Absinthe and liqueurs
Violet Crown Spirits co-founder Matthew Mancuso first encountered the green fairy -- a.k.a. absinthe -- during an internship in Switzerland while he was working toward a Ph.D. in chemistry.
When absinthe reentered the U.S. market in 2007 after nearly a century of prohibition, Mancuso felt the quality wasn't quite up to European standards and worked to develop his own recipe. A decade later, he launched Violet Crown Spirits (a dba for Derelict Airship Distillery) with Graves, a musician and freelance sign language interpreter, and Chris McLaughlin.
After a 22-month buildout, the distillery started bottling in 2017. The company now offers two types of absinthe --140-proof Emerald and 110-proof Opal -- and a lineup of herbal liqueurs.
"The Emerald is a green essence, Opal is a white essence," says Graves. "If you know anything about absinthe, you probably think green, but that's just one style. They're basically the same thing, but the green has an extra step that gives it the coloration. They both have two distillations, from the fermented product to the distilled product, and after maceration of a bunch of herbs, the alcohol gets distilled again. It's very similar to gin in a lot of ways."
The Emerald Absinthe undergoes another maceration after the secondary distillation. "Because it has more herb oils, it needs to be a higher-proof alcohol to have them be in solution, so that's at 140 proof, or 70 percent alcohol," notes Graves. "All absinthe is intended to be diluted with water. People hear the number on the bottle, and they go, 'Wooo-eee!' but you're actually supposed to dilute it to lower alcohol by volume than your typical whiskey or vodka."
The market has been receptive. "We've won people over that were never absinthe fans, as well as the ones who are," says Graves. "They like the complexity. It's a unique flavor among absinthes. It's recognizable as its own thing. I'm sure people could pick it out of a blind taste test."
The catalog also includes three floral liqueurs: jasmine, elderflower, and midnight marigold. The line emerged from a customer request for a jasmine tea liqueur, then Graves pushed to expand the line to include two more liqueurs using flowers that grow in Texas.
The 1,500-square-foot distillery sources grape and grain spirits as a base, then does the secondary distillation on a 200-liter still (nicknamed "Janus") and herbal infusions. Some of the flowers are sourced locally, but most ingredients come from a broader, primarily fair-trade supply chain.
"Perhaps once we graduate to a larger facility, we'll get a little fancier with it," says Graves, noting that the model helps keep the price point under control. "We don't have a powerful enough still to do a grain spirit base."
The distillery now has hundreds of accounts in Texas as well as Tennessee, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and California. The growth trajectory was solid until 2020, when COVID-19 shut down cocktail bars coast to coast. "When all of the bars shut down, we were worried," says Graves. "We were able to improve our retail end of the sales. Between that and hand sanitizer in 2020, we survived."
Challenges: The multi-tier distribution system in Texas. "We are only allowed to sell two bottles per person per 30 days out of our manufacturing plant," says Graves. "Otherwise, we can only sell to distributors, and distributors in Texas don't sell to bars and restaurants. They sell to retail, and then retail sells to customers and bars and restaurants. So, we are basically unable to control anything about our retail operation."
Managing the supply chain has also become a bit of a juggling act, with glass a prime bottleneck. "Everything's more expensive, and sometimes we have to place our orders months earlier than we would have otherwise," says Graves. "When you're trying to buy stuff, you can end up making a lot of calls."
Opportunities: Growing sales at existing accounts. "Total Wine picked us up for all of our products for all of their stores [in Texas]," says Graves. "It's just reaching full capacity for the retail stores that are carrying our stuff."
Needs: Lobbying muscle in Austin. The Texas Distilled Spirits Association is fundraising to do just that, says Graves. "Beer and wine, there's a lot of distribution options available to them, and spirits are treated much differently," she explains. "Direct-to-consumer is the biggest thing we're trying to get."
A larger distillery with space to grow herbs and flowers is also on Graves' wish list.