At the tail end of the last recession, Robert Likarish was consumed by alcohol. The economy was bad, indeed. But what enticed Likarish wasn’t drinking alcohol, rather it was making it.
As he was about to graduate with a law degree, he turned to his biomedical engineer brother, Jonathan, and asked him to partner in opening a distillery.
“If we were going to do something as dumb as start a distillery, why do it when we have families and responsibilities,” the younger Likarish said. “Why not do it now?”
And, that’s what they did. After several years of planning, the brothers opened Ironroot Republic Distilling in 2014. The Texas whiskey industry was – and still is – in its infant stage. Additionally, the brothers decided to start their perilous endeavor in the small-town Denison, a part of the Texas-Oklahoma border region.
The risk seems to have paid off, though.
Against all odds and competitions from legacy distilling companies from around the world, Ironroot won the prestigious title of “World’s Best Bourbon” at the World Whiskies Awards on Feb. 11.
Bourbons like Kentucky’s Four Roses and Pappy Van Winkle and other famous brands like John J. Bowman and 1792 could not impress judges in a blind taste test as much as Ironroot’s Harbinger Straight Bourbon Whiskey did.
The World Whiskies Awards is a highly regarded whiskey competition, judged by a panel of leading journalists, specialist drinks retailers and industry experts.
“This is one of the top awards in the world that you can get,” Likarish said. “Having that sort of recognition from peers and experts in industry, it makes everything we’ve done, we’ve sacrificed, how hard we’ve worked over the last five or so years all worth it.”
According to estimates from Ironroot, the distillery sold about 300 cases of whiskey within five days following the World Whiskies Awards win announcement.
Considering the early signs, the win may be the catalyst for Ironroot to grow its already-ballooning reputation and market reach.
Sales for the distillery grew by almost 100% year-over-year in 2019. Likarish said the company is on track to outpace even last year’s record growth.
Ironroot currently produces about 200 to 250 barrels of whiskey a year.
The distillery has a cocktail lounge. It also offers tours of the facility. Ironroot products are found in most Total Wine & More stores. Some Goody Goody and Spec’s stores, along with many smaller liquor stores in carry Ironroot products.
Although still a relatively small producer, the company works with independent bottlers to sell their whiskeys across the world. It has partnered with distributors in countries like the U.K. and Thailand.
Ironroot recently purchased a building to convert into an extended warehouse in Denison. There are certainly plans for expansion.
“We’ve got a ton of different opportunities that have come across our desk here this year,” Likarish said. “We’re just looking through them and seeing if any of them makes sense.”
When Ironroot first opened, there were only a handful of distilleries throughout Texas. Right now, there are 161 distilleries in Texas, Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission. Tarrant County alone has 10 distilleries.
“You have the primary production in Kentucky. Now, you have these different regions that are producing whiskeys, you’re starting to see regional differences,” Likarish said. “The enthusiasm for what’s happening here in Texas is huge. Texas whiskey is booming.”
The location of the distillery does give Ironroot a significantly historic attraction, which is why the Likarish brothers wanted to open their distillery in Denison, he said.
Denison was home to horticulturist T.V. Munson, whose expertise and study on American grapes helped save the entire French wine industry from a devastating bug infestation in the mid-1800s.
Denison still gets the attention of wine and spirit lovers across the world.
“Because of the connection of our city, I’ve had the privilege to go over to Cognac and distill there,” Likarish said. “A lot of what we do here is actually based on French and Cognac methodology – from how we’re running our stills to how we handle our barrel warehouse in the back.”
About 95% of all grains Ironroot uses are grown within 60 miles of the distillery.
The distillery mashes, ferments, distills, barrel-aged and bottle on-site in Denison. The spirits are made using high-quality heirloom and non-GMO corn.
“Making a product that takes literally years to create, it’s an adventure,” Likarish said. “As with any small business, there’s ups and downs. But the last few years since we started getting the whisky out, it has been really, really fun ride for the family.”