Austin, Texas is an oasis in more ways than one. Nestled on the Colorado River, large parts of Austin are covered in lush greenery in stark contrast to much of the outlying area dominated by desert conditions and underbrush. In a state that is predominantly conservative, the capital city is home to a surprisingly diverse political climate ranging from hippies in the park to students at the university to bankers in the city, and yet none of this feels at odds. Austin feels like a state unto itself in a state that was once a country unto itself. With the unofficial slogan “Keep Austin Weird,” it’s no surprise that Austin has yet another hidden treasure: Vodka Culture. I realized just how deep this culture is when I visited Austin over the 2012 Memorial Day weekend.
Austin first came on our radar in the early days of VodkaBuzz because of Tito’s Handmade Vodka. I won’t recap the entire Tito’s story because it has been told many times before, but I’ll hit the high points. Tito Beveridge started commercially producing Tito’s Handmade Vodka as Fifth Generation, Inc. in 1997 at Mockingbird Distillery, located in South East Austin, producing about 1,000 cases. In 10 years, Fifth Generation was producing 160 times that amount. The vodka producer still has relatively few employees despite becoming one of the most well known vodka brands and still makes Tito’s Handmade Vodka in small batches.
The thing that struck me most about Tito’s was their great social media presence. Several of, if not all of, Tito’s employees have Twitter accounts and are often interacting with other users. If you have a question, it’s very easy to get it answered. Twitter itself really became an overnight success at Austin’s South By Southwest Interactive in 2007, and the Tito’s team was clearly paying attention.
In the mean time, Deep Eddy Vodka showed up on the scene. Producing first an excellent sweet tea vodka in 2010, followed by an equally excellent straight vodka in 2011, Deep Eddy Vodka is still relatively new to the vodka market. While the vodka could stand on its own merits, Deep Eddy has employed a similar social media strategy, though taking it a step further. In fact, Deep Eddy barely has a website, opting instead to direct users to the Deep Eddy Facebook page.
I had some interaction with the folks at Deep Eddy over the past few years, but their hospitality when I let them know I was going to visit Austin was astounding. James Elledge, Field Marketing Manager for Deep Eddy Vodka, reached out to me to talk about their plans for my home state of Alabama, as well as to let me know what they had going on the weekend I was in town. Like Tito’s, it’s that kind of friendly community involvement that sets Austin vodka brands apart from the rest.
The culture doesn’t end with the producers of vodka. One of the first things I saw after exiting the plane was a banner proclaiming Austin as the home of Tito’s Handmade Vodka. After touching base with James for a list of hot spots, our group ended up at The Dogwood on West 6th to try Deep Eddy Sweet Tea Vodka on tap. Another local favorite we ran into while bar hopping is pickle infused Tito’s Handmade Vodka, which I skipped out on.
Of the bars we visited, all of them had service mats and other bar swag emblazoned with either Tito’s or Deep Eddy logos. The locals proudly embrace the vodka brands, and the bars promote them. Local mega-liquor store, Spec’s, had a mock bar set up in the back, complete with neon signs, dedicated to Deep Eddy Vodka.
Even outside of the bar scene, Austin continues to support local vodka brands. As we previously mentioned, Amy’s Ice Creams created a special Tito’s Vodka flavored ice cream called The Dude. As a throwback to The Big Lebowski, the White Russian flavored ice cream actually contains Tito’s Vodka. From what I understand, the flavor is available at all locations. It tastes great, by the way.
Most people think of Russia when they think of vodka. As for me, I think of Austin. With savvy new media vodka brands that taste better than the competition coupled with friendly staff, Tito’s and Deep Eddy are making a name for themselves in the world. Joining those brands with a supportive, diverse culture of the locals has made for a nurturing environment that I don’t think could be replicated anywhere else in America.