing. Down on his luck, Beveridge turned to booze, in a manner of speaking, flavoring store-bought vodka with habanero chilies as a cheap and easy gift for friends. People loved his spicy vodka so much, he considered turning the idea into a business. But a few informal chats with a friendly liquor-store owner informed Beveridge that flavored vodkas weren’t exactly flying off the shelves back then.

Then the liquor store owner mentioned something interesting. “He told me if I could make a vodka so smooth women wanted to drink it,” Beveridge recalls, “then their boyfriends would buy it and I’d have something.”

It took two years to secure all the necessary permits to make vodka legally—especially difficult in the state of Texas, where Beveridge became the first licensed distiller in history. Unable to find financial backers, Beveridge maxed out 19 credit cards to the tune of $88,000 or so, and he spent his days quietly perfecting his technique—hence the Rube Goldberg–esque vodka works in his shop.

As with any brand, much of the success of Tito’s Handmade Vodka comes down to clever marketing. The notion of a crazy guy using pot stills to make vodka in Texas Hill Country is almost too good to be true. (Sort of like the Bartles and Jaymes guys, except that Tito Beveridge really exists.) In fact, there are those who say the entire vodka business is just marketing, since vodka is defined by the U.S. government as being “without distinctive character, aroma, taste or color.”

But Tito’s gets good reviews from people who claim they can tell the difference, namely critics, who say you can’t beat it for the price, which hovers around $20 a fifth. In 2001, Tito’s was awarded a Double Gold Medal for vodka at the World Spirits Competition, beating out 71 other vodkas, including Ketel One, Stolichnaya and Smirnoff. “It’s a beautiful spirit,” says Tony Abou-Ganim, a drinks consultant and former head bartender at the Bellagio in Las Vegas. “It has a sweet and creamy flavor, but it also has good structure and a clean, dry finish.”

Distilling is a relatively simple operation. You take an already fermented liquid and boil it, separating the alcohol, which boils at a lower temperature, from the water. But Beveridge has his own methods. He distills his vodka from corn, whereas most producers use potatoes or wheat. And while most producers purchase fermented mashes from suppliers, he mashes and ferments the corn himself.

Larger competitors use industrialsize “column” stills, but Beveridge prefers his quirky, inefficient pot stills, which present difficulties when it comes to scaling up production.

“Pot-still distillation is the essence of what Tito Beveridge is doing,” says F. Paul Pacult, the editor of Spirit Journal. “But there’s a limit to how much vodka a single man can produce using pot stills. I’d caution Tito not to forget the methods that brought him to the dance: pot stills and attention to detail.”

Beveridge doesn’t seem worried.

He estimates that when he gets his 10 new stills up and running, he’ll have the capacity to produce around two million cases a year. If he sold that, he’d have one of the 10 biggest vodkas in the United States by sales volume. “There’s no saying I can’t make that much,” he says, “and make it even better.

“I’ve had around 18 offers to sell this company for lots of money,” Beveridge adds. “But I don’t want to be the guy who used to own Tito’s vodka. I want to build a company that I can run.”

EDWARD LEWINE loves vodka and Texas, but he’s writing a book about wine in New York.

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