Everything is bigger in Texas, and the Fort Worth-based TX Whiskey Distillery is no exception.

From the moment you enter the distillery’s campus, known as Whiskey Ranch, through towering gates and drive through the 112 acres of what was Glen Garden Country Club, the training grounds of iconic golfers Ben Hogan, Sandra Palmer and Byron Nelson, it’s clear TX Whiskey Distillery is poised for growth. The suspicion is confirmed at the site of the distillery’s 50-foot tall, three-foot-wide copper Vendome column still, a massive piece of hardware capable of producing almost 44,000 barrels or 2.3 million gallons of juice each year. The 18-hole golf course at Whiskey Ranch is intact, but eventually, the back nine will be sacrificed to build “barrel barns” to house aging whiskey as the company expands.

All photos by Cullen Dalheim.

The Origins Of TX Whiskey

TX Whiskey, originally known as Firestone & Robertson Distillery, was founded in 2010 by Fort Worth residents Troy Robertson and Leonard Firestone. The entrepreneurs were independently exploring the idea of launching a distillery when a fellow whiskey entrepreneur introduced them. After meeting up for an allegedly long and spirited lunch, Firestone & Robertson Distilling was born and later became Whiskey Ranch when TX Whiskey was acquired by Pernod Ricard in 2019. Robertson and Firestone’s first product, a sourced American blended whiskey, hit shelves in 2012. From there, the partners built a modest distillery in Fort Worth with five1,000-gallon fermenters feeding a pair of 500-gallon pot stills, yielding about three barrels on a good day. It didn’t take long before whiskey orders outpaced its production capabilities, and in 2016 they purchased what is now TX Whiskey’s “Whiskey Ranch” Distillery. The first drops of whiskey came off the still, in 2018.

While the company’s founders were focused on the business side of distilling, designing the actual whiskey program was left to former Master Distiller Rob Arnold. Arnold’s vision was to capture the essence of Texas in the bottle by embracing Texan-derived flavors in every step of production, from distilling local grains to maturating in the hot Texan climate.

There's always a ton of research happening inside Whiskey Ranch.

Inside The TX Terroir Project

Arnold wanted to approach whiskey the way vintners approach winemaking by embracing terroir, and that was done by taking a closer look into how environment and grain varieties impact flavor. Arnold teamed up with Texas A&M food science master’s student Ale Ochoa and Hillsborough-based farmer John Sawyer to prove the concept to himself. The project involved growing three corn varietals in three Texas locations, each with unique climates and soil types. The results of the experiment, meaning distinctive flavor profiles across the individual plots convinced Arnold to implement terroir in his whiskey program. Proving the concept of terroir was one of Rob’s proudest moments, along with isolating a proprietary yeast strain and corn for TX Straight Bourbon.

“There’s little debate that terroir influences wine, says Ochoa. But there is some debate that once you distill, terroir characteristics become negligible, and we reject that. Rob Arnold wanted to see if the concept could be proven, and we did it with hard data.”

Today, Sawyer is the sole grain provider for the distillery, and Ochoa joined the distillery full time as the whiskey scientist and head blender of TX Whiskey.

Whiskey Ranch blender Ale Ochoa, right, explains how TX finds flavor In fermentation.

Doubling Down On The Taste Of Texas

Whiskey is made of three ingredients, grain, water, and yeast. Each of these ingredients contributes to a whiskey’s flavor. To develop TX’s yeast, Arnold eschewed commercially available distillers’ yeast, opting to create his own locally sourced strain by scraping natural yeast off local fruit, plants, and rocks. After testing multiple samples, the team settled on a yeast coined Brazos after the river from where the winning strain was found. The yeast delivers big, dried fruit flavors like fig, prunes, and raisins, plus brown spices like nutmeg, allspice, and cinnamon.

“Rob would hunt for viable yeast sources everywhere,” says Ochoa. “He distilled small batches with various yeasts and ultimately built a culture with the one that delivered the flavors we were after.”

Creating a variety of flavors through different barrel styles is key to proper maturation in the strong Texas heat.

Aging Whiskey In The Hot Texas Sun

One of the beautiful things about making whiskey in Kentucky is its climate. On a hot day, the oak from a barrel sucks liquid into the wood, and when the temperature plunges at night, it expels the liquid creating a nice balance of interaction between the whiskey and the barrel. Texas, as a rule, is simply hot. In hot weather, the barrel’s influence takes on oak quickly and threatens to become overpowering. The TX team tries to mitigate this danger through a diversified barrel program involving a variety of toasts, chars, and entry proof levels. This creates a broad flavor palate, giving Ochoa a wide palate of blending stock to hit a whiskey’s flavor profile.

“We teamed up with the Independent Stave Company to develop proprietary toasts,” Ochoa explains. “We worked with the cooperage to customize different toast profiles. Then we sampled the aging stock and scaled barrels we liked for normal production.”

Today's Whiskey Ranch.

Today’s Whiskey Ranch And Beyond

Today’s TX whiskey has never stopped experimenting, and visitors to the distillery can taste what Ale and the TX team are cooking through their Experimental Series, a collection of distillery only, small batch whiskies that are sporadically released a few times a year. These include but are not limited to a variety of innovations the company is playing with for future wide releases or new blending components. Terroir projects, science-driven fermentation and distillation experiments and blending experiments are a few examples. Whiskey Ranch has also been investing heavily in special barrel finished bourbons. A port finished bourbon and Pedro Ximinez sherry finished bourbon were made available in 2020, and a cognac cask finished bourbon joined the lineup in 2021. The latest release from TX marks the first bottled-in-bond bourbon from Texas, a single barrel, wheated affair that’s steeped in local terroir, just as former distiller Dr. Rob Arnold intended. While the company will not confirm nor deny a national launch of these whiskeys, its clear that there will be plenty of tasty TX to look forward to.

John McCarthy is a spirit, travel, and lifestyle journalist, managing editor, and author of The Modern Gentleman and Whiskey Rebels: The Dreamers, Visionaries & Badasses Who Are Revolutionizing American Whiskey. McCarthy is also editor of Barleycorn Drinks and Director of Judging of the John Barleycorn Awards.