Why small-batch distilleries are the next big thing in Dallas-Fort Worth

When Mike Cameron was young, his grandfather gifted him a piece of pottery that inadvertently set the course of his professional life. Cameron's grandfather Gordon used to take the jug-like vessel to the local saloon and pick up whiskey for his grandfather before him. The family heirloom, now more than 100 years old, sits in a glass case in Cameron's home office as a reminder of the spirit that brought the two together.

"He always drank bourbon, always in the evening," Cameron, a distillery owner of eight years, says of Gordon, who first introduced him to the liquor. "It became part of family events."

Cameron's journey in the spirits industry came full circle in March when he launched his first bourbon called Devils River Whiskey, which is produced in Dallas and now available in stores and bars.

Devils River is just the latest to join North Texas' burgeoning "small-batch" distillery scene, which is gaining momentum in similar fashion to the craft brewery movement. Between 1995 and 2008, the Texas Alcohol and Beverage Commission issued just 10 licenses to spirit manufacturers. Now, there are more than 100 active distillery licenses in the state, and experts don't expect a slowdown any time soon.

Distiller Brad Berven taps a white oak barrel to be filled with single malt whiskey at Acre Distilling and Coffee Co. on Calhoun Street in downtown Fort Worth, Wednesday, March 29, 2017.

What's driving distillery growth in Texas?

Distilling, like brewing and wine-making, is a fairly young industry in the Lone Star State thanks to Prohibition, which quashed the majority of manufacturers at the beginning of the 20th century. The first Texas distillery of the modern era was Fifth Generation Inc. in Austin, creator of the famous Tito's Vodka, which was founded in 1995. Even when some of the early local distilleries, such as Firestone and Robertson Distilling Co. in Fort Worth and Western Son Distillery in Pilot Point, fired up stills in 2011, they were ahead of the curve — though not by much.

Shortly thereafter, the thirst for locally-made spirits exploded, driven primarily by a renewed interest in whiskey from young drinkers. Between 2010 and 2016, sales of U.S. bourbon and Tennessee whiskey increased about 41 percent to 21.7 million cases, according to the U.S. Distilled Spirits Council. Couple that with the amount of American bourbon and whiskey exported across the globe and you're drinking up a $3.3 billion industry — a bona-fide boom, as some have called it.

While whiskey is leading the spirit renaissance, it's not the only one becoming increasingly coveted. America's thirst for Irish whiskey, mezcal and tequila, too, have catapulted those respective spirit sales.

Cameron at Devils River Whiskey also serves as president of the Texas Distilled Spirits Association.

Bourbon is thriving not only because it's "truly an American spirit," Cameron says, but also because millennial culture revolves around products with an artistic edge that support local businesses.

And he doesn't mean just food and beverage: "It's everything. It's fashion, food choices, music," Cameron says. "Consumers are demanding more variety and I think creative industries are delivering."

Rob Arnold, head distiller at Firestone and Robertson, is a fifth-generation booze-maker who forwent a Ph.D. in biochemistry to begin producing spirits. He credits bartenders and the craft cocktail revival with educating drinkers about what's in their glass, thereby generating enthusiasm for spirits.

But there's another, less obvious champion, Arnold says: craft brewers.

Beer's role in spirit sales

One of two copper Pot Stillers at the Firestone and Robertson Distilling Co. in Fort Worth. (File Photo)

Many breweries, such as New Holland Brewing in Michigan and Texas' own Real Ale Brewing Co., have jumped into the spirits game in recent years because the production process is largely the same. To make Firestone and Robertson's signature TX Blended Whiskey, for example, Arnold first uses a mix of grains and brews a wort, which he lets ferment for a couple of days before distilling it into whiskey and aging it in barrels.

"Some of these brewers already kind of mastered the hardest part of making whiskey," Arnold says. "You really show off your skill by making the beer. Distillation is not easy, but it's much more of a static process."

There is, however, a stark difference between the craft beer movement and craft spirits movement, according to Chris Leurig, head distiller at Lewisville's Witherspoon Distillery. The trend toward distilling local wasn't to combat flavorless, mass-produced beverages from the big guys, such as Jack Daniels or Jim Beam, he says.

"The big companies actually make really good, flavorful whiskey and spirits," Leurig says. "Why just settle because something is good when you can make it better?"

Devils River Whiskey bottles on a cart after being bottled at a facility in Dallas on Wednesday, March 22, 2017.

It's a great time to drink in D-FW

Today, there are at least 13 distilleries open in the greater Dallas-Fort Worth area, and several more are in development. If you haven't heard of them, it's not because their products are subpar.

In 2013, Firestone and Robertson's flagship TX whiskey was named "Best American Craft Whiskey" at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition and earned a Double Gold honor. In 2016, both Iron Root Republic Distilling in Denison and Witherspoon Distillery in Lewisville snagged silver medals at the New York International Spirits Competition. Three vodkas from Dallas' Duckworthy Distillery, including a truffle-flavored one, were deemed "exceptional" by the Beverage Testing Institute last year. And that's just to name a few local accolades.

The rise in distilleries in North Texas also offers residents new ways to drink local. Some distilleries, like Devils River, manufacture their spirits to be sold at retail stores and enjoyed at home. Others, such as Western Son Distillery, have onsite taprooms where thirsty locals can have a cocktail and take a tour. Acre Distillery in Fort Worth sells pastries, coffee and tea alongside its house vodkas, gin, rum and whiskey. It's not unusual to see patrons working on their laptops in the shadow of the liquor still.

Whatever the business model, Arnold says a variety in distilleries means North Texans have plenty of inventive libations to come. The newly opened Black Eye Distilling Co. in Fort Worth, for one, makes its vodka from black-eyed peas.

"Craft distillation is going to be its own thing," Arnold says. "These new distilleries are going to bring something novel to the industry, whether it's a flavor or the way we approach craft in general."

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