Texas terroir takes center stage in a pair of moonshine spirits whose ingredients are locally grown.
Hill Country Distillers in Comfort, a small town south of Fredericksburg, has been making moonshine out of fermented prickly pear cactus and jalapeños, both primarily sourced from Texas ranchers or growers. The moonshines, available since earlier this year in bottles at a handful of Austin liquor stores and bars, have no corn or grain added — which the distillers say makes for consistently smooth spirits.
Founded by John Kovacs, the distillery also makes sweet liqueurs, or dulces as he calls them, that are created from the cactus moonshine. He already has plans underway to release many more boozy small-batch projects, including a gin made with the berries from ash junipers (which is the longer name for cedar, the tree that gets Austinites’ allergies flaring every winter) and brandies featuring Fredericksburg peaches, Medina apples and San Antonio plums. Most will only be available at the distillery’s tasting room.
“We keep it all Texas, best we can,” Kovacs says.
He and Sean Smith, a family friend who’s been involved with Hill Country Distillers from the beginning, perfected the recipe for their cactus moonshine after lots of trial and error early last year, before opening up the distillery tasting room last July.
They discovered that the moonshines — which aren’t moonshine in the traditional or modern senses of the word — taste best after only one distillation, and they’re also not filtered. That’s not typical of many spirits on the market these days, which achieve their high proofs and smooth out their harsh alcoholic edges with more than one distillation. Still, the easy-drinking cactus moonshine clocks in at 102 proof.
“It was basically happenstance,” he says. “We had planned on multiple distillations; we also planned on filtering. But when we did those things, we ended up with such a neutral product. It pulled out all the character. When we filtered it, it was like 100-proof water. It didn’t have any life to it.”
But that wasn’t Kovacs or Smith’s desired result for either. They wanted to showcase the intricate vegetal soul of the cactus and the bold spicy twang of the jalapeño, a goal of Kovacs ever since his wife had brought home moonshine after a trip to Bandera, another small Texas town. Hill Country Distillers went back to one distillation and found those elements shine through.
“It all started with the cactus, and that one little plant drove everything we’ve done,” he says.
Their focus now is on Texas-grown fruits and vegetables in general. Because they’re fermenting ingredients that are normally supporting players in an alcoholic beverage, versus the fermented base of it, Hill Country Distillers has always — since first trying to get permitting approval from the government — had trouble defining the spirits made from the 100-gallon and 250-gallon copper stills in the distillery. Getting people to try these unusual spirits has also been a challenge.
“The cactus and the jalapeño aren’t really moonshine, but we called them that for lack of a better word,” Kovacs says, noting that moonshine isn’t technically a recognized category of spirits in the U.S. It’s less stringently defined, however, than others like gin or tequila.
Smith, who peddles the bottles of moonshine at primarily liquor stores and bars in the Central Texas area, has had to get good at describing both of them. “I’d say (the cactus moonshine) has some of the same earthy organic characteristics that a tequila has, but the same kind of clean smoothness of a vodka,” he says.
The jalapeño moonshine, he says, isn’t overpoweringly spicy like the green pepper can be. That’s because even though the distillers throw the entire pepper, stems and seeds and all, into the fermentation, the oils that provide such intense heat don’t survive the distillation process.
Both moonshines, as Kovacs and Smith have learned, make tasty alternatives to vodka, rum and tequila in cocktails like mules, mojitos and margaritas — which are just some of the drinks that Hill Country Distillers mixes up at the tasting room bar in Comfort. It’s open 2 to 8 p.m. Thursdays through Fridays and 12 to 8 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays and well worth the drive west, Kovacs says, in part because visitors can make a day of it by traveling to wineries in the area.
“We’re part of the renaissance of Comfort, Texas,” he says. “Comfort’s been sitting quiet for a long time, but now everybody’s saying Boerne and Fredericksburg are getting too crowded, and they’re coming to Comfort. We haven’t had that in a long time.”
In Austin, look for the bottles at liquor stores like Total Wine or in bars like Shiner Saloon or the Gatsby.
The Moonshine Mule
1 oz. Cactus Moonshine
1 oz. simple syrup
1 oz. lime juice
2 mint leaves
2 to 3 oz. Fever Tree Ginger Beer
Muddle the mint leaves in a shaker with simple syrup and lime juice. Add the moonshine and ice. Shake and strain over ice in a copper mug. Fill mug with ginger beer.
— Hill Country Distillers