On the first really cold night in North Texas this winter, I had a warm feeling in my chest.
And it wasn’t just because I’d gotten one of the first-ever tastes of TX Bourbon, a velvety smooth Fort Worth whiskey that’s been nearly five years in the making.
Looking around at the stacked wood barrels, 500-gallon copper stills and gleaming bottles on Wednesday night at the Firestone and Robertson distillery, I couldn’t help but think of my friend and former colleague Steve Campbell, who had been here in 2012 and told the story of this bourbon when it was just beginning.
I remember him talking about the owners, Leonard Firestone and Troy Robertson, their passion for the product, and the infinite patience they would have to call upon to create Fort Worth’s first straight bourbon. Kentucky has been making this tricky elixir for more than a century, but nobody in North Texas had ever pulled it off.
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Steve died earlier this year after a battle with cancer, but as I read his March 2012 Star-Telegram story, which described the distillery owners’ dreams in vivid detail, I imagined him there at the 1927 warehouse Wednesday night, raising a glass to this purely Fort Worth success story. The kind of Texas tale of determination he loved to tell.
TX Bourbon, the younger, but more mature brother to the wildly popular TX Whiskey blend, will finally be available to the public Saturday, when bottles will be sold at the distillery at 901 W. Vickery Blvd., from noon to 4 p.m. There’s already talk of people camping out in the cold to get their hands on the first bottles, which will sell for about $50.
But never fear, TX Bourbon will arrive at Fort Worth liquor stores, retailers and some restaurant/bars early next week. Banners inside the distillery Wednesday night read: “FINALLY, It’s Ready!,” and that only hints at the level of anticipation for this liquor, which has been aging for 4 1/2 years in 53-gallon barrels.
“It was hard to be patient, especially in this day and age when there’s so much emphasis on immediacy, but that’s what we signed up for,” said Firestone. “This is a different kind of horizon, but we’re really glad we waited.”
And make no mistake, this is a proud Texas bourbon.
“Texas corn, Texas wheat, Texas water, Texas aging climate, and our proprietary Texas yeast strain,” Firestone said, describing the unique countenance and how head distiller Rob Arnold scavenged all over North Texas to gather samples of yeast from grasses, barks, etc. He then performed DNA analysis in a lab at TCU to find the perfect species.
“We found five we liked,” Firestone said, “and then finally we agreed on one that came from a pecan nut on a friend’s ranch in Glen Rose.”
Throughout the aging process, Firestone and Robertson have been tasting the bourbon on a regular basis -- perks of ownership, right? -- and they believe it has been getting more complex with each Texas season.
“With our heat in Texas, the summers can be very influential of the bourbon in the barrel,” Firestone said. “This summer, early fall, that’s when we knew it was ready.”
Although the bourbon has been aging since 2012, Robertson says the release of TX Bourbon is really the culmination of a journey that started seven years ago, when the partners, former businessmen who met at their children’s play group, decided to do the unthinkable: make whiskey in North Texas.
“It was a dream, and so far it’s a dream come true,” Robertson said Wednesday night. “It’s been a long wait. It’s been frightening at times. There was no focus group telling us what they thought. But the payoff is huge.”
If the success of TX Whiskey is any indication, TX Bourbon should be huge, too.
A full-bodied blended whiskey produced by three Kentucky distillers, TX Whiskey debuted in 2012 and was named Best American Craft Whiskey at the World Spirits Competition in San Francisco in 2013. It is regularly listed among the fastest growing whiskeys in Texas, and has expanded to Louisiana and Oklahoma. It is also being sold at duty free shops, and is not only the No. 1 seller at DFW Airport but also at Frankfurt, Tokyo and Sydney, according to Firestone.
“We love the notion that Fort Worth whiskey is traveling to all corners of the world,” he said.
The company will continue to expand in Cowtown, too, as it prepares to open a second location on the grounds of the former Glen Garden Country Club and golf course, where legends Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson learned the game as caddies. Despite some early controversy over the distillery opening, construction began four months ago at the site in southeast Fort Worth.
Firestone said he expects it to be operational next summer; waiting should be no problem for these guys.
“This business demands a lot of patience,” said Robertson. “But to hold to those demands, that is the real thing.”
Now, I am no bourbon expert but I did live in Kentucky for seven years and indulged in a more than a few bottles of the really good stuff. TX stands tall next to any of those. It’s amazingly smooth, with rich caramel, cinnamon and oaky flavors. Elegant, but unpretentious.
Kinda like Fort Worth.
I think Steve would’ve been impressed by TX Bourbon, which he described so well even in its infancy:
“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 in oak barrels for three years, or until ‘it’s ready.’ ”
It’s ready, alright. Cheers.