Texas' first gin gets its debut pour at gala tonight

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Nov 18, 2010
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By GREG MORAGO Copyright 2011 Houston Chronicle
April 27, 2011, 4:42PM


Guests at Evening in the Park's gala to benefit the Hermann Park Conservancy will be the first to sample what is surely the state's most original new spirit — a small-batch Texas gin that has the chops to be a major player in the world of artisan hooch.

Tonight is Roxor's first opportunity to rock Houston. The boutique gin, to be served at this evening's fundraiser, will be available at retail outlets throughout Texas at the end of May. Roxor's parent company, Houston-based New Artisan Spirits, hopes to create an international brand with its botanicals-perfumed gin and eventually release other handcrafted spirits.

The company's partners — former Coca-Cola executive Don Short and chef Robert Del Grande — have spent 16 months creating Texas' first gin, distilled by the San Luis Spirits, the makers of Dripping Springs Vodka. Short calls Roxor a modern interpretation of London dry gin that dials down the juniper and ramps up fresh citrus (including Texas grapefruit) and sprinkles in a few other local flavors dear to Del Grande.

The most interesting aspect of the gin's provenance is the participation of one of the country's most respected chefs. That Del Grande had the time to fiddle with flavor profiles of a chef-driven spirit while opening two Houston restaurants (Ava Kitchen & Whiskey Bar and Pizzeria Alto) and also consulting on Soleil in Austin, is remarkable. That he kept it hidden from practically everyone in Houston is amazing.

"It's the best-kept secret in town," joked Short who retired two years ago after a 31-year career at Coca-Cola Co .

Short, a friend and fan of Del Grande's, said he was looking for a project to "build a brand from A to Z." He partnered with Del Grande because they both wanted to do something together. "It started as good friends who wanted to do something interesting," Short said.

That "something interesting" proved to be a Texas gin. Both gin aficionados, the partners split the work with Short doing branding and marketing and Del Grande doing gin research and flavor development. Short was determined to make a statement gin in an architectural bottle that looks plucked from a big-city skyline. Del Grande wanted to create a unique flavor to rival his favorite gin brand, Beefeater. Both knew all the facets of a new brand had to come together perfectly in order to be a player in the increasingly sophisticated spirits business.

For Del Grande, developing Roxor's flavor allowed him to employ his science skills (he earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry from University of California-Riverside) with his interest in wine-making (wine was his first love, he said). He went through hundreds of Roxor iterations before zeroing on one profile: a deeply aromatic distillation flavored with juniper, lime, grapefruit, coriander, orris root and the unusual inclusion of coco nibs, hibiscus, sarsaparilla ("as a kid I always loved root beer) and Texas pecans. It is the inclusion of ingredients such as hibiscus and pecans that lend local grace notes to the lush, 90-proof gin. Del Grande said he used his nose much more than his palate to help create Roxor's unique flavor. He also brought his formidable cooking skills into the process.

"It was much like cooking. First you study the exemplar — like a classic mole from Mexico — then you try to bring it back home and put yourself in it," he said.

The partners certainly put a lot of themselves in the development of the gin, which debuts at a time that super premium gin is growing within the spirits realm. From 2009 to 2010, the super premium segment of gin (the best and most expensive tier) grew 9.2 percent by volume and 12 percent by value according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S. Along with boutique "brown" spirits, small-batch gin is a darling of the cocktail culture as mixologists use only the best and most exotic brands to create high-end drinks.

"You absolutely are seeing more brown spirits on cocktail menus, but you're probably also seeing more gin cocktails as well," said Danielle Eddy, spokeswoman for the Distilled Spirits Council. "Classic cocktails are very popular, but they're growing in popularity outside the cocktail trend cities (New York, San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, D.C., Houston) as well."

She added that classic gin-based drinks such as the Bee's Knees, Gimlet and Aviation are even better when made with the new high-end gins on the market.

Gin holds 6 percent of the overall spirits market, compared to vodka's 31 percent, rum's 13.3 percent and tequila's 5.9 percent.

Short said the first 10,000 bottles of Roxor are nearly ready to roll out, and only the first 5,000 will sport a special Texas star capper.

While the partners are justifiably proud of their Texas-born gin, they see Roxor as a potentially international brand.

"At the end of the day, this is a much bigger brand than simply a Texas brand," Short said.

But Texas gets it first. Actually, Houston does: It promises to be one swell Evening in the Park tonight.

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