By MM Pack
Photography by Carole Topalian
Paula Angerstein makes a mean cocktail, and she’s not afraid to share it. Considering she’s the creator/owner of Austin-based micro-distillery Paula’s Texas Spirits, that’s not much of a surprise. If you’ve enjoyed a mixed drink in an Austin bar, shopped in a Texas liquor store or attended a culinary event in the past few years, the odds are pretty good that you’ve encountered Paula’s spirits. Central Texans are accustomed to local produce, cheeses, artisan foods, beers and wines, but a newer idea is handcrafted, locally distilled spirits.
Reflecting the nationwide renaissance of cocktail culture, Austin’s interest in local spirits and cocktail ingredients like herbs and seasonal fruits is burgeoning.
To date, there are a mere 11 distiller’s licenses in the entire state of Texas—half in Travis and surrounding counties. Angerstein’s license was the second issued (following fellow trailblazer Bert “Tito” Beveridge of Tito’s Handmade Vodka), and she’s one of only two female distillers in Texas. “When I meet another woman in the liquor business, we tend to bond,” she says. “We’ve always got stories to swap. There are so few of us and it’s a tough venue to break into.”
Angerstein’s path to the spirits realm was circuitous. Raised on a farm near Cuero, Texas, she holds degrees in journalism and computer science from The University of Texas at Austin, and was the managing editor of The Daily Texan. For more than 20 years, she worked as a technical writer, programmer and systems developer for high-tech companies in California, Boston, England and Austin.
While living in England during the ‘90s, Angerstein and longtime partner Paul Grosso traveled extensively in Europe—absorbing and enjoying food cultures and lifestyles, particularly in Tuscany. “We developed a European sensibility for dining, entertaining and living. That’s our style and we like to share it,” says Angerstein. “Together, we’re an incredible entertaining team; we’ve always just known how to put it all together.” This proclivity is evident in Angerstein and Grosso’s hospitable Westlake home perched high above Lake Austin. Surrounded by decks and gardens, filled with sunlight and Italian ceramics, it’s the site of many social gatherings and charity benefits.
When Angerstein was laid off in 2000 during Austin’s high-tech bust, she was ready for a change. “I spent a couple of years figuring out what to do next,” she says. “I wanted to be part of the food community, and I thought about catering, personal cheffing, working in a wine store. Paul and I always made our own stuff—tapenade, pizza, hummus—so it was just a short step to making limoncello.”
While in Italy, Angerstein had fallen for the traditional lemon liqueur, but really didn’t care for what was available in the U.S. So, using a recipe from Saveur magazine, she made her first homemade batch as a surprise Valentine’s Day gift for Grosso in 2003. Her question about a new vocation was answered.
Angerstein credits former wine seller Russell Smith for the advice to begin with arancello (orange liqueur) instead of lemon—to better serve margarita-loving Texans. It took two years to obtain the license, establish the business and perfect the recipe, and Paula’s Texas Orange debuted in 2005. Just a short year later, Paula’s Texas Lemon joined its successful sibling.
In the beginning, Angerstein did it all herself, from distilling to marketing. “I like all parts of the process...except selling,” she says. “I’m eternally grateful to David Jabour of Twin Liquors for helping introduce my product. Once it got on store shelves, I was surprised how quickly people started buying. I met one woman with a bottle in her hand who told me she made the world’s best margaritas with Paula’s Texas Orange.”
Paula’s Texas Spirits are made from the zest of fresh fruit that’s been steeped with sugar in Everclear, a neutral, grain-based spirit. Both liqueurs are made in small batches by Chris Roberts, a former chef. He zests every orange and lemon by hand and manages the entire distilling and bottling process. “We’ve started filtering the liqueurs through charcoal,” Angerstein says, “and it’s made them even better. Chris is my dream come true.” Bobby Heugel, mixologist at Anvil Bar & Refuge in Houston, says in his drinkdogma.com blog, “There may be no other more tediously crafted spirit made in Texas.”
Creating fresh and flavorful products is one thing, but introducing them to potential customers is quite another. “The very best marketing we can do is getting people to taste them,” says Angerstein. To accomplish this, she generously donates products to local culinary fundraisers for Austin Museum of Art, KLRU, Literacy Austin, AIDS Services of Austin, Green Corn Project, Texas Hill Country Wine & Food Festival, Les Dames d’Escoffier and others.
As the company’s fifth anniversary approaches, Angerstein’s liqueurs can be found in stores and fine drinking establishments all over the state. Angerstein has considered expanding to out-of-state markets, but for now she’s focusing her efforts on Texas. “Customers like it that the products are made here,” she says. “And they seem to like meeting me, to see that there’s a real Paula.”