Wild Rag Vodka, distilled in nearby Sandia, is putting south Texas spirits on the map. The vodka, which is made at the South Texas Distillery by Master Distiller Royel Aguilar, is gaining national fame for its smooth taste and unique ingredients.
The distillery produces three types of vodka through a precision process, much of which is proprietary. Originally, Aguilar began to distill a vodka from pure cane sugar, thus leading to his original Wild Rag Vodka. But Aguilar always knew he wanted to produce something different, something that hadn’t been done before.
“At the very beginning, I knew I wanted to do something that hadn’t been done before. Everything I was looking at had been done until I thought about using all the mesquite beans we had. I ran across an article where the Native Americans had made mesquite wine,” said Aguilar.
Aguilar, who grew up on the very land that his distillery sits on in Sandia, started out with a love of cooking and “making things taste good.” This love of perfecting flavors soon spilled over into wine- making. Aguilar begins sharing his wine with friends and family and soon, ideas began to boil over in his head.
“I honestly feel like distilling is a little simpler than fermenting. I’ve gotten the mesquite bean process down to an exact science now. Consistency is the key to this operation,” said Aguilar.
So with that idea in mind, Aguilar set out to make the first ever mesquite bean vodka. He came up with a recipe and then had to submit that to the FDA. The recipe got sent back to Aguilar on the grounds that the federal government had never received a request for mesquite bean usage in food. Aguilar had to send in his recipe to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and submit proof that the bean was safe for consumption.
“I found an article about a distillery in the 1950s that was aging their whiskey in mesquite bark and found a company in Brazil that was grinding up mesquite beans to make flour,” said Aguilar, of his hunt for evidence.
Once the distillery had garnered approval from the FDA, the real operation began. The first batch of mesquite bean vodka was made from beans gathered on Aguilar’s homestead, where the South Texas Distillery is located. Subsequent batches are made from beans gathered at Paraiso Ranch, a 4,000-acre tract of land.
“According to the FDA, the beans can’t touch the ground before use. There are bugs that burrow into the hull as soon as the beans hit the ground. So, collecting beans from the ground is not an option,” said Aguilar.
To combat this problem, Aguilar and his wife and members of their family collect beans from the mesquite trees by hand. They stand in the back of a truck and pick the beans and put them directly into a sealed barrel to keep those pesky critters away.
“The bugs are relentless. If the beans are on the tree, they won’t mess with them, but if they hit the ground, there won’t be anything left of them after a short time,” said Aguilar.
In addition to his distilling, Aguilar and his wife Lupita have opened up the Wild Rag Tasting Room on their property. The tasting room is open Monday through Saturday for bottle sales during regular business hours and Friday and Saturday for drinks from 4-9 p.m. The tasting room also hosts live music acts on weekends and a huge selection of handcrafted cocktails. Aguilar hand makes his own cocktail ingredients and grows his own mint and other garnishes. His homemade Irish Cream is a hot commodity at the tasting room.
“We are packed on the weekends,” said Aguilar. “We get people from all over the place.”
The tasting room has been expanded twice, but Aguilar says that with the room being directly next to his private residence, that there will be no more expansion of the tasting room.
“We will have to move to a new location if we keep this pace. We will stay in Sandia, though,” said Aguilar.
Wild Rag Vodka has been gaining local acclaim, as evidenced by their being named the official distillery of Jim Wells County, but they have also been recognized nationally. Just this week, Wild Rag has been approved to sell through Shotsbox.com, a spirit sampling service that sends out 10 samples of varying spirits and allows customers to order them online with minimal shipping. This service will allow Wild Rag Vodka to be sold in 40 states, greatly expanding their availability.