FORT WORTH (CBSDFW.COM) – In an old warehouse south of downtown, two new copper stills stand in the middle of a room filled with metal tanks, piping, gauges, and, yes, a German Shepherd guard dog that only obeys commands spoken in German.
The walls are lined with oak barrels, some new others aging, as the owners and their small staff work to prepare for the opening of Fort Worth’s first whiskey distillery – or, more precisely, the first, legal whiskey distillery.
Coincidentally, the F&R Distilling Co. is not far from a part of the city once known as “Hell’s Half-Acre,” the red-light district of Fort Worth in the late 1800s and early 1900s where distilled spirits flowed freely –– legal or not.
Troy Robertson, a former energy executive from Midland and the co-founder of F&R Distilling, said they had to go through rigorous background checks from both the federal and state government before they could get a license to make whiskey.
“It took us a good bit of two-and-a-half years … to get all of the necessary approvals,” Robertson said, adding: “Our federal application alone was 220 pages long.”
Like Robertson, his partner, Leonard Firestone, goes to great lengths to show off their new stills along with everything else needed to make what they predict to be a top-notch brew.
About the only thing they stay tight-lipped about is how much money they and their investors have pumped in to the distillery.
Standing next to a spigot as the good part of freshly condensed alcohol –– known as the “hearts” of the brew –– begins to flow from one still, Firestone said, “This will run for a couple of hours through the day … during that process, we’re constantly testing what’s coming off .”
“We’re looking at the proof that’s on this hydrometer … the sweet spot for us is at about 130- to 135-proof … it provides for the most character of the whiskey,” Firestone said.
You wouldn’t know it by his unassuming ways –– he’s quick to jump on a forklift or push a broom –– but Firestone is a direct descendant of one of the most famous industrialists in American history.
“My great-grandfather was Harvey Firestone who started the tire and rubber company in 1900,” he said.
Another big player in the operation is 24-year-old Rob Arnold, who grew up in the bourbon-rich state of Kentucky and holds degrees in both micro-biology and bio-chemistry.
Arnold came to North Texas in pursuit of a doctorate in medicine, but decided to shift his career to making whiskey after meeting up with Firestone and Robertson. “I came pretty willingly … it’s a science and an art in itself,” he said.
Firestone and Robertson plan to sell their own special blend of whiskey, using stock they purchased from other distillers in Kentucky, while the brew they make here from scratch is aged in charred oak barrels for two to three years.
That whiskey, they say, will have a unique Texas taste derived from a special strain of yeast found on a pecan tree in Somervell County, near Glen Rose.
It is not the first time a whiskey maker has roamed that neck of North Texas, where springs, limestone and heavy brush made for ideal hillside hideouts for bootleggers, especially during Prohibition in the early 1900s.
Kenneth Hopson, 82, of Glen Rose, missed those days; but not by much.
“I started with my daddy along about ’37,” said Hopson, referring to making whiskey with his father. “A little barefooted boy, I get to learn the business … early,” he added with a chuckle.
“I really began making when I was about 14 … about 1944.”
Hopson no longer drinks, and he no longer makes moonshine, but he keeps his old still in his backyard, next to his riding lawnmower, as a reminder of those days long gone.
“It was to make a living, those stills was … back in them days … to sell that liquor to buy groceries,” he said, smiling as he recalled always being one step ahead of the law.
“I’ve seen a lot of stills chopped up … shot up … cut up with axes … I skipped it all … I was a lucky man,” Hopson said.
Firestone, Robertson and Arnold also feel lucky, working to make a more refined –– and perfectly legal –– whiskey … one that will fit nicely into Fort Worth’s Cowtown culture.
In fact, Firestone sees a connection to his famous tire-making grandfather, since his whiskey will be made from grain and corn grown here.
“Before he started the company he was a farmer,” Firestone said. “He loved to farm, spent hours and hours doing that … so I do feel some link to what he did.”