Texas is truly at the heart of Firestone & Robertson Distillery.
From eye-catching branding to single-farm mash bills to a proprietary wild yeast strain and more, The Lone Star State is woven into the company’s DNA.
It is a big reason why this Fort Worth-based distillery has enjoyed rapid success. Founded in 2010 by Leonard Firestone and Troy Robertson, the business recently announced a partnership with Pernod Ricard. The deal will greatly expand production and distribution of the distillery’s TX whiskey brand.
In just a decade, it’s been quite a journey. The idea for a Texas-based craft whiskey came from a 2009 NYTimes article about Tito’s Handmade Vodka. Reading, Firestone wondered whether anybody had approached whiskey with the same Texas focus. The answer was no. That was opportunity.
Three years later, Firestone and his business partner launched their first product: TX Blended Whiskey. In 2016, TX Straight Bourbon came out: a 4-year-old whiskey. Demand outstripped supply. The line of customers at the distillery for the first bourbon bottles was many times larger than the founders had anticipated, growing into the thousands. Firestone and Robertson that day signed bottles for eight hours.
“That was a critical turning point for our distillery,” Firestone recalls. “Volumes grew at such a level that we decided to scale the company up, and lay down a significant amount of whiskey, with an eye towards becoming a national and even international brand.”
Seeking property to match the scale of their ambition, the founders landed on a local golf course. Fort Worth’s historic Glen Garden Country Club was where Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson both started out as caddies. After falling out of use for years, the 112-acre property became available. In 2017, Firestone & Robertson opened a sprawling, state-of-the-art facility here, including the largest still west of the Mississippi.
The founders redesigned the course around the distillery, offices, rickhouse (five stories tall, with room for 40,000 barrels) and visitor’s center, keeping the greens viable for private use. A house mixologist whips up TX cocktails in the property’s bar. Last year, 45,000 guests visited this whiskey ranch, which is located roughly in the middle of the Dallas-Forth Worth metropolis. Firestone forecasts 75,000 visitors for 2020.
Walking the grounds, you quickly discover that the axis of the property points towards a stunning view of the downtown towers of Forth Worth.
Distilling, the company uses a proprietary wild yeast strain, harvested from an a pecan nut on a Texas ranch on a Texas ranch. Firestone & Robertson achieved this feat with the help of the Texas Christian University biology department, whittling down from 100 potential yeast options.
Pecan is the official “health nut” of Texas. “It’s a huge part of the provenance of the bourbon itself,” says Firestone. “We’re the only distillery working with a proprietary Texas yeast strain.” The TX yeast strain provides a house flavor of fig, brown Christmas spices, cinnamon and dry dark fruit.
All the grains in the mash bills come from a single Texas farm an hour south in Hillsboro. This gives the distillery greater oversight of the crops.
“We love to have the control over the varieties and terroir of our grains to help limit the variables in the process, like how winemakers produce grapes to improve their quality and consistency,” explains Master Distiller Rob Arnold. (Arnold, the distillery’s first employee, has published in support of the concept of whiskey terroir.)
A piece of Texas even ends up in the packaging of TX whiskey. Every bottle cap comes topped by a piece of recycled Texas leather. (For the leather scraps, the company trades whiskey.) Beyond provenance, this provides uniqueness. “It has created a collection culture around our products,” Firestone says. “People talk about where they find different leather caps, at which stores.”
For special orders — including their burgeoning store-pick program — the distillery can top caps with custom materials, such as cowboy boots or baseball covers.
Firestone & Robertson distills several different mash bills, and barrels in an array of char and oak. The goal is variety, allowing Ale Ochoa, whiskey scientist and blender, to mix together the perfect expressions.
“We have a flavor profile from our proprietary yeast strain, and I like to bring that fruitiness forwards,” Ochoa explains. “I’m looking for balance that trends towards fruitiness and caramel, with a touch of spice, plus maple butter and other notes.”
Ochoa organizes aging stock by flavor profiles. Retailers visiting for store picks taste through these groups before choosing their single barrel. “I want to make sure that these stores don’t just taste one type of our flavors,” Ochoa says. “I want them to really see the diversity of our flavors.” Only three months old, the TX barrel-select program has already had seven bottlings, including Total Wine and Spec’s.
Down the pipeline, the distillery will soon launch a barrel proof bourbon, around 130 proof, in the $65 range. Also planned for 2020 are finishes in tawny port, Pedro Ximénez sherry and Cognac. Other finishing experimentations include muscatel, chardonnay, rum and tequila, along with rye and single malt expressions. A second rickhouse will soon go up in support of all these new experiments.
All of which showcases the different ways that Texas can turn into whiskey. Says Firestone, “We wanted to create something from Texas that people everywhere can enjoy.”
Kyle Swartz is editor of Beverage Dynamics magazine. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @kswartzz. Read his recent piece What Has People Camping Out Overnight For Whiskey?