Food & Drink

Can local distillery be the catalyst for redevelopment?

A sneak peek of Fort Worth's Whiskey Ranch

Take a tour of Whiskey Ranch, the new Firestone & Robertson distillery from the makers of TX Whiskey. It's in southeast Fort Worth.
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Take a tour of Whiskey Ranch, the new Firestone & Robertson distillery from the makers of TX Whiskey. It's in southeast Fort Worth.

The address for Whiskey Ranch is so new that it didn’t show up on a recent Google Maps search. But there’s a lot of history at the property, which will be the home of a new Firestone & Robertson Distilling Co. facility.

The word “facility” is an understatement.

The project sits on the grounds of the former Glen Garden Country Club in southeast Fort Worth, where golfing legends Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson learned the game. It is reminiscent of a winery, without the grapevines but with a visitors center, a special-events space, a tasting-room tavern and distillery - surrounded by an 18-hole golf course.

“We’ve affected about 30 percent of the property,” says Leonard Firestone, who co-owns Firestone & Robertson with Troy Robertson. “It’s 112 acres. We’re both golfers, we appreciate history, we appreciate the game. We think that the golf course is an asset, historically, certainly with Hogan and Nelson’s affiliation.

“The idea is it’s an asset that helps create the atmosphere and the experience. Whether you play or not, it’s an interesting landscape and atmosphere to step into.”

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Each cork is hand crafted with leather remnants at Whiskey Ranch, Firestone & Robertson Distilling Co. Rodger Mallison

The golf course is still 18 holes, with a couple of holes reconfigured. One of the more memorable holes has a power-line-tower in the middle of the fairway. That hole hasn’t been changed, and the surrounding area looks much the same.

But Whiskey Ranch is bringing change.

Turn in to the old Glen Garden entrance off of Mitchell Boulevard, and you’ll quickly hit a barricade. The new entrance for Whiskey Ranch — which is still several weeks away from opening — is a little to the south of the old entrance, marked by an arch and, shortly after that, a guard booth, where once you check in, the guards will direct you to drive along a leisurely lane flanked by golf holes and ending at a visitor-center parking lot.

Firestone and Robertson — the owners, not the company — offered the Star-Telegram a preview tour of what they say is the largest distillery of its type west of the Mississippi. The company started making whiskey in 2011 and has an older distillery at 901 W. Vickery Blvd., just south of downtown Fort Worth.

In 2014, they bought Glen Garden from C.W. Dowdy of Keller and Malcolm Tallmon of Fort Worth, two of the three investors who acquired it in 2006.

The sale met with resistance from nearby neighborhoods, with opponents contending that the distillery would create noise, traffic, ordinance violations and criminal activity. Community leaders unsuccessfully opposed a July 2014 rezoning to allow the distillery project.

Then, in October 2014, the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission declined to hear neighborhood protests of Firestone & Robertson’s permit application.

“It was to be expected that people … would be concerned,” Robertson says. “They really didn’t know what to expect. There aren’t many distilleries in the state. Certainly not in North Texas.

“Just a lot of questions, but I think now, hopefully, they’ve seen that it’s a very well-done property and buildings,” he says. “We’re not a liquor store. We’re a business, a manufacturer, but more of a lifestyle and entertainment venue.”

The Rev. Carl Pointer, who has lived near Glen Garden for more than 40 years and who was one of the opponents most often cited in previous Star-Telegram stories, says he still doesn’t know what to expect, although he continues to be concerned about traffic issues — and about alcohol intake during distillery events.

“A lot of that anger is still there,” Pointer says about the 2014 meetings.

Residents of the Rolling Hills community collected about 3,000 signatures opposing the zoning change for the distillery, which was approved 7-2 by the City Council. Pointer says he hasn’t had any communication with the co-owners.

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The downtown Fort Worth skyline is the backdrop at Whiskey Ranch, Firestone & Robertson Distilling Co.’s new facility in the former Glen Gardens Country Club. Rodger Mallison

There are a few business off of Mitchell Boulevard near Whiskey Ranch, as well as a strip shopping center near where Mitchell intersects with U.S. 287. But most of what is nearby is residential. Whiskey Ranch’s co-owners see it as a tourist destination that could lead to more economic development in the neighborhood.

“When we started [901 Vickery], it was kind of a more transient area,” Robertson says. “Very little real estate had developed, old buildings were boarded up and all this kind of things.

“We set up shop there shortly after there were a lot of new businesses coming in. I don’t know that we were necessarily the anchor, but I think … the group that handles the planning and zoning over there, would say that we were a good catalyst to bring those kind of developments in.”

Megan Henderson, director of events and communications for Near Southside Inc., agrees that the original distillery has been a catalyst for development for the area, which is home to other distilleries and breweries.

“I would argue that their greatest contributions to the Near Southside have been cultural,” Henderson says via email.

“Being the home of TX Whiskey, and now TX Bourbon, further characterizes the Near Southside as a craft district, where entrepreneurs and makers can pour their passion into quality products and find an enthusiastic audience.”

Meanwhile, back at Whiskey Ranch ...

Firestone and Robertson began making plans for a new facility two years after they opened on Vickery.

They had learned some things from the original facility, where they saw an interest in corporate events, fund-raisers and wedding receptions. Tours at 901 Vickery have been popular.

They worked on the new facility with all of this in mind.

“For Texans for sure ,there hasn’t been a whiskey distillery built on this scale, not only in terms of land but also in capacity,” Robertson says. “Texas is the second-largest whiskey-consuming state in the country, but for a long time, none of it was made here.

“There’s a fantastic loyalty to consumers here,” he says. “We think this will be something that all whiskey drinkers can appreciate.”

The new distillery is anchored by a visitor/retail center, where bottles of Firestone & Robertson’s popular TX Whiskey and TX Bourbon are for sale, along with much souvenir merchandise (including, yes, TX Whiskey golf balls).

One of Firestone & Robertson’s trademarks are bottlecaps made with scrap leather from Fort Worth boot makers such as Leddy’s, Justin and Cavender’s.

Strips of scrap leather hang from an interior window that has a slightly theatrical feel to it, with its own proscenium-style arch. Here, visitors can look into a workbench area where the scrap leather is turned into the tops.

“It’s one of the things that has become very appealing, from a packaging standpoint, for our products,” Firestone says. “Customers will bring tags in, oftentimes, into the [original] distillery and ask if we can make tops out of their grandfather’s boots or some other personal memento.

“Which we do, and we enjoy doing that. It’s a big part of the brand,” he says.

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The main buildings are nearly completed at Whiskey Ranch, Firestone & Robertson Distilling Co.’s new distillery and events venue at the former Glen Gardens Country Club in southeast Fort Worth. Rodger Mallison

On the other side of the visitors center are racks and racks of barrels with a passageway between them. Outside is a blocky building that looks something like an unadorned chain motel or a simple apartment building; that’s the barrel barn, where the full barrels are stored.

The barrels inside are kind of a fraction of what’s in the barrel barn, which the owners say is the first barrel barn of its size outside of either Kentucky or Tennessee.

“We’ve created this, what we call barrel breezeway, so people can experience that as they walk through the floors,” Robertson says. “They’ve been installed exactly the way they are in our barrel barn, the racks are built by the same group that built our barrel barn. ... These are empty.

“We can’t store full barrels in here. But these were barrels that stored our whiskeys, and you can get some of the aromas as you walk through.”

If you enter the barrel barn from the visitors’ center and make a right turn, you’ll enter the Oak Room, which looked like it had been set up for a wedding reception or a banquet — but with whiskey- and bourbon-specific glasses on the white tablecloths.

The room seats up to 175 in a rustic, barn-inspired setting that has a ranch or a lodge feel to it. More barrels line the back wall, with a large fireplace at the other end of the room.

Outside the Oak Room is a large, covered patio with more seating and golf-course views. There are plans for a dock on a pond near the main building.’

A straight path from the visitors’ center through the barrel breezeway takes you to the Tavern, a bar area with light fixtures made from TX Whiskey bottles. It will primarily be used for tastings, but could also hold receptions for events in the Oak Room.

“It’s a fully functional bar like you’d find in a restaurant so we can handle a lot of activity in here,” Firestone says. “A lot of mixology.”

In the Tavern are old photos of the Golf Course and of Hogan and Nelson.

“When we acquired Glen Garden, the memorabilia came along with that,” Firestone continues. “So we showcased some things that they had in the trophy case. It was very important to us to perpetuate the history of what went on on this land.”

The big still

A short walk to another building takes you to the column still, an impressive-looking contraption that looks something like a pot-bellied copper oven with a silo coming out of the back. It obviously will be a key photo-opp moment on the tour.

“There’ll be stanchions because that tends to get pretty hot,” Firestone says. “This is what they use in Kentucky and Tennessee, but those distilleries are so old that this kind of tool of production is kind of back-of-house.

“We’re bringing it to the front, so that people can see where it’s made and how it’s made.”

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Whiskey will be distilled in a custom copper still at Whiskey Ranch. Rodger Mallison

The column still, the owners say, allows for a more continuous distillation process as opposed to a batch process such as the one used at 901 Vickery, where about three barrels are produced a day.

At Whiskey Ranch, they say, they’ll be able to do about 40 a day. Visitors can not only get a ground-floor look at the still, they can also go upstairs for a more complete look at the process.

“One of the things we’ve learned from our 901 facility is that people really like to see the barrels, the distillation, the fermentation of the mash,” Firestone says. “You can come up here, smell, touch it, taste it, all the senses come into play.

We’re trying to create an environment that will satisfy those senses. People will be able to come in, see the mash, actually fermenting,” he says. “It’s amazing to see because it looks like it’s boiling, but it’s just all the yeast activity that makes the mash bubble.”

According to a quick Google search, nearly a half-dozen distilleries are in Fort Worth, including Acre Distilling Co., which also offers coffee drinks and a cafe menu as well as tours, and BLK EYE Vodka, which like the original Firestone & Robertson is on the Near Southside.

North Texas is home to several other distilleries, but Firestone and Robertson don’t expect distilleries to multiply the way craft-beer breweries have done.

“It’s a lot harder to do spirits than beer,” Robertson says. “It’s more expensive, and the regulations are heavier, because it’s all based on your alcohol content. As a distiller, you have literally the highest [level] permit available from the TTB [Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau] … .

“Whiskey, I would say, is even harder than clear spirits. Because of aging conditions, No. 1, and dealing with barrels and waiting for things to mature, so it just takes more capital.”

The distillery often gets out-of-state requests for its products, but while it is available at retail stores in five states outside of Texas (with additional markets to come), the distillery can’t ship directly to consumers.

The owners expect the distillery to not only attract local tours, but out-of-state tourists as well.

“I think there’s a lot of people who are intrigued with this business,” Robertson says. “We’ve seen, certainly, a number of new distilleries open up. But in terms of scale, it’s really difficult to scale beyond just opening, getting a pot still and putting a few cases out the door.

“It takes a lot of demand from consumers. Thankfully, we’ve experienced a lot of demand and are able to build a facility like this.”

This report includes material from Star-Telegram archives.