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CapnHollis Mar 17, 2012 2:41 PM
Posted in group: B-Movies

Waiting for whiskey at Fort Worth's first distillery

Posted Friday, Mar. 16, 201215 Comments PrintReprints


FORT WORTH -- A heady mash of corn, wheat and malted barley is cooking in one of five 1,000-gallon fermenters, and clear "white dog" whiskey is cascading out of two 500-gallon copper stills at Fort Worth's first distillery.

The raw whiskey will likely age for three years or until "it's ready" in 53-gallon charred oak barrels at Firestone & Robertson Distilling Co. before the bourbon is ready to be bottled.

But within two months, Leonard Firestone and Troy Robertson will be introducing the brand's first product, a "full-bodied" blended whiskey produced by three Kentucky distillers.

"It will be a premium blended aged whiskey. The formula we have put together is completely unique," said Firestone, 45.

"That's our secret sauce. That's our Coke formula," added Robertson, 35. "It's bold for a blend; it's probably a sweeter note than some of the competitors. The combination is just delicious."

About 400 barrels of the cask-strength, 112-proof blending whiskey are already stacked up at the distillery at 901 W. Vickery Blvd., awaiting regulatory approval of labels before it can be blended to 80 proof, bottled and corked with custom caps topped by reclaimed boot leather.

Across the aisle from those 20,000-something gallons of blending stock, the microdistillery just south of downtown Fort Worth is producing about 12 barrels of its own whiskey in three 8.5-hour "runs" a week from the custom-made Vendome pot stills.

Over the next three months, production will gradually ramp up toward the distillery's three-shift capacity of around 1,560 barrels a year, Robertson said.

"With these two 500-gallon stills, we're probably within the top five of capacity for craft distilleries in the country," Firestone said. "Most people start with 150- to 250-gallon stills and then grow in time."

"We had the capitalization to start larger and to be able to lay up as much product as we can," he said.

'Going traditional'

The partners won't reveal their substantial start-up costs, but they say they have the investment capital and patience to wait three years or more before their straight bourbon whiskey can hit the top shelves.

Unlike some craft whiskey distillers who are speeding up the aging process by storing whiskey in small oak casks, Firestone & Robertson is "going traditional" with full-sized barrels.

What's unknown involves the aging process -- how a whiskey barrel will react to North Texas' climate as the liquor expands and contracts in the charred wood.

"Nobody has ever done this here. That's what we don't know. It will be hotter here than in Kentucky and not as cold," Robertson said. "It will be unique."

In the meantime, how is that 135-proof raw whiskey?

"It's really, really good white dog. There are more floral notes than I've ever tasted in white dog," said head distiller Rob Arnold, a native Kentuckian with family links to the whiskey business who was plucked away from UT Southwestern Medical Center's doctoral program in microbiology.

The only other employee is Angela Weaver, the office manager and events coordinator.

Distilling has been under way for a little more than a month, but Firestone and Robertson say their product is percolating just as planned.

"We had done a ton of diligence on it. We've been working on it for nearly three years. It was spot-on the first couple of runs," Robertson said.

"It has been more fun than we thought it would be. And what has made it so fun is that it turned out the way we hoped it would."

For now, some lucky Texas cows are getting the first hints about the whiskey. The rich "slop," or leftover distiller's grain, is supplementing a local herd's diet.

'Touch, smell and taste'

The two entrepreneurs with diverse business backgrounds were first acquainted through their children's play group. They partnered up after discovering through another Texas distiller that they were each pursuing a similar business plan.

They've spent months renovating a 40,000-square-foot warehouse built in 1927 that housed a freight company. They've repurposed wood and sprinkler pipe to make tables and desks out of demolition remains.

The end result is a modernized period piece that would have made Al Capone and his boys feel right at home during Prohibition.

They would also have likely appreciated that the extensive security and fire safety systems are augmented by an old-school guard dog that hangs out during distilling runs and then goes on duty when the doors are locked.

Construction is wrapping up on a tasting room and reception area. The distillery's unusual ambiance of exposed brick, large windows, two gleaming pot stills, stainless-steel fermenters, whiskey barrels and a complex maze of piping has already prompted inquiries from several brides-to-be about hosting wedding receptions, Firestone said.

"We've done what we set out to do with the building not just being a warehouse. Whiskey is not just about a product, it's about a sense of place as well. We wanted to be in a facility with some history and tradition," he said.

Initially, the partners planned to produce vodka, which could have hit the shelves along with the blended whiskey, but they've decided that "first and foremost we're a whiskey company," Robertson said.

"We've got our hands full," Firestone added. "We want to do it right, each product has got to be right -- premium quality. If we try and do too many things, something will suffer."

Talks are ongoing with a handful of distributors, he said.

"There has been some real interest. Everyone has seen the success of some of the Texas spirits. The interest is there because of the consumer interest," Firestone said.

Whiskey-making is a dance between new technology and time-tested traditions, Robertson said.

"A lot of this is touch, smell and taste. And that's what we wanted to do here. We wanted to embrace the philosophy that we don't care that it takes us longer to do, we just want to do it right."

Steve Campbell, 817-390-7981

Peace out...
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