Texas distillery cooks up prickly new vodka flavor for summer cocktails
It may have been one of the first distilleries in North Texas, but in 2011, many people didn't know JEM Beverage Co. even existed. When it first opened and was headquartered in a warehouse in Carrollton, local regulations made tours and direct sales impossible, and folks were generally nervous about having a building filled with flammable liquid nearby.
But only a few years later, production of JEM's five spirits — Western Son vodka, Brazos gin, Red River whiskey, South House moonshine and Southern Son vodka — outgrew the Carrollton location, so co-owner Evan Batt started looking around.
After exploring options from McKinney to Coppell, Frisco to Cedars, he found Pilot Point in Denton County, a city he confesses he'd never heard of before.
"Pilot Point was actually already looking to court a distillery to come to town," Batt says. "When we went up there, we saw this 30,000-square-foot building, then walked right next door to the chamber of commerce, then the fire department, then the police station, then city hall.
"It was so easy to get all the permits. We knew right away we would be welcome there."
Another factor that would endear JEM to the community, though Batt and co-owner John Straits didn't know it at the time, was the building they chose to renovate into the new distillery. Built in the 1960s, it housed the Russell-Newman Clothing Company — but everyone lovingly referred to it as "The Old Panty Factory."
"Everybody either had a relative that worked there or knew someone who did," Batt says. "It was the city's big industry for 20 years. When we found out what it used to be, we were nervous — that's a little PG-13 — but everyone insisted we embrace it."
There's even a "shrine" to the building's racy past in one of the bathrooms, and a quote on the wall from a local resident that reads: "My mother-in-law worked here. My father-in-law worked at the GM seat upholstery factory. He used to say they were both in the seat-covering business."
Since it opened at 217 W. Division St. in May, the new distillery has been enjoying the perks of its location and added space. A 600-gallon pot still has drastically increased capacity on Red River whiskey, which is now made from corn sourced from Pilot Point and other local North Texas farmers. The filling capacity of the bottling line has also grown, and JEM is able to run two lines simultaneously.
Tours are now offered at 4 pm on Fridays and 1, 3 and 5 pm on Saturdays, with local bands performing on the outdoor stage on Saturdays. If you show up on horseback, your tour is half-off.
"When we first realized we could do public tours, we toured many other distilleries and breweries to get a feel for what works and what we like," Batt says. "Some were just open houses and others are like a chemistry class. We wanted to be able to offer both styles so visitors could get exactly what they wanted from our tours.
"One is very casual: People show up, we start 'em with a cocktail, then we take them to the back for 20 minutes and go through the whole process in an approachable way. Then they can hang out and have a couple more cocktails.
"We also offer the opposite, which is like Distillation 101, for people who really want to dig in."
The cocktail tour ($10) includes a 15-ounce branded drinking glass in addition to three gin or vodka cocktails. For $15, the whiskey tour offers samples plus a sample fresh from the still or a barrel sample, as well as a Red River-branded whiskey glass.
Publicly available at the end of July, JEM's newest flavor is the Western Son Prickly Pear vodka.
"We started with just regular vodka and a rum, then slowly evolved into flavored vodka — we were actually the first grapefruit vodka in Texas," Batt says. "Then we expanded with peach and citrus and blueberry, and that's one that has really taken off.
"You open the cap and it fills the room with a blueberry aroma. Some people will call ahead for the tours and if we don't have the blueberry-lemonade cocktail, they won't come."
JEM began experimenting with more Texas flavors, and prickly pear, which is so popular in margaritas, was an obvious choice.
"It's very true to the fruit," Batt says. "Real prickly pear is a deep pinkish-purple when you cut it open, and the taste is sweet, tart and earthy. This flavor of vodka is light, easily drinkable, refreshing year-round — everything Texans go for."
According to Batt, lemonade brings out the vodka's citrus notes, while ginger beer and club soda mellow it. Fresh herbs elevate the earthiness.
The new building is only five minutes from Lake Ray Roberts and features a tasting room and large front patio in addition to the spacious distillation area. Future plans include building a brewery, making JEM the first dual production facility in North Texas (Ranger Creek Brewing & Distilling is located in San Antonio).
"We're going to call it the Whistle Post Brewery," Batt says. "There's a railroad near our land, and 'whistle post' is the sign that signals the train conductor to blow the horn.
"Our brewery will be the real, live whistle post, and we want to be a destination for people looking to spend a day having a good time."