The first mover in Texas distilling is putting a Lone Star spin on bourbon.
Historically, bourbon has been Kentucky-bred, through and through. Approximately 95 percent of the world’s bourbon comes from the southeastern state bounded by the Ohio River in the north and the Appalachian Mountains in the east.
But rules are meant to be broken. Enter Firestone & Robertson Distilling Co. founders Leonard Firestone and Troy Robertson: They were adamant that a Texas bourbon could be as well-received as any other out there. To their credit, they were spot on.
In the dozen years since throwing their cowboy hats into the ring in 2010, Firestone & Robertson has won a bevy of awards, including the “Best American Craft Whiskey” and “Double Gold” at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition in 2013.
Since day one, Firestone & Robertson has aimed to provide an education on the bourbon process in addition to its tasty spirits.
“Our goal from the beginning has been to take people from grain to glass,” says Vice President of Operations Kenneth Graham. “We wanted to really educate people on the whole process of what we’re going through. From starting with two pot stills at our original distillery all the way through now, where we use a continuous colander still, and using one farmer for all our grains, we want to be able to tell people exactly what they’re getting, and why we do what we do.
“Along with teaching people about Texas bourbon, a lot of our work has been teaching people about bourbon in general. Bourbon is the American drink, it’s the only regulated American spirit.”
In February 2018, the Forth Worth-based distillery introduced a whopping 112-acre manufacturing facility known as the Whiskey Ranch. The Ranch has a 36-inch diameter pot still that on average produces about 40 barrels in eight hours — an enormous jump from initially producing two barrels each day using two 500-gallon pot stills.
Open to the public for tours and events, the space doubles down on the “grain to glass” mantra, as visitors can in real-time what the bourbon-making-process boils down to.
“As you go into [the tour], you start out learning about the barrels and grains that go into them, the rules and regulations of it all,” says Graham. “Then, we start showing visitors how it’s actually made: from the grain, the milling process, and cooking it through the fermentation and how we double-distill our bourbon to the barreling and aging.
“Letting people come in is a little bit different than reading about it in a book or watching it on television. When you can walk around and see it, feel it, and smell it — it’s just a different education.”
In 2019, Firestone & Robertson was purchased by publicly traded wine and spirits seller Pernod Ricard. The vision for what was next was clear: international. “When Pernod Ricard stepped in, they said, ‘We want to grow but we don’t want to mess up a good thing,'” says Graham.
“It’s been about continuing the expansion outside Texas and looking at what we do from a national and international standpoint,” says Jessica Chen, Pernod Ricard’s director of U.S. whiskeys. “Bourbon and whiskey has always been about getting people together. We want ro get people together on an international level.
“For Pernod, we talk about the magic of human connection, and that’s exactly what Firestone & Robertson is all about,” says Chen. “It’s not just about making bourbon, it’s about bringing people together from the public to share the really great bourbon we’ve been putting out there, and being able to have events and have people connect at the facility. That’s exactly what Texas Whiskey represents to us.”
Challenges: Navigating the pandemic-induced challenges of having a manufacturing site open to the public has been a series of hurdles — enough so that the company’s mission statement “from grain to glass” has been somewhat diminished.
“It’s been a change for all of us in the world, over the last couple of years,” says Graham. “For something that’s designed to be so open to the public — the whole point was to get people to have a good time together, in close contact — all of sudden, we couldn’t do that. We knew we had to protect our people first in order to keep running, so that meant shutting the site down to the public and changing the way we did things here.”
Opportunities: But Firestone & Robertson’s resumed international growth still represents a fertile period for playing in the lab — both in terms of manufacturing processes and company-building practices.
“The international expansion gives us a little bit more room to innovate, especially given Pernot’s portfolio,” says Chen. “The team is already innovating with yeast and experimenting with the pot stills. I think [the future] is about continued expansion and innovation, and the other part is setting our legacy. We’ve been able to educate a lot of the local public on the overall whiskey process and its place in the industry.”
Needs: Firestone & Robertson’s current needs are commonly held among growing businesses: more help crafting and maintaining a distinct identity among its competitors.
“Obviously, with the current environment that we’re in, we need to grow recourse,” says Chen. “Our brand’s been growing, and we need people who love distilling to be part of that growth. We want people who don’t want to do things the way they’ve always been done; we didn’t bring Firestone & Robertson on to have another cookie-cutter bourbon. We want people who want to maintain their own character and create their place in the industry.”
Drinkers, thinkers, and distillers: Firestone & Robertson would like a word. Says Chen, “Like all manufacturing, we need people with backgrounds in science, engineering, and hospitality. We want to continue educating people about Texas bourbon, and we really want all people to be able to see a future career in whiskey, and all the different aspects of it from grain to glass.”