Elk Store channels speakeasy days
In the 1920s prohibition era, underground bars called “speakeasies” popped up where people could wind down and wet their whistle.
At the Elk Store 1895 Winery and Distillery, drinking enthusiasts get a chance to peek back into those times.
“It’s a 1920s speakeasy-themed bar where you can get a glass or bottle of wine and the best craft cocktails in Fredericksburg while having the chance to take home bottles of our small batch, hand-crafted liquors,” Elk Store founder and owner Todd Smajstrla said. “It’s a speakeasy and liquor store rolled into one.”
The first few drops
Smajstrla, who moved here in 1993, started out as a wine connoisseur, opening (and later selling) Lincoln Street in 1996 and then House.Wine. in 2007.
After House.Wine. became solely wine-centric, Smajstrla had his good friend, Scott Hladky manage the bar in 2013.
That’s when liquor got involved.
“Scotty always made beer at home and I’ve done everything in the wine business, but neither of us had ever done anything with liquor, so we thought it’d be cool to start moonshining,” Smajstrla said.
The duo bought parts online, and built a 10-gallon copper still and started moonshining at home.
“We just wanted to see how we could do it, but keep in mind it’s illegal to make any form of hard liquor at home,” Smajstrla said. “We just wanted to experiment and learn.”
The friends have Czech ancestors (Smajstrla translates to “tavern keeper” and Hladky translates to “smooth”), so it came as no surprise the two “smooth tavern keepers” improved their liquor-making technique.
In 2014, they went up to Chicago to take a class on distilling. That’s when lightbulbs went off.
“People were talking about the idea of a distillery on a Main Street in a Midwestern town and we figured it’d be perfect to make liquor and sell it in-house,” Smajstrla said. “So I went home and got started.”
Letting the idea ferment
At the time of Smajstrla’s initial idea, Texas state law had restrictions on liquor distributors, so he maintained House.Wine. while working on Elk Store in the background.
“Until 2015, the law wouldn’t allow distillers to sell a single bottle or cocktail; we could only distribute,” Smajstrla said. “After they changed the law to allow us to sell, it opened up a huge opportunity.”
Smajstrla started raising capital, and he and Hladky joined up with eight other investors. They spent a year obtaining wine and liquor distillery licenses from federal and state levels.
“We needed separate licenses for both,” Smajstrla said, “since there’s a winery on one side and a distillery on the other.”
Once Smajstrla obtained a distillery license, they started stilling 24/7.
“We immediately began with a 200-gallon-run which produces about 200 bottles,” Smajstrla said. “Scotty and I would take turns staying the night here so there was always something in production. We wanted to make sure we had enough product to meet demand.”
The type of liquor determines how long it takes, but clear liquor (gin and moonshine) averages about 10 days from start to finish.
Tying into heritage
Smajstrla’s great-grandfather, John Cyril Smajstrla, was a moonshiner and started the Elk Store in Elk (near Waco) in 1895.
“He made moonshine before, during and after prohibition,” Smajstrla. “He was a bootlegger and we wanted to carry on the tradition he started.”
Maintaining high proof
Elk Store makes all their liquor in-house, from start to finish, which differs from most distilleries in Texas.
“Unfortunately, in the state, the craft liquor industry doesn’t necessarily have truth in labeling,” Smajstrla said. “Distilleries in Texas buy ethanol from a mass distillery up north, and all the state requires you to do is proof it down with Texas water. Many of the well-known brands of liquor in Texas don’t make anything, but there’s a handful of us that make everything.”
This includes unique cocktails made from in-house distilled spirits such as moonshine, gin, rum and charter (oak infused “shine”). The bartenders even make their own tonic syrups, shrubs and bitters.
“In most bars, you can order in any kind of liquor or anything you want, but we can’t,” Smajstrla said. “We have to make everything, because that’s how the law is for distilleries.”
Next up for Elk Store includes starting a membership club, called “Texas Moonshine Mafia Club”, and eventually making Agave spirit (tequila) and single-malt whiskey (scotch).
“By next week, we’ll have three rums, two gins, two moonshines, two different whiskeys, and a brandy by Christmas,” Smajstrla said. “Our goal is to continue making incredible small-batch liquors that are ‘sippably-smooth’ and so good on its own, you can’t help but imagine how it’d taste in a cocktail.”