Being from Tennessee, I’d like to think I know a little something about whiskey. My in-laws live near Lynchburg, Tenn., home of Jack Daniel’s. I’ve taken the unique distillery tour three times, and heard much about the process of making whiskey. I’ve had several Kentucky bourbons, enjoyed whisky from Scotland, and sampled my share of blends from Canada and the U.S. As I type this, I’m sipping on a Jameson’s Irish Whiskey. But on a recent visit to Fort Worth, Texas, I learned so much more about the science of whiskey making from a Kentucky-bred and Tennessee-educated distiller. I was in for a special treat learning about Fort Worth bourbon at Firestone & Robertson Distilling Co.
I met head distiller Rob Arnold for a tour and tasting in the young company’s awesome old warehouse space in the Near Southside district in Fort Worth. Rob is called The Professor for a reason; after graduating from the University of Tennessee with a bachelor’s degree in microbiology, he moved to Dallas where he was a doctoral student in biochemistry at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School. But bourbon is in Rob’s blood. A native of Louisville, Ky., an uncle and grandfather worked in the bourbon industry, and Rob felt the pull. So in 2011, he left school early with a master’s degree and joined the team at Firestone & Robertson. It’s safe to say I had a bourbon pro leading me through this cool old warehouse space.
Texas isn’t known for bourbons, even though there are a few made across the state. I’m not really sure there is a definitive beverage of choice in the Lone Star State. I’m familiar with several fantastic beers made in Texas, and even a few solid wines. As a former resident of Texas, I’m well aware of the pride Texans take in products made there. So I knew Rob meant business when he talked about all the Texas-grown products that go into their bourbon.
Firestone & Robertson was started in 2010 by Leonard Firestone and Troy Robertson, two Fort Worth residents with a love of whiskey and an entrepreneurial spirit. Rob joined up in 2011, and since then, Firestone & Robertson has been crafting its perfect bourbon.
The building is open for tours on Saturdays, but check the website for reservations before driving over. The building itself is worth checking out. It is part of the character of Firestone & Robertson. Built in 1927, the former moving warehouse gave the distillery a lot to use for the character of the business. It had been abandoned for about a decade before the distillery moved in, so it was in need of a new tenant.
But as cool as the building is, everything at Firestone & Robertson is about the products. Currently, the only thing available is a whiskey blend. The distillery has brought in various whiskeys it has used to make a quality blend, called TX Blended Whiskey. The first actual bourbon is still aging in the barrels.
The distillery took whiskeys with different styles and combined them to meet the profile of their blend. Rob said it’s like making a red wine blend.
“We took different styles of American whiskeys,” he said. “We felt they were underrepresented. We think it will stand up to any blends.”
The bourbon to come, meanwhile, is still aging. The typical aging process is three to four years in the barrel. The oldest barrel at Firestone & Robertson, as of early November 2013, was 20 months. So there’s still another year and a half or so before the bourbon is possibly ready.
Why Rob is unsure, though, has to do with the Texas heat. That heat could make the bourbon age quicker. So maybe it will be ready in another 16 months, or it could be nearly 30 months. That’s the thing with starting something from scratch, you never know when the product is just right.
While Rob has roots in Kentucky, he made it clear that everything being made at Firestone & Robertson is 100 percent Texas.
Only Texas ingredients are used, starting with the corn that is grown in the Dallas-Fort Worth area as well as the Texas Panhandle. The corn is the primary grain followed by a smaller grain that is red winter wheat. The flavor, Rob said, is the primary reason for using the grain. But more importantly, it’s local.
“We’re not Kentucky bourbon, it’s Texas bourbon. We have a lot of connections to Kentucky, but we’re not trying to make Maker’s Mark,” he said. “If they took one barrel and aged it in Kentucky and one barrel and aged it in Texas it would taste completely different.”
Back to that advanced degree Rob was in Dallas to obtain. There is a correlation between his former academic pursuits and what he finds himself doing today. See, that background in biochemistry enabled Rob to spend some time on a ranch in Glen Rose, Texas, where he was able to isolate more than 100 types of yeast. He used DNA sequencing to narrow it down to a strand that made the unique flavors he was looking for. This is where his Kentucky roots are shining through in Texas and helping make a truly original product.
“In Kentucky and Tennessee, guys go out and get yeast strands and use them for decades. The last time was Jim Beam until us,” Rob said of the famous Kentucky bourbon distiller. “We’re the first since then to isolate a yeast strain. It’s a tradition that goes back to Kentucky roots. What we wanted was to get a unique strain that makes a unique flavor. We wanted to be unique.”
The yeast was isolated from a pecan nut, which happens to be the state tree of Texas. Pecans are not used in the bourbon, but the fact the yeast was living on a pecan nut when it was isolated seems somewhat fitting.
“It gives us a Texas flair and helps us differentiate our product,” Rob said.
It only seems natural that if a pure-Texas product is going to be made it is going to come from something that symbolizes the Lone Star State.