When Troy Robertson and Leonard Firestone began making batches of whiskey nine years ago, they dreamed of a global brand with a Texas flair.
Their homegrown Fort Worth brand known as TX is now on its way with August’s sale to Paris-based Pernod Ricard, the world’s second-biggest producer of wines and spirits. Terms of the deal weren’t disclosed.
The purchase includes Texas’ largest distillery, Whiskey Ranch, which is built on a golf course where legends Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson used to caddy. All of the TX whiskey found on shelves and in Whiskey Ranch’s tasting room are produced on the 112-acre property, from grain to bottle.
How Firestone & Robertson Distilling Co. built one of the most popular spirits brands in Texas is more of a coincidence than a true plan. Their wives and children were friends, and the pair engaged in small talk at family gatherings. Neither knew the other wanted to break into the whiskey business.
Roberston’s initial attempts to make whiskey were as a hobbyist, after he began to wonder how to make the product. During his research, he visited a small Austin distillery and discovered that Firestone was also planning to stop by. Robertson called Firestone, which led to a meeting between the two to share ideas.
It was “more to size each other up” than anything, Robertson admitted. Their shared ideas about a Texas-inspired whiskey resulted in a business partnership.
It was no short order to get started in a state that has spawned such well-known liquors as Patron and Tito’s.
Spirits are experiencing a bit of a renaissance in the U.S., posting a ninth straight record year with $27.5 billion in sales in 2018, according to the Distilled Spirits Council. Whiskey, bourbon, vodka, tequila and other spirits now account for 37.4% of all alcohol sales in the U.S.
In Texas, whiskey distillers need a building to make their product in before they can get a license for commercial production. That meant Firestone and Robertson had to persuade investors to sign on before they ever made their first bottle.
The pair put everything they had into getting the business off the ground.
“The thought of marrying something that I really love, being able to create it with my hands and sharing it with somebody in a tangible action was really exciting,” Robertson said.
It would be nearly two years and hundreds of batches later before the pair produced whiskey worth selling in June 2012. Bourbon, which has to age four or five years, would come later.
Original production was done by hand, with the founders hammering and sealing their own bottles. The first tops were handcrafted with leather made from Robertson’s own boots. They hand-wrapped cloth _ an ode to covered wagons _ around the bottles and affixed the labels themselves.
They could make about a pallet a day. A typical pallet contains 720 bottles.
But they underestimated how popular the brand would become in the North Texas market and almost immediately had to hire more staff to expand production to six pallets a day.
For Robertson, there never was a “we made it” stage. “At every stage, we were upping the risk,” he said.
After TX’s initial success, Robertson said, the pair had to start the process over again _ raising more money, buying new machinery and finding a new location.
That’s how Whiskey Ranch was born in November 2017 on the property of the former Glen Garden Country Club. The goal was not only to distill but also to entertain and serve.
No one in Texas had ever built anything quite like it. The pair had to bring in people from Kentucky, the closest place where such big bourbon facilities exist.
On top of equipment used in the process, which is open to tours, the property houses less-public sensory rooms where handfuls of people blind-test new batches and a bottling and distribution center. It also has a bourbon storage room to let aging barrels “nap” for four to five years, as well as a hidden room housing rare whiskey collected over the years.
Giving up full control of the distillery to Pernod Ricard was no small decision for the duo. Robertson said he and Firestone had received offers from big-name companies before, but Pernod’s knowledge and ownership of the Jameson whiskey brand was a big selling point.
“They are a global supplier that has significant resources to help a brand like ours get into many, many more places,” Robertson said.
For now, Robertson said, the pair will remain part of the distillery’s day-to-day operations. They’ll likely shift gears later to focus more on their passion for brand-building.
Until then, it’s business as usual on Whiskey Ranch.