- Arianna Auber American-Statesman Staff
At the risk of offending my fellow Texans, I’m going to confess that I prefer palomas over margaritas.
The paloma — made with tequila, grapefruit soda and a little bit of lime — is sublime in its simplicity, with the straight-from-the-earth harmony of the agave and the grapefruit ringing such a pure, perfect note. But in its own way, so is the margarita, with its mix of tequila, Cointreau and lime juice.
One local spirits producer, Texacello, recognizes the allure of both. Since 2005, the company has been making Paula’s Texas Orange to satisfy margarita fans who prefer a Texas-made orange liqueur, rather than Cointreau or another sweet alternative. After a decade’s success with Paula’s Texas Orange and Paula’s Texas Lemon, the company has a new fruity liqueur now on liquor store shelves: Paula’s Texas Grapefruit. And, yes, it is divine with tequila.
“I think I read that in Mexico, they drink more palomas than anything else,” Dee Kelleher, president of Texacello, said. “And what a great drink. It’s lovely in all the ways — with grapefruit soda, fresh grapefruit. And Paula’s Texas Grapefruit, of course. The grapefruit is just amazing, especially in Texas.”
Kelleher and her husband, Gary, didn’t always own Texacello. They purchased majority shares of the business in 2013 from the original owner, Paula Angerstein, who now has a minor advisory role but prefers to spend her time traveling.
That’s actually how Angerstein became the first woman and second person, behind Tito Beveridge of the now omnipresent Tito’s Vodka, to legally distill and sell spirits in this state — by living abroad and vacationing in Italy, where she developed a deep love for the country’s limoncello, a sweet liqueur made from the zest of Italian lemons.
She brought that love back to Texas but produced an arancello, an orange liqueur, first at the advice of an industry veteran who recognized that “Texas is margarita country,” Kelleher said.
And now, with any luck, it’ll become a place for palomas, too.
The Kellehers, Gary especially, have spot-on instincts when it comes to knowing what people want to drink next. He and his brothers produced Dripping Springs Vodka in 2006 with their San Luis Spirits, Texas’ third legal distillery, and released a gin in 2014, the same year they opened a tasting bar on the premises.
With Texacello, the Kellehers took an unprecedented step. They joined forces last year with two other booze companies, Pepe Zevada Z Tequila and Republic Tequila, to form Texas’ first liquor house, Empresario Brands. The conglomerate gives each company the might and money to grow.
It’s also turned the Kellehers’ business into a family affair. While Gary remains involved in San Luis Spirits and acts as Empresario’s COO, Dee is the head of marketing at Empresario — with their daughter, Carolyn, working as a marketing specialist under her.
“Carolyn had a film degree, and come to find out, marketing is pretty visual, and it’s about telling stories,” Dee said. “That was a good education.”
One of the stories Carolyn is avid to tell is how Paula’s Texas Grapefruit came about. Although the first bottles of the slightly pink liqueur released only last month, the Kellehers had wanted to release the new flavor last year, armed with plenty of fresh Ruby Red grapefruits from the Rio Grande Valley and a brand-new, larger facility that would give Texacello’s production manager, Chris Roberts, more room to hand-produce each batch.
A delay in the permitting process for the new space spoiled the grapefruit but not their resolve. They’ve noticed “huge interest in grapefruit as a flavor,” Dee said. “You’re seeing it everywhere.”
“But there really wasn’t a Texas grapefruit liqueur before ours, and there aren’t many grapefruit liqueurs in general,” Carolyn added. “I don’t know of any that are made with fresh peel, like ours, rather than dried. Or I’d see a lot of palomas made with tequila and then a grapefruit vodka because there was just a void there. There wasn’t Paula’s.”
Deep Eddy Vodka’s Ruby Red is probably the most known spirit made with grapefruit — the flavored vodka, in fact, that sent the local distillery’s growth skyrocketing and helped to propel the citrus into the spotlight behind the bar.
But Paula’s Texas Grapefruit, as a liqueur and not a full-blown liquor, is rather different. Roberts produces it exactly as he does Paula’s Texas Lemon: hand-selecting each fruit for freshness, flavor and the oil content of the peel before zesting each one and infusing the zest in spirit barrels for two weeks, according to Texacello. It’s a process similar to the one Italian families and restaurants follow when making their own limoncello.
“Every day the barrels are rolled by hand to evenly distribute the natural oils from the zest throughout the spirits,” a Texacello information sheet reads. “We then filter the spirits and add cane sugar and Texas rainwater to finish our liqueurs. We make Paula’s Texas Orange the same way, with a seven-day infusion time to reach peak flavor.”
Already, Carolyn said, Paula’s Texas Grapefruit has gotten a lot of attention, in part because of the pink color that attracts people from across the room at events. “They’ll ask, ‘Oh, what is that?’ and want to try it,” she said.
Chances are, they’ll like what they taste. The liqueur showcases the Rio Grande Valley’s Ruby Reds sweetly, without being cloying, but enjoying it in a cocktail like the paloma is ideal. I spent a recent sunny afternoon outside with my dogs, relishing in the nice weather and in a mixture of Tequila 512 Blanco, Paula’s Texas Grapefruit, lime juice and club soda that I had whipped up.
It’s going to be my drink of summer, I can already tell.
Paula’s Texas Grapefruit is also, the Kellehers promised, good with vodka, gin, whiskey, sparkling wine, even beer. And don’t leave out rum, either.
“We looked back at some classic cocktails to pair it with,” Dee Kelleher said. “The Hemingway daiquiri has a little grapefruit juice in it, so we came up with this variation — we love our puns — called the Rum Also Rises.”