Saying that Gary Kelleher is Texas distilling royalty is not a stretch. As a child, he heard a story that his great grandfather made vodka for the czar of Russia, and following in his footsteps became a lifelong dream.
In the spring of 2005, after years in the restaurant business, he founded San Luis Spirits alongside his brother Kevin. Out of a warehouse in Dripping Springs, Gary designed the copper stills and created the recipe for Dripping Springs vodka, which launched in 2007 and sold 10,000 cases in nine months. By the end of 2008, Dripping Springs had won a gold medal and purity trophy at the International Wine and Spirits Competition in London.
In 2011, Gary developed and launched Dripping Springs Orange vodka. Fueled by its great success, he created the Austin Product Lab to formulate new spirits. “Creating recipes has been my love for as long as I can remember,” he says. “After launching Dripping Springs vodka in 2007, I saw a real opportunity to try out new liquor products through our distributor. The question always is, 'What do I want to have in my bar that doesn’t already exist?'”
In 2013, Gary and his wife, Dee, bought major interest in Texacello, maker of Paula’s Texas Orange and Paula’s Texas Lemon liqueurs, relaunching the brand with new labels. In 2014, Texacello partnered with Z Tequila for co-marketing in Texas.
The companies merged in 2015 to form Empresario, the first Texas company to create, distil, import, brand, and market craft spirits in Texas, with Gary as CEO and Dee as president of marketing and Texacello. Empresario’s portfolio includes seven tequilas, four liqueurs, and a line of all natural cocktail mixers, with more products in the works.
This September, Empresario launched the latest of Gary’s creations, Martine Honeysuckle liqueur. He describes the seductive elixir as “a distilled dalliance with a bouquet of honeysuckle blossoms and opulent notes of nectarine and vanilla, to sip or to stir.”
“I grew up loving the scent and the flavor of the honey from honeysuckle that grew around our house in Dallas,” he says. “It makes me think of summertime, freedom, and my first love.”
The story behind the spirit is just that romantic. In his 16th summer, he traveled from New York to Naples aboard the SS Michelangelo, a transatlantic ocean liner, one of the last of its kind. He spent seven days and six nights onboard with Martine, and when they disembarked, she disappeared. The liqueur is named for her.
“The idea of making a flavor that captured that scent and taste had been on my mind for years. I started working on it five years ago. It had to taste wonderful to sip and also be transformative in a cocktail. I think I finally achieved that. It mixes with whatever is in your bar and makes it greater than the sum of its parts.”
Martine is made by hand at the Texacello Distillery in Hays County and can be purchased at liquor stores throughout Texas. The exact recipe is, of course, a family secret, but the effort has been largely collaborative. Gary designed the tall, lean amber bottle with a bartender’s grip in mind. Chris Roberts and Bill Graham blend and steep the ingredients, bottling the final product. Trina Bentley created the gorgeous, elegant, art deco-inspired label. Esteban Barrera made the burnished gold cap.
“It is so rewarding to have our company here in Austin,” says Gary. “The creative vibe and openness to new ideas is unlike anywhere else on earth. I have 23 new products I am currently working on — I figure I can launch about three a year. I wake up every morning and pinch myself. I feel very lucky. I can’t believe that I can keep doing this and make a living at the same time.”