Daniel Barnes is a really nice Texas boy. He referred to me as 'mam at least 20 times during our conversation. Part of me wanted to beg him to stop, but the other part could just tell that was how he was raised.
Barnes is from the small town of Menard, on the Edwards Plateau in South Texas where his mom and dad owned a steakhouse. When he was 5 years old they put him to work washing dishes by standing on a milk crate.
He moved to Austin to attend college at the University of Texas and afterwards worked as a sommelier at the Four Seasons and dabbled in a home brewing. Then, about seven years ago he and his father-in-law, Bruce Graham, an engineer by trade, decided they wanted to distill rum.
"We saw an opportunity to get involved in craft spirits in Texas," Barnes said. "We worked on a recipe for 10 to 12 months before we found the right one."
One of their original intents was to stay as true to Texas as possible, which led to a unique quality of Treaty Oaks platinum rum. Cane is an essential ingredient in rum that has a strong affect on the final flavor, and Barnes was actually able to track some that is grown and milled in Texas.
"There's this small town called Santa Rosa, which has the last operating sugar mill in Texas," said Barnes. "The sugar is grown in the Rio Grande area and they [the Rio Grande Valley Sugar Growers, Inc.] bring it to this mill for processing. So, it allowed us to stay true to Texas. But, even more important, it actually tastes good."
They also use Hill Country water, which is filtered through the natural limestone rock in the area, giving it a unique flavor.
For the past two years, their Texas-born and bred rum has been racking up awards. Just recently it won a silver medal at the International Review of Spirits Awards, and it was also recognized as a "Best Buy," which is awarded to spirits that have an uncommon value.
While the Treaty Oak Distillery got its start in rum, it has quickly branched off into other spirits with the help of two full-time distillers, Chris Lamb and Joshua Holland.
Their Waterloo Gin recently won a gold medal for taste at the MicroLiquor Spirits Awards, which is for brands that sell fewer than 50,000 9-liter cases a year.
Two other products, Graham's Texas Tea and Starlite Vodka, also recently won multiple awards at the MicroLiquor Spirits Awards.
And soon there will be aged rum, which is sleeping off the summer in American white oak barrels waiting for the end of its two-year aging process. The extreme heat of the Austin summer helps the rum age quicker and Barnes describes the samples he's had so far as more like bourbon.
"It's our favorite product," said Barnes, "to say we're excited for it to finally be ready is an understatement."
After the new year they'll bottle it up and ship it out.
As for their name, Treaty Oak is a historical tree in downtown Austin that is over 500 years old, and legend has it, was where Stephen F. Austin and local Native American Indian tribes met to establish Texas' first boundary.
Treaty Oak Platinum Rum, Waterloo Gin and Graham's Texas Tea are currently available in liquor stores around North Texas. Starlite Vodka will be on the shelves in just a few weeks and keep a keen eye out for the two-year barrel aged rum early next year. Keep track of them all through their Facebook page.