You don’t often hear of gins from Texas, but Treaty Oak have been distilling their Waterloo Gin since 2011.
With a distinctly Texan flavour and attitude, Waterloo is best known for their Antique Gin, a barrel-aged liquid that many have described as one that will change your mind about gin.
To discuss this further, we talk with Jamie Biel, Treaty Oak’s director of science and sustainability about aged gin, botanicals, barrels and of course, sustainability.
You don't often hear of gins from Texas, but Treaty Oak have been distilling their Waterloo Gin since 2011. With a distinctly Texan flavour and attitude, Waterloo is best known for their Antique Gin, a barrel-aged liquid that many have described as one that will change your mind about gin. To discuss this further, we talk with Jamie Biel, Treaty Oak's director of science and sustainability about aged gin, botanicals, barrels and of course, sustainability.
Thank you for joining us, Jamie.
It's my pleasure. Thanks for having me.
Now in 2011, there were a handful of craft distillers starting to bring back gin, but it certainly wasn't as popular as it is today. What made Treaty Oak, who started with dark spirits, think to produce a gin?
That's a wonderful question. Thanks for leading with that. The very first spirit that was produced by Treaty Oak in 2006 was a rum and it was the first 100% Texas spirit to be created by a distillery since prohibition. We used the sugar cane from the Texas Valley to make that beautiful rum. And we had both a clear expression and then an aged expression. As one does, when moving through the world of spirits, you dip your fingers and toes into all kinds of different ideas. Whiskey was always the focus, but gin was a sure bet to be able to be distilled and bottled and sold relatively quickly while we got whiskey information under our belts. So the Waterloo No.9 Gin was almost a stop-gap that became this beautiful flagship spirit for us during that process of learning and becoming an established distillery.
Now, obviously one of the points with whiskey is the ageing. So what made you then decide to age the gin?
I'm so glad you asked. We had a lovely distiller named Tyler who, to be completely honest with you, showed up to work hung over and was instructed to move the rum into the barrel for ageing, as we were still working on rum at that point. And instead of doing what you're supposed to do, which is taste and smell, he didn't want to have anything to do with that and moved the clear spirit into the barrel. And so an hour or two later, we said, "Tyler, why didn't you move the rum?" And he said, "I did." And we said, "No, you didn't. Here it is." And so he said, "Oh shit, what did I move?" And it was gin.
So we had a good laugh about that mistake. And just as we do, let it ride. Experimentation is integral to who we are as a distillery, as a community. So after about six months we tasted it and it was horrendous and then forgot about it. And about one year tasted it, it just wasn't right. But we said, "Perhaps we're onto something here." Again at 18 months, just wasn't quite right. And then at two years we tasted and discovered that the Waterloo No.9 Gin, aged in first use American white oak barrel char No.3, confers this gorgeous combination of botanical gin with delicately aged whiskey. And we've been laughing all the way to the bank so to speak.
Now, talking of botanicals, what are the botanicals in the No.9 that make it a truly Texas gin?
Well, I would have to highlight the lavender, the pecan and the grapefruit. So lavender grows in the Hill Country of Central Texas. It's a slightly different variety. It's a Spanish version of what is usually a culinary lavender. But it paints the hills and flavours all the apothecaries and little shops along the highways here in Central Texas. It's a staple for us.
The grapefruit that we use is sourced from the Texas Valley. The state fruit is the ruby red citrus. And we use the zest of that to confer this really bright citric flavour that balances with that lovely floral lavender that comes through. And then the state tree of Texas is the pecan. We source our pecans from a family owned company called Oliver Pecan in San Saba, Texas, which is the pecan capital of the world and also coincidentally, where my parents live, in Pecan Bottoms along the San Saba River. So the combination of this beautiful floral lavender that balances the tart, piney, requisite juniper, and then the bright citrus that speaks to Texas fruit and then the buttery mouth feel and nutty, earthy undertone that's conferred by that pecan really brings the spirit together in a gorgeous way.
Now it's rather unusual to use something like pecan in a gin. What made you think of it? Was it simply because it was such a feature of your hometown or ...?
Absolutely. It is a quintessential Texas thing. And I didn't mention this earlier, but I'm a botanist by training. I have a Bachelor of Science degree in Plant Biology and the nod to the state of Texas, but also the understanding of the buttery, nutty, earthy, grounding tones of pecan just seemed to be the right choice. As opposed to some of the other root vegetables that are often found in gins, orris root, ginger, anise. Things that confer that grounding, brownish, if I can be synaesthetic for a moment, flavour. We thought, "You know what, let's step outside of the box a little bit. Let's look into our very own backyard and see what we can use." So it was an obvious choice, albeit a little rogue.
Now if someone were to buy the antique gin for the first time with all those flavours, what sort of tastes are they really getting from the gin?
So we often describe the Antique Gin as "Christmas in a bottle". Something about the combination of botanicals and the wood sugars from a young bourbon combine in a way that just screams "Holiday". What you're getting when you open that bottle is an amalgam of different flavours that are unpredictably complimentary. It's not a cacophony, it's a symphony of seemingly disparate flavours that come together in a beautifully balanced way and just perk your senses and get you thinking about "What could I combine with the spirit to enhance, in the case of the Juniper or the lavender, or in the case of the vanillans and caramels coming out of that aged spirit taste." So it's a peculiar, delightful spirit, unlike anything I've ever tasted. And I've tried a few.
Now aged gin, or yellow gin as it used to be called, is certainly nothing new, but most people when they age only age for a couple of months, why do you think that your antique gin takes on such good flavour after such an extended amount of time?
Another great question, thank you. So I think part of the reasoning behind ageing gin is to just dip your toe into the wood char. All of those complex, deeper spirit flavours that come from barrel aged spirits. But with ours, it was purely by accident. I liken it to the discovery of penicillin, equally important I think for humanity, if I can joke a little bit. But the truth is we put that gin into a first use American white oak char No.3 Barrel. So the fact that it's ageing for two years in a very intense central Texas climate causes the interaction between spirit and char to increase in frequency compared to these yellow gins, these less aged gins. Plus most barrel aged gins are aged for a very short period of time and also in barrels that have been previously used. So the interaction between the spirit and the char is just not there.
So what we have is something incredibly special and unique, happened quite by accident. But what we found is that it has resulted in this spirit that is its own category. The antique gin plays as well in the whiskey world, as it does in the gin world. We can find a beautiful Negroni or a new Old Fashioned and the combination and complexity of flavour there is a product of both the botanical build of the No.9 Gin as it is as the length of time it's been ageing in a first use barrel.
Now talking about uses for the gin. You mentioned a Negroni and an Old Fashioned. Is it more a cocktail gin rather than a, shall we say in inverted commas, a “gin and tonic gin”? Or how would you best recommend people use it?
Well, I would best recommend that people use it the way they like to use it best. For me personally, I love this gin in a Negroni and I'm a Negroni lover. I love an Old Fashioned, but I find that if I had to choose between the two for the Antique, I like it in a Negroni. It really takes that symphony I mentioned earlier of flavour to the next level. A Mule with ginger beer is a beautiful way to showcase some of those citric qualities of the gin, but also bring home the nutmeg, allspice flavours that a whiskey imparts. And if I'm being completely honest, I really enjoy it on the rocks or my favourite holiday cocktail with this "Christmas in a bottle" is to pour a little bit of cranberry juice and a little bit of sparkling water, drop a couple of cranberries in there for pretty, and then garnish with Rosemary, which also grows ubiquitously out here in the Hill Country. So it's got a little bit of that holiday feel and all of the flavours, but none of the fuss.
Right. Now, let's talk a little bit more about the ageing, how much effect do you think that the Texas heat has on the way that the gin forms?
It's a huge effect and it's, if I may, not just the heat. So when we're talking about barrel ageing spirits, it's less about the high temperature and more about the temperature variation. So the Central Texas climate is one in which we have incredibly wild daily and seasonal temperature flux. Very recently, this time of year for us is fall, and we had a day that it was 89 degrees and then a cold front came down from the Arctic and went all the way down the Great Plains of Central America, which dips its toe into Central Texas and dropped by 50 degrees in a day. So we went from summer to winter in a day, which is not uncommon for us, we're fairly used to it.
But what it does for the spirit is when anything in this universe increases in thermal energy or heats up, it expands, takes up more space. And so a spirit in a barrel will expand and drive that spirit into the levels of char. And then as the temperature drops that spirit like anything else, contracts and pulls out of the char. And with it come these little fragmented molecules that used to be a part of the long chain or polymer molecules that make up cell walls like cellulose, lignin, hemicellulose, these long chain molecules get broken during the charring process. And so what happens when a spirit enters that char and then comes back into itself is that it brings these little chunks of molecules that our olfactory senses register as vanillan or caramel or creosote or nutmeg.
So just the very fact that the Central Texas climate is prone to such wild swings in both temperature and humidity, almost augments or speeds up the ageing process. We've got some experiments undergoing right now, where we can stand up to whiskeys or other aged spirits in different places across the globe, not just here in America, but Japanese whiskeys and Scottish whiskeys. So we can empirically show that the effect of climate is absolutely directly related to, and I'm air quoting here, the "age of the spirit". So for instance, a five-year antique rum or antique gin in Texas may taste more like a 10 year in Kentucky or a 12 year in Scotland.
It's directly related to frequency. So we, as humans, tell age by days and months and years. But spirits have a different timeline and we're starting to learn exactly what that looks like and how to, I don't want to say manipulate it, but how to read that data.
Right, okay. But with that fluctuation, it may be a quicker ageing process for you, but you also lose a fair amount through angel's share, I imagine.
Indeed we do. And I know this podcast is specifically about our barrel aged gins, but we have many, many more barrels of whiskey ageing on our property. No climate control, it's open-air rickhouse, and what we've done to accommodate that is a couple of things. Number one is the mash bill, which we can talk about when we're talking whiskey some other time.
But number two is that we've adapted our ageing physical process to accommodate this intense fluctuation. So instead of putting our barrels on standard metal ricks with lots of airflow, we've actually devised a way to palletise our barrels and stack them very neat and close and high. So what we've done is in this metal building that is again, open to the elements, it's open on both sides, no air conditioning, what we've done is create an intense thermal mass. And so just the fact that there are so many thousands of gallons of liquid so close together, it creates its own microclimate. And we know that each barrel is a microclimate, but within the rickhouse, you walk in and it is 15 degrees cooler, that's Fahrenheit, significantly cooler inside of that open air building, just because of the thermal mass of the liquid and the specific heat of the liquid in there.
Extraordinary. Now, going back to the gin being aged in the medium char white oak barrels, is there a similarity, are there properties of things like for example, bourbon, so the sweetness and characteristics that you would normally find in a bourbon, are you finding they're coming through the gin?
Absolutely. In a way that has, I would say, saved more than a few relationships. We are a distillery that now specialises in whiskey and gin. And so if you've got a couple that comes out and he likes gin and she likes whiskey or vice versa, I often offer up the Antique as a peacekeeper, which when we had a French couple out recently, they laughed about that reference and the Waterloo being peacekeeping. But to be clear, we named Waterloo Gin after the original name of the state capital of Texas, which is now called Austin. It was originally called Waterloo on the Colorado river. So there's definitely the sweetness, the delicate young bourbon flavours that come out. We don't allow it to age long enough, at least in the bottles that we put on the shelves, for it to be overly oaky or deeply spicy. It's just a dipping of a toe into the whiskey world.
Right, okay. Now, am I correct in assuming that there are within the Antique Gin, there's actually a blend of slightly differently aged gins?
So, yes. So we make sure that, and I'm part of this team, we do a lot of quality control and make sure that the juice that comes out tastes the same. Every bottle should have the same profile. Every bottle contains antique gin that is aged two years. And we're pretty litigious about that. Ageing a little bit longer confers just a different profile. So we're quick to keep an eye on what we're ageing and pull it and bottle it and get it on shelves. So that there really isn't a lot of blending involved. It may be that there's a barrel that's two years, two months and a barrel that's two years, five months, but we keep it pretty well-regulated just to make sure that consistency is there and quality is controlled.
What has the reaction of consumers and bartenders been to the Antique Gin?
Oh, there's lots of words. Baffled, delighted, intrigued, excited. Consumers are really interested because as far as I'm concerned, no one has ever tasted a spirit quite like this. Again, if you've got people who are coming in with a leaning towards a whiskey or a gin, or maybe they have never had anything of the like, it's a complex flavour profile that lasts beyond first sip through the finish. And you get all kinds of different peaks and valleys throughout just a simple sip.
Bartenders have been having a blast playing with these flavours because you can play up some of the flavours and then draw down others. But there are very few bartenders who have had any experience beyond just excitement about what can they make with this? How can they make this into a cocktail that is as simple or as complex as the spirit is itself?
Now you spoke earlier about certain things bringing out the citrus qualities, but you were talking about a Mule bringing out the citrus qualities of the gin. What other flavours do you think work particularly well with the Antique Gin?
Well, it depends what you're looking for. So if you're looking to play up the botanicals, then citrus is going to be something that you'll want to move forward with. Definitely a lemon, not so much a lime, the lemon zest that already exists in the No.9 is augmented and highlighted by a little bit of lime juice. Again, I know we're on opposite parts of the globe, but we're heading into our cold season, our holiday season, and a Hot Toddy with a little bit of lemon juice really plays up that component of the gin while also speaking to some of the more warm sugary flavours coming from the whiskey from the ageing process. On the other hand, if you're looking to showcase some of the whiskey flavours, some of those vanillans and caramels that we spoke about earlier, then a nutmeg, an allspice. Again, something warm, something nutty and earthy really lends to those flavours while you've still got this beautiful botanical floral undertone that exists and just peaks your curiosity, livens up the palate while you're enjoying your beverage.
Now, one thing I'm curious about. With a lot of whiskeys, they take on a lot of the qualities of the wood. How careful do you guys need to be to ensure that the wood doesn't overwhelm the botanicals?
Oh, that's a great question. We absolutely draw the line at two years, plus or minus a couple of months. But that's the sweet spot for us and we've done a lot of experimentation, a lot of taste testing, not just internally, but have consumers come in and weigh in. And we found that that 24 month mark is really the perfect balance between these botanicals from the gin and then the sugary, woodier barrel aged notes.
So we actually have sold several single barrels to, we have two big markets for the older antique gins. Tennessee is one. I think that that stems a lot from the fact that they are replete with bourbon and so something aged but different really appeals to the buyers there. And we've sold many different older antique barrels there at very high proof, we're talking 140 to 160. Some of those are finished in wine barrels or rye casks, just experimental barrels that we've had that really resonates with that palate in that area.
And then Florida has also become a big buyer of antique gin at four, five, six, even seven years of age. Really intensely woody, but still the juniper and the lavender and the citrus come through. And the pecan seems to just bring it all together, blend the botanicals from the gin with this aged spirit that most people associate with a whiskey.
Now you spoke about those two States. Is the antique gin available across the US?
It is. So we are just now moving into our national market here in the United States. We don't ship to all 50 States, but what we do have available is, and I'm looking for this right now, golly, okay. So we are available in Texas, Florida, California, Illinois, Georgia, Tennessee, Michigan, and Nevada, and all of those are available online. So you can visit waterloogin.com. You can check us out on Instagram or Facebook and get those bottles shipped directly to your door.
Right and do you have plans to move into the other States?
Indeed. We already have a heavy presence in Florida and California. We had just moved into some of the other States in the United States when COVID happened. And so we don't have feet on the ground. Bars are still not really operating at full capacity. So we've had to pull back from that national launch in terms of feet on the ground presence. But we're finding that those few months where we were in, for example, Illinois, Georgia, Nevada. And that recognition came from both the Waterloo No.9 Gin, as well as the Antique and also our sister, the Old Yaupon, which is a back sweetened old Tom style gin gained enough notoriety in that short period of time where people are still seeking that out. And now that we've moved to this online platform, we're able to fulfil those orders and hope to get back into those markets in a meaningful way in the next several months.
Further down the track, are you actually thinking of expanding overseas?
Maybe looking at markets like the UK where gin is particularly valued?
We would love to, since that's the inspiration from which we drew. We would love to be able to share that with our folks overseas. We're an ambitious company for sure. We feel like we have great spirits, but we are not so presumptuous to assume that the best spirits have been made. So pursuing our curiosities and continuing to drive and experiment and build new gins, estate gins and beyond, is our day to day. So yeah, we'll see you soon I hope.
Now, before we go, I'm curious about your title. It's rather unusual, especially for a craft distillery to have one person dedicated to sustainability. Why has that been important to Treaty Oak?
It's important to Treaty Oak because of who we are as people. The founders of Treaty Oak have the goal of environmental sustainability and social responsibility built into the pillars of the company from the very beginning. Responsible sourcing and supply chain integrity and efficient use of water and energy and materials has always been just what we stand for. So quite by happenstance, I left a wonderful career as a high school environmental science and biology teacher, because I found the Waterloo No.9 Gin. So stay with me for a moment and I'll answer your question, it's just a little sequitous.
No, that's fine.
As teachers do, they stop by the liquor store on their way home from a long day and as a gin drinker, I went into my local liquor store and they had a Texas liquor section. So supporting local is something that's important to me individually, went over and I found the Waterloo No.9 Gin. And previously had been drinking Hendrick's and The Botanist, as I'm a botanist, I'm drawn to the botanicals.
I found Waterloo No.9 Gin and have never looked back and was raving to my friends about how good this gin was. And someone said, "Oh, I think they just moved from Austin proper to just outside of Austin, Dripping Springs, where I live and taught at the time. And so I became a fan girl of the distillery and a year or so later was doing a professional development for teaching in which I would go to a business in the community and bring relevance in my content area back to the classroom. So I was paired with Treaty Oak Distilling and the rest is history, literally.
So the gin roped me in, I absolutely stand by the product. It's quality, it's beautifully balanced. It's unlike any other gin that you find in a back bar or in a well or a fancy restaurant. It plays as well with any other ingredient as any other gin I've experienced. So having gone out there with my sustainability experience, they said, "We would really like for you to come on board." And so I've spent the last almost three years seeking to increase the ability of our company to shine a light on what is not only possible and plausible, but fiscally responsible. In hopes that some of these bigger players that have even larger impacts on the planet can see that it can be done and what great waves we can make.
What sort of measures have you brought in?
So water and energy efficiency with our distillery equipment has been probably the most impactful. I hand-built a 5,000 square foot garden. It's an organic garden that we use for both our restaurant onsite, as well as our cocktail program and as a source for our estate gins. As well as nourishing native plants so that we can forage and use those ingredients in the gins as well.
We have increased the efficiency of use of our propane. I've got a few more tricks up my sleeve that unfortunately require pretty large investment capital upfront, but can become cash positive in a number of years. So I've still got plans in place to ramp up our efficiency of energy usage. Most notably with using the spent grain and waste from the kitchen to actually generate bio-gas, methane. So we can replace the propane that we buy with methane. Currently, our spent grain is fed to both cattle and pigs. And let's see, in a couple of weeks we'll actually be feasting on our very first, fully grain fed cow. I don't know how to say that more delicately, but it was loving and fed with our grains. And now we're going to close that loop instead of having a linear waste stream.
Right. So I imagine to your mind, there's a lot that distilleries can do to actually become more sustainable.
Indeed. The secret lies in thinking outside of the box, we have as a culture come up and been incredibly successful in the short term. And I know it doesn't seem like short term, but since humanity has quote unquote "conquered nature" is one way to think of it, we have adopted this linear practice where we've got input, use and output. And what we can do to literally sustain, to be sustainable, is to re-envision this process from the top down, from the bottom up and take those linear processes and close them. The Earth has been around for four and a half billion years. Life for a couple of billion and that's a lot of practice. And so we would be wise to take notes from the natural cycles that exist and sustain themselves for eons and match our practices to that. And it takes a little longer and it's a little more expensive, but it's the way.
So spreading that word and showing that it can be done on a relatively small scale, really gives leverage to those who can make major impacts and lead the way and honestly who have the capital to do that. So it's just all about being respectful and responsible. And if you want your business to continue, you have to respect the source of that business. And that's always going to come from the Earth, clean air, clean water, good food. We would be nothing if it weren't for a healthy ecosystem. So the time is now to make sure that we're doing our damn best to protect that source.
Right, I fully agree.
Sorry, I got a little preachy.
No, no, no, no, it's good though. I think there are a lot of lessons that a lot of distilleries and a lot of brands can learn by thinking that way.
Anyway, Jamie, look, thank you so much for your time today. And obviously if people want more information, they should go to the website, either waterloogin.com or alternatively treatyoak.com if they're looking for something a little bit darker.
All right, thank you.