Robert Del Grande and Don Short have been dropping hints all over Texas about their new venture: ROXOR, the first-ever Texas gin.
The project has been kept under wraps in advance of its launch Thursday night at the Hermann Park Conservancy gala, but that didn't stop the two longtime friends and business partners from amusing themselves by quietly leaving empty bottles around the state's bars and restaurants or including "ROXOR salt" as an ingredient on the RDG menu. And when Del Grande catered the StarChef's gala preview party, the menu read "venison with Texas gin," although no one picked up on the fact that, until ROXOR, Texas was gin-less.
That sort of guerilla marketing is a change for Short, who spent 30 years working around the world for the Coca Cola company before partnering with Del Grande to launch New Artisan Spirits.
"It started, as it always does, with the proverbial cocktail napkin," Short says of his partnership with Del Grande.
After retiring from Coca Cola, where Del Grande assisted him as a consultant on a board investigating healthier beverages, Short was at the bar at RDG when Del Grande suggested he try a vodka he'd infused with an old Chinese tea.
The two knew they wanted to work on something together, but until that night, they weren't sure what. "The microdistillery business in the U.S. was booming," Short says, so, inspired, they settled on creating a spirit.
"We looked at the spirits that made cultures famous and decided to create a modern interpretation," Short says.
The friends' mutual love for botanicals pointed them straight to gin.
Short's move from mega-corporation to small artisan liquor brand is an irony he embraces fully, and he emphasizes that ROXOR is about as far away from big-name-brands as you can get, right down to the bottle and logo design. "There's no mission statement," Short says, "we're trying to be as non-corporate as possible."
The logo was developed online by a Serbian man who won a contest for the design rights; the bottle is made by artisan glass-makers in Mexico City. Inspired by architecture, Short says the bottle's distinctive design is meant to make it look as though it could stand on its own among the world's greatest skylines. As for the name, Del Grande's first stab was CIVIC. The duo immediately liked the idea of having a palindrome for a name, and preferably one with five letters.
For maximum symmetry, Short started with an "X" in the middle and started testing combinations. The word's meaning — a euphoric state of being — was just a happy coincidence.
While Short focused on branding, Del Grande did what he does best — tinkering in the kitchen. The James Beard Award-winner says his biochemistry background came into play over the year he spent perfecting his recipe. He tried more than 100 batches before settling on the winning recipe, which incorporates hibiscus, Texas pecans, coriander, sarsaparilla and red grapefruit, among other ingredients.
"It got to a point that anything with an aroma was a possibility," Del Grande says of creating a gin that both gin-lovers and skeptics can enjoy. Del Grande cites his wife, Mimi, as a convert, and I count myself as one, too.
To those for whom a brusque British gin is unappealing, ROXOR is a refreshing alternative. As Short describes it, ROXOR can be thought of almost as a botanical vodka.
Del Grande says his process represented a marriage between cooking and chemistry. "There are different types of cooks, those that like to taste everything and those that like to smell," he says. "I was always on the smell side."
His divergent backgrounds as a chef and chemist complemented one another in keeping the process from getting too mathematic and methodical. "I wanted a bit of myth and magic," he says.
Still, his trademark method was ever evident. To avoid getting stuck in a mimicry rut, Del Grande says he would set out glasses of countless existing gins, picking out open spots in the spectrum of taste. Then he'd mix up the glasses and see if he could still identify them.
The celebrated chef said his particular interest in American cuisine made the creation of a locally crafted gin especially attractive. "The spirits industry had been dominated by Europe in large part," he says. "We wanted to make something our own."
Will New Artisan Spirits be adding to its portfolio? "The more exciting the gin project got, the more we couldn't resist thinking about other things," Del Grande says.
In keeping with the idea of creating fresh interpretations of spirits indigenous to other cultures, Short cites rum as a potential project.
For now, he says they'll focus first on stocking ROXOR at craft cocktail bars, and then on wider distribution, which is being handled by Republic. Short says he expects to reach full distribution in Texas within 30 days, and says when ROXOR does hit shelves, he expects it to retail for around $35 a bottle.
Watch below for a first taste of ROXOR:
An introduction to ROXOR with Don Short and Robert Del Grande:
Behind the brand: