Robert Likarish and I became friends around the time I was hired as distiller at Copper and Kings American Brandy Company and over the years he has become one of the first people I turn to when I have a distillation related question or just need a minute to bullshit about the state of the industry. Together with his brother Johnathan they run the Iron Root Republic Distillery in Denison Texas where they distill Corn Whiskey, Bourbon, Gin, and Vodka from Texas grown grain. They are a true grain to glass distillery and one well worth seeking out.
Tell us a little about you and your brother and how you guys came into the distilling business?
My brother and I started our distilling journey about 8 years ago. I was getting ready to graduate from law school and decided the legal field wasn’t for me. My brother and I ended up traveling around the country and interning at distilleries. That’s when we ended up taking a class from Huber Germain-Robin and Nancy Fraley. That’s when our eyes opened our passion really took hold. Nancy took us under her wing and the rest is history. That’s why our approach to distilling and aging spirits largely comes from the French tradition.
You have done exceptionally well with your Carpenters Bluff moonshine which uses a red corn (Bloody Butcher?) as the base grain, talk a little about where that idea came from if you would. New invention or old recipe?
Bloody Butcher is actually used as a flavoring grain in this mash bill rather than the base grain. The mash bill was actually one of the ones we were testing for an aged whiskey. We just feel in love with it as it came off the still. Surprisingly, we don’t use this mash bill as an aged spirit.
How important is that varietal of corn to your process?
Bloody Butcher Corn is a pretty important grain for us. We use it in about 20% of the whiskeys that we make.
You guys are buying your grain from Texas, for me I think regionality is highly important and something we will be seeing a lot more of in the industry, can you talk a little about the types of grain you use, the quality you are looking for and how you have been able to work that business with local farmers?
I couldn’t agree more. Regionality is a concept that is extremely common in Europe but until recently hasn’t really been talked about much in the US. As the distilling industry matures in all 50 states, I think you’ll see more and more discussion about regional climates and agriculture that define areas.
We use multiple varieties of corn, rye, wheat, and barley. The vast majority of which are grown within 60 miles of the distillery. We used to be able to say 95% come from with 60 miles, but we are just about to start distilling single malt and the barley we are using is grown in the Texas Panhandle, which is outside of that radius. When we are looking at distilling a new varietal, we try to search out ones that are known for having flavors that aren’t considered typical to that type of grain. We’ve been really fortunate to find farmers willing to work us. At first, it was a bit difficult finding farmers willing to grow lower yielding varietals. But over time, we’ve managed to build trust with our local growers. I have to give a lot of credit to our local grain mill in Muenster, Texas. They were really instrumental in helping us find the right farmers and helping us get the grains we needed.
I know you have worked with several varieties of corn including Kculli, a purple, long season Peruvian coastal variety, could you tell us a little about the profiles of the different Maize varieties you have worked with and which ones have you the most excited regarding their potential?
We’ve had a lot of luck with several different varietals: The Peruvian purple corn has a beautiful plum, date, and cinnamon character off the still. We’ve done a couple flint varieties that have a great mineral, spice, and chocolate notes. The Bloody Butcher Corn tends to have great cherry, apricot, and clove notes. The Oaxaca Green has some earthy notes and a fun spice characteristic. As far as flavor is concerned, I think that all have merit and potential. Unfortunately, the yield and cost of the non-dent varietals makes them difficult to move over into the commercially viable category.
American Brandy seems to be on the rise and we are lucky to be living in a time as distillers where there is a real acceptance of fruit based spirits. Have you guys worked with grapes or other fruits and if so what varieties, what are you the most excited about?
We are actually the first Texas distillery to distill and release brandy in Texas from Texas grown fruit. One of our goals was to start a Texas grape brandy tradition. It is actually the reason we came to Denison four years ago. The city is actually the sister city to Cognac, France because of an amazing and little known grape heritage thanks to horticulturist T.V. Munson. In the late 19th and early 20th century, Munson spent most of his time collecting, documenting and studying the native American grape species. He created hundreds of hybrids (including some really crazy ones that produce grapes almost the size of plums), but became famous for his work with phylloxera-resistant rootstock. His work resulted in European growers being able to combat the phylloxera epidemic of the late 19th century while still growing the grape varietals they had been growing for generations. For his work, Munson was named to the French Legion of Honor and there is a statue of him in Cognac.
Most people don’t believe me when I tell them that native Texas grapes saved a large portion of the French wine and brandy industry. It’s story that definitely needs to be told and celebrated. Given your love of history and grape brandy, I definitely suggest reading more about him and his work. As far as varietals, we’ve distilled Orange Muscat, Chenin Blanc, and several of T.V. Munson’s varietals (Valhalla among others). We’re really excited to distill some Black Spanish grapes and maybe try our hand at some peach brandy in the near future.
Tell us about crafting your gin, what was the method to the madness in balancing the botanicals?
The gin is all my brother. If he could, he’d probably release about 8 gins that really run the gambit of flavor. Our current gin is focused on citrus botanicals – using lemon grass grown at the distillery, lemon and grape fruit peel from south Texas, lavender from a local farm, locally grown coriander, locally grown pecans, juniper, and a variety of roots.
Talk to us about your Harbinger Texas Bourbon.
I’m a big fan of over proof or barrel strength spirits and this seems right up my alley. Harbinger is a cask strength bourbon made up of Yellow Corn, Peruvian Purple Corn, Bloody Butcher Corn, a flint corn, and rye. This year’s batch came in at 118.5 proof. I’ll have to send you a sample! Any advice for entrepreneurs and aspiring distillers? Take the time to learn from others. There’s a lot to learn out there. Don’t rush. This is an industry of patience. If you’re making aged spirits make sure you have the ability to age them properly.