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Fort Worth’s Whiskey Ranch is a whiskey wonderland — and a boon for Texas spirits

Whiskey Ranch sits on the grounds of the former Glen Garden Country Club in Fort Worth. (Photo  courtesy of Firestone and Robertson Distilling Co.)

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.”

Fort Worth, Firestone & Robertson
The facility’s dramatic, 50-foot-high copper column still is fully visible. (Photo courtesy of Firestone and Robertson Distilling Co.)

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.”

Firestone & Robertson, TX Whiskey
Co-founder Troy Robertson of Firestone & Robertson heads through the site’s “barrel breezeway” to the Ranch House’s elegant event space.

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.”

A map showing the new entrance to the Whiskey Ranch grounds, off Mitchell Road in Fort Worth. (Map provided by Bread and Butter PR, for Whiskey Ranch)

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.

Firestone & Robertson, Fort Worth
Tours will end in the facility’s Tavern Room, where guests can sample the whiskeys and admire golf memorabilia.

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.

Firestone & Robertson, TX Whiskey
Co-founder Robertson with the TX pour in the facility’s tasting room.

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 & Robertson, TX Whiskey
A patio adjoining the tasting room and special-event space overlooks the golf course’s 18th hole. (Photo courtesy of Firestone and Robertson Distilling Co.)

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.

Firestone & Robertson, TX Whiskey
The focus of the courtyard: the Fort Worth skyline view to the northwest.

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.

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At TOTC’s national bar battle, Dallas’ Bar Smyth showed it could pack a good punch (and a few good cocktails besides)

At Tales of the Cocktail 2013
The Bar Smyth crew — sharing space with Chicago’s Barrel House Flat — was one of eight bars facing off against a deluge of humanity.

You can’t say Dallas’ Bar Smyth didn’t try. Did any of the other half-dozen establishments facing off at Tales of the Cocktail’s Bare-Knuckle Bar Fight sport a derby-hatted fire eater?  Could any of them claim to wield as original a punch as mobile cocktail service poured out of a backpack keg?

That was Bar Smyth, going big and gloves-off in its debut at the nation’s largest cocktail conference in New Orleans. Friday night’s annual showdown-slash-party pitted bar crew against bar crew for yearlong bragging rights, measuring bars on the quality of their beverages, sense of atmosphere and ability to churn out cocktails for the great, buzzing tides of humanity thirsting for drink. It was a madhouse. It was supposed to be.

Tales of the Cocktail 2013
Smyth’s record-album covers evoked the Dallas speakeasy’s 70’s-esque decor, part of the judging criteria.

The chaotic hordes began forming outside the Jackson Brewery’s microscopic entryway well ahead of the event’s 10 p.m. start time and before long resembled a ravenous weasel trying to poke its nose into some tiny field mouse’s hiding hole. Once inside, the senses were dazzled by a raging tumult, tables piled with pasta trays, a spunky rockabilly band and monitors spilling footage of Muhammad Ali.

Tales of the Cocktail 2013
The event was sponsored by The 86 Co., a new spirit line that includes Tequila Cabeza.
Tales of the Cocktail 2013
The drink lineup from New York City’s The Daily included a chamomile Negroni and a watermelon-shiso Collins.

But people were here for the drinks, and of those there was plenty: Eight bars in all, plucked from around the country by The 86 Co., the just-launched spirit line that sponsored this year’s event. The company’s aim was to showcase notable up-and-coming bars rather than the established stalwarts of years past: There was Miami’s Broken Shaker, with its Santeria vibe and a killer banana-mint daiquiri; Queens’ Sweet Leaf with its Jose Camel, a tequila-mezcal pachanga laced with coffee liqueur and Punt e Mes; the two were my favorite sips of the night.

Tales of the Cocktail 2013
The atmosphere at Miami’s Broken Shaker recalled a botanica store.

Los Angeles’ Old Lightning threw down with a mezcal Negroni. New York City’s The Daily had a popcorn machine and an air of uniformed aplomb amid the fray. Chicago’s Barrel House Flat poured shots from a bottle labeled “Encyclopedia Brown” – a tantalizing formula of Rittenhouse Rye, Punt e Mes, Amaro Montenegro, Cynar, Angostura bitters and salt.

I failed to find San Diego’s Polite Provisions in the maelstrom, but Boston’s Citizen Public House and Oyster Bar was remarkably hospitable considering its three-deep crowd and the fact that it was bartender Sabrina Kershaw’s birthday; the bar’s red-velvety Negroni variation, called The New Black, was as delicious as it was alluring.

Tales of the Cocktail 2013
Sweet Leaf, of Queens, served up one of my favorite drinks of the night, with tequila, mezcal and coffee liqueur.

Dallas’ Bar Smyth made the most of its prime real estate on the brewery’s second floor. Smyth barmen Mike Martensen, Omar Yeefoon, Josh Hendrix, Julian Pagan and, inexplicably, Standard Pour’s Brian McCullough slung drinks as fast as they could muster. The crew donned Lone Star aprons, and bar host Ryan Sumner stirred up the crowd, occasionally from atop the bar counter – whooping and hollering, ringing a bell, kick-starting choruses of “Deep In The Heart of Texas.”

And despite a superior Cuba Libre anchoring its drink lineup, it was what Smyth had conjured beyond the bar that set it apart: Bar-back Charlie Ferrin blazed a trail through the darkness, wowing anyone within eyeshot with his fire-eating prowess. (“You only see the bartender side of me,” the longtime circus performer explained.) And bartender Mate Hartai waded through the crowd with a handmade backpack keg and a Texas-stamped helmet, pouring shots of Smyth’s Mexican Monk, a habanero-watermelon spin on a Tom Collins.

Tales of the Cocktail 2013
Smyth’s Mate Hartai poured drinks from his handmade backpack keg.
Tales of the Cocktail 2013
Hartai’s boozy contraption.

Texas represented well: There was Austin star barman Bill Norris; The 86 Co.’s Jason Kosmas, the bartender extraordinaire recently relocated to Austin from Dallas; Emily Perkins of Dallas’ Victor Tango; Bonnie Wilson of The Ranch at Las Colinas; Kevin Gray of CocktailEnthusiast.com and Hypeworthy’s Nico Martini.

When it was all over, Boston’s Public House had taken People’s Choice honors, no doubt aided by its giveaway signature cozies and fans (brilliant in light of the unspeakable humidity) and a machine dispensing frozen Julep Slushies. Then it was time for the judges’ decision: “We got to try drinks tonight from some of the best bars in the world,” one of them announced. “Those of you who tend bar know what it takes. Not just cocktail creativity, but teamwork, speed and execution. We know what it takes to make people happy not just this one night, but every night of the year.” And with that it was declared that The Daily of New York City had taken top prize.

Ah, Dallas. There’s always next year.

Tales of the Cocktail 2013
Lone Star pride: Smyth’s Ryan Sumner works up the crowd.
Tales of the Cocktail 2013
The fired-up champion bartenders of New York’s The Daily.