Five miles southeast of downtown Fort Worth, on a course where golf greats Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson learned the game, something cool is happening in the world of whiskey.
A spiffy archway off Mitchell Road marks the new portal to what was once the Glen Garden Country Club, a 112-acre property soon to be reborn as Whiskey Ranch. The handsome new development, which opens in mid-November, is the expanded operation of Fort Worth-based Firestone & Robertson Distilling Co., producer of TX Whiskey and, more recently, TX Bourbon.
Whiskey Ranch, though, is much more than a distillery – and it could portend the emergence of this juicy cut ofTexas, from Fort Worth down to Hill Country and the Houston area, as a distillery-rich region along the lines of Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail. Texas, after all, is one of the nation’s largest consumers of whiskey; why shouldn’t it be made here?
“It’s more than likely going to become a beacon of whiskey tourism,” says Nico Martini of Dallas-based Bar Draught, a cocktails-on-tap startup. “It wouldn’t surprise me if this part of the world becomes a known whiskey region.”
Owners Leonard Firestone and Troy Robertson conceived Whiskey Ranch not just as a place to make spirits but as a showcase to illuminate the production process, a site for charity and private events and a sampling area, all amid a still functional, par-68 golf course.
Showcase the process it does, with its radiant centerpiece a 50-foot-tall, Louisville-made column still, as well as massive fermenters that can be viewed up close and from a second-level vantage point.
Now, those who tour Firestone & Robertson’s primary distillery will find it nestled in a pastoral setting beyond a guard gate, abutted by a courtyard, retail center, tasting room and special-events space with a sweeping patio overlooking the golf course’s 18th hole.
In terms of property and capacity, the two say, it will be the largest whiskey distillery west of the Mississippi. And to their knowledge, the only distillery on a full-fledged golf course.
Says Robertson: “It’s kind of a whiskey wonderland.”
A PLAN BEGINS
The pair’s plans began to bubble five years ago after they, along with master distiller Rob Arnold, launched their palate-friendly TX Whiskey at 901 Vickery, their original, pot-still operation in Fort Worth’s Hospital District that they simply call “The 901.” Anticipating the need for more capacity to feed the spirit’s growing popularity, they also noticed a market for tours and special events. The idea of a multi-dimensional facility was born.
“We really wanted to share the process,” Firestone says, noting two factors that differentiate whiskey from, say, vodka – an aging component, and thus a need for storage space and more capital. “Whiskey making is really a mystery to a lot of people.”
Their eyes fell upon the former golf course, sprawling over the bluff in a modest residential area southeast of the city. Though fallen into neglect and shrouded by a half-century of overgrowth after closing in late 2014, it seemed perfect for their vision.
As the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported, early opposition arose from some residents fearful of what an alcohol-driven development might bring. Ultimately, though, the city approved the plan.
In shaping their vision, Robertson and Firestone took cues from model Kentucky distilleries – the campus feel of Maker’s Mark, the vintage style of Woodford Reserve. Wanting to preserve as much of Glen Gardens’ history as possible, they garnished the tasting room with golf memorabilia and evoked the stone and wood design of the original clubhouse in the grand patio outside.
They also wanted to echo the feel of The 901, whose design incorporates reclaimed materials “partly out of necessity and partly because we liked the look,” Robertson says.
TAPPING INTO THE SENSES
At the new facility, visitors will enter the “Ranch House” foyer, with wainscoting fashioned from repurposed pallets and a mosaic made from the brand’s signature boot-leather bottle tops.
That leads into a rustic retail area and further into what looks to be the classic rickhouse setting of a barrel-aging warehouse. The rows of empty barrels are actually a facsimile of what’s inside the distillery’s working barrel barn, an obsidian-tinted building a stone’s throw away that looks vaguely like a dormitory. It’s the first of five they’ve got planned on the site, ultimately creating room for 20,000 53-gallon barrels.
Firestone and Robertson created the smaller copy, which they call the “barrel breezeway,” since fire codes prohibit large numbers of people from wandering the real thing, Partway through the barrel-lined corridor, a right turn takes you into the chandeliered Oak Room, a special-event space with concrete floors and room for 180 people. More space is available on the patio outside, where two large fireplaces complete the lodge-like setting.
Just inside, through another door, is the so-called “Tavern Room,” where the near-daily tours will end and guests can sample TX whiskeys and cocktails made with them by a staff bartender.
Early on, as 16 months of construction and landscaping began, Firestone and Robertson noticed something as the overgrowth was cleared away: There on the horizon, at the edge of a sea of treetops, was downtown Fort Worth. “We realized we were on this bluff with an incredible view of the city,” Firestone said. “At night, it’s electric.”
That distant skyline view is now the focal point of the courtyard, which stretches from the Ranch House to the Stillhouse. Inside, behind a pair of two-story doors, is the dramatic column still that will allow for continuous production at the facility. Made by Louisville’s Vendome, the copper contraption is a distillery rarity in that it’s fully visible, with a window allowing guests to peer into its bulbous base.
A walk upstairs lets visitors rise with the copper column and look into the fermenters and see the yeasty bubbling of the mash. The entire experience is meant to tap into the senses, with production “designed to operate completely while still having people around,” Robertson says. “Nothing’s in the back room, so to speak.”
Production at the new facility will be underway by December, taking advantage of four deep-water wells onsite. But Firestone and Robertson will continue to make whiskey and offer tours at The 901, where they’ll also experiment with potential new products.
Their vision, they say, has pretty much aged and turned out as planned. If anything, it’s grander than they imagined, but as Robertson puts it: “Our aspirations have always been to compete at the highest level with the biggest whiskey producers.”
WHISKEY RANCH, 2601 Whiskey Ranch Road, Fort Worth.