Firestone And Robertson on Distilling Bourbon and Whiskey in Fort Worth

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Surely it's difficult to convince your spouse that it's a good idea to quit your day job to distill whiskey. Considering that's exactly what Leonard Firestone and Troy Robertson did, they must be really good talkers. In a salvaged Prohibition-era warehouse south of downtown Fort Worth, they're filling barrels and bottles weekly.

The two previously knew each other through their kids' play group, but it was by chance that Robertson was touring a distillery near Austin when the owner commented that another guy from Fort Worth had scheduled a tour for the next week. Robertson was shocked to find out it was Firestone. The next day they had lunch and decided to start this venture together.

For the past several years they've been fervent students, sampling whiskeys, learning techniques and studying methods from around the world.

They've also been learning a little about patience, because even after they barreled their first bourbon in March of this year, it'll be two years before it matures and is ready to bottle.

Recently I got to chat with Leonard Firestone about his distillery in Cowtown, which is one of the largest craft distilleries in the nation.

(Disclaimer: Never at any time did anyone at Firestone and Robertson offer the writer or anyone at the Observer a bottle of blended whiskey nor a barrel of bourbon. We only note this because we thought Fort Worth folk were supposed to be super friendly.)

How did you learn about the craft of distilling whiskey (in short form)? We spent a lot of time in Kentucky and talking to distillers. We also went to conferences and visited various craft distilleries around the country just learning everything that we could.

You both quit your regular jobs to do this. Was that a tough decision? For me it was a very difficult decision. The biggest challenge was actually convincing my wife.

Your bourbon will age for two years in charred American white oak barrels. Might sound like a silly question, but how do you know if it'll be any good? We really already know the basic characteristics of the whiskey before it goes into the barrels. Barrel maturation is pretty much a science. We look for specific notes and flavor characteristics prior to it going into the barrel, which will ultimately make a really good whiskey. We've had some testers who have been in the business for decades, who tested what we call the "white dog" (the whiskey before it's aged) and they've had the opportunity to sample white dog from a lot of different distilleries. One expert who tried ours said it had a really good flavor. And so it was good to get that validation.

How does Texas weather affect distilling? Climate plays a big factor in the maturation of whiskey. The barrels are made from charred American white oak and when the barrels expand from the heat, the whiskey permeates into the oak capillaries. Then, in colder temperatures, it recedes again. This process adds flavor. It must be nerve-racking to have to wait so long for the bourbon. We barreled our first on March 14 this year and, of course, about 10 days after we barreled it we just couldn't contain ourselves and so we opened a barrel to see if anything was going on. And, it was really remarkable. We tried a sample -- the liquid we put in the barrel was perfectly clear but after just 10 days the color and flavor notes had already started to change.

Will you check barrels regularly? We have barrel management program. So, we'll sample from a select few barrels one at a time to see what's going on.

As you sit and wait for the bourbon to age for two years, is it going to be a big deal when you finally get to open one of those barrels and take a sip of finished product? A "big deal" is an understatement.

You also have a blended whiskey, TX. How is it unique? Specifically, TX's uniqueness comes from the whiskeys we chose to marry. TX is a premium American blended whiskey and there is really no other premium American blend on the market. It is a premium product because the youngest whiskey we use is at least 5 years old. Blending whiskey to create a unique tasting product is an art form almost as old as distilling spirits. Think of some of the great blended whiskey brands of the world: Crown Royal, Johnnie Walker, Dewar's and J&B to name a few. The only well known American Blend is Seagram's, so we think there is a great opportunity to establish a distinct, high-quality, American blend.

How did you create the blend? Troy and I started sampling whiskeys from around the world about two years ago. When sampling, we looked for specific qualities in the whiskeys, good and bad, in order to identify whiskeys that could potentially marry well.

The challenge came from identifying superior whiskeys that complement each other because of their individual strengths and weaknesses, but marry perfectly to achieve something special. We developed countless blends until we came upon a taste profile that achieved our goal: something smooth and complex, yet approachable to many consumers.

I understand you tried to use as many Texas products and ingredients as possible, including a proprietary wild yeast ... a mad scientist and TCU was also involved. Please explain. To be clear, we were given access to a lab in TCU's biology department to conduct our own research and development. No one with TCU performed any of the yeast experiments or analysis. Our head distiller, Rob Arnold, holds a master of science degree in biochemistry with a concentration in microbial fermentation and analytical chemistry. He was pursuing a Ph.D. in this area at UT Southwestern until we hired him. Rob performed all the experiments at TCU's lab, which included DNA analysis and flocculation and attenuation studies, which allowed us to select a strain that was suitable for whiskey mash fermentation. What's your source of water? We did a fair amount of research on this. As it turns out, Fort Worth has excellent water for distilling and brewing. The city's water comes from the Trinity Aquifer, which delivers water that is low in iron and high calcium. The water also travels over a number of limestone areas, which is a fantastic mineral for distilling whiskey. That said, once we begin production, all the water goes through a series of filters removing all undesirable chemicals.

How often do you distill? We make a new batch every week.

What liquor stores is your whiskey being sold in? Some of the stores for our first release of TX were Sigel's, Goody Goody, King's Liquor, Majestic and a number of other smaller liquor stores. Every store has sold out and we understand that many have started waiting lists. Our second release was June 13 and more product will be on shelves by Friday, June 15.

And when will you know what restaurants carry it? At this point it is difficult for us to know all the bars, restaurants and hotels that have picked up TX (we are working with our distributor to get this info), but through our own efforts some of the accounts that we know have sold TX or will carry it shortly include: Del Frisco's, Reatta, Whiskey & Rye (Omni Hotel), Michael's, Lonesome Dove, The Woodshed, Grace, Billy Bob's, The Worthington Hotel, Lanny's and H3 Ranch. (Check the FRDistilling.com website.)

Any liquor store sampling opportunities coming up? We will start sampling in numerous DFW liquor stores, bars and restaurants within the next few weeks. Our biggest challenge at the moment is bottling TX because there are only four of us working at the distillery!

So, all the bourbon will be aging for a good 22 months. Are you a patient man? Yes, I think people see me as being pretty patient - and I think I am as well. In working with Troy every day for the last 3 1/2 years, I would say he is also very patient.

They also have tours at the distillery.

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