Texas Pecans Add Punch to Autumnal Cocktails
Locally-made pecan liqueurs, syrups and infusions are behind-the-bar staples in Austin
I’ve been raiding the neighborhood pecan trees again.
Most days, I promise myself I’ll collect enough to do something other than snack. I’m not much of a baker, so my ideal use for pecans is in cocktails, in the form of a syrup or infusion. Fortunately, bar professionals around Austin are less greedy than I (or less lazy), so I’m able to have my cocktail and eat pecans, too.
Carya illinoinensis is a species of hickory native to parts of Texas, the nation’s third largest producer of pecans after Georgia and New Mexico. The Hill Country is part of the nation’s “Pecan Belt,” which extends to northern Illinois, and fossilized pecan shells estimated to be 65 million years old have been found in San Saba, the self-proclaimed “Pecan Capital of the World.”
If, like me, you also adore pecans in liquid form, I recommend Noce Pecan, from Austin’s Revolution Spirits (available at The Austin Shaker and AB Liquor on Anderson Lane). Inspired by Italy’s walnut-based nocino, an inky, bittersweet digestif made from green nuts steeped in high-proof alcohol, Noce Pecan is made with unripe nuts from Yegua Creek Farms and lemon peel. Distiller Forrest Allen recommends substituting it for vermouth in a Negroni, but it’s no less enchanting on its own or in espresso as a postprandial libation–perhaps with a holiday pecan pie.
Behind the bar
Thousands of years before bartenders began using pecans in syrups, infusions, tinctures and other cocktail components, the nuts were a critical source of protein and fat for the Coahuiltecan and other indigenous peoples of the region.
Since the 19th century, the Colorado River Valley (and to a lesser degree, the Rio Grande River Basin outside of El Paso) has been home to multigenerational farms that grow different varieties of pecans. Depending on size and oil content, some, like Pawnee, are beloved for baking, while others, such as the large, crunchy Choctaw, are popular for snacking and garnishes. Larger nuts with a high oil content are ideal for use in cocktails.
October marks the start of our local pecan harvest, which runs through January, so now is the time to scour bar menus for drinks made with the sweet, buttery nuts; the flavor profile is extremely compatible with brown spirits like whiskey or rum. Case in point: Lutie’s Yes Ma’am (brown butter-washed pecan rye, vermouth, Cognac, black pepper tincture, Benedictine) and The Roosevelt Room’s complex Mazateca Soil, a recent special made with banana- and pecan-infused Paranubes Oaxacan Rum, Lustau Amontillado Los Arcos Sherry, Bigallet China-China, vanilla, mole and orange bitters, salt tincture, lime and pecan oils.
At the Milonga Room, underneath Buenos Aires Cafe, the Don Pedro is a “dessert cocktail” made with ice cream, Amarula and pecan-infused bourbon,” says general manager René Newman. “The drink actually has origins in South Africa , but because it was (owner) Paola Guerrero-Smith’s father’s favorite drink, we created a Texas-inflected version as a tribute to him.”
Pecans are also an excellent swap for almonds in orgeat–the fragrant, viscous syrup most famously used in tiki drinks. I first experienced this variation years ago at Odd Duck, in a cocktail called To Be Orgeat to Be (Mezcal El Silencio Joven, damiana and Grand Marnier). Now, I’m looking forward to trying Watertrade’s new shichimi togarashi-spiced pecan orgeat in their Komainu’s Tail–a riff on the classic Lion’s Tail made with Kujira Ryukyu Whisky NAS, lime, housemade spiced pecan orgeat, yuzu and St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram.
“The Lion’s Tail is traditionally made with demerara sugar, but I loved the idea of using orgeat instead, because allspice and pecans seem just made for each other, but the spices in the orgeat give the drink a Japanese inflection,” says general manager Billy Weston.
Beers are also created to celebrate Texas’s pecan heritage, with seasonal, small-batch releases like Beerburg Brewing’s new Mesquite Bean and Pecan Brown Ale. It’s made with foraged beans milled at neighboring Barton Springs Mill and nuts from San Saba’s Oliver Pecan Company.
“Normally, I’d harvest the pecans myself,” says founder/herbalist Trevor Nearburg. “But considering how widely available they are, we felt it better to support our foodshed. We combine amber and pale chocolate malts to create a light, slightly toasty ale with notes of toffee and Pecan Sandie cookie.” The brew is only available at the Dripping Springs tasting room, where it can be ordered with housemade maple-spiced pecan ice cream as a beer float.
If you’re not fortunate enough to live in a neighborhood rife with pecan trees or have one of your own, take a cue from Nearburg and purchase them direct from growers to bolster our region’s economy and aid localized food security. Find freshly harvested pecans at Austin farmers’ markets or Berdoll Pecan Farm, which has a farm store on Highway 71, in Cedar Creek (look for Miss Pearl, who may or may not be the world’s largest roadside squirrel).