Acre Distilling sits in a nearly 100-year-old building at 1309 Calhoun St., right in the middle of what used to be one of the shadiest parts of Fort Worth in the late 1800s – that is, the red-light district of Hell’s Half Acre, known as a hub for outlaws, saloons and prostitution houses.
Jack Cox, a 24-year-old student at Texas A&M University School of Law just down the street from the distillery, doesn’t think too much about it. He comes to Acre two or three times a week in between class to study, enjoy the food or simply hang out.
“[I’m] not really particularly that knowledgeable about the history,” Cox said. “I know a little bit about it, but not too much.”
Acre’s owner and managing partner, Tony Formby, said he wants to change that. He hopes his distillery/coffee shop will help Fort Worthians get better acquainted with a part of the city’s history that not many people know about.
“We pay homage to the history,” he said. “We think it’s really interesting.”
His business has many nods to Hell’s Half Acre. A large picture of Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch gang hangs on the wall, and the drinks are named after legendary icons such as 1870s city Marshal “Longhair Jim” Courtright. Beginning in April, Acre plans to host free tours of the distillery every Saturday and incorporate the history of Hell’s Half Acre in the narration, Formby said.
Formby, former part-owner of Fort Worth craft beer maker Rahr and Sons, started the business last year. He originally hoped to find a location for his business in Fort Worth’s Southside, but when he couldn’t find a space, he discovered a vacant building for sale right beside the Fort Worth Convention Center downtown.
The building, built in 1920, was formerly a Rodeo Steakhouse. When he walked in, Formby said, the tables were still set with dusty plates, napkins and water glasses, and the bar’s fridges were filled with “old, skunky beer.” He looked at the wood floor and bar top and figured that with a little sprucing up he could turn the old restaurant into a distillery.
He bought the building in January 2015. Formby himself served as the contractor and hired subcontractors to refurbish the building. They cleaned up the wood floor, installed a new alcohol vapor ventilation system and added French doors to separate the cafe from the distillery production area, among other fixes. The renovation was good enough to win a Trailblazer Award from the nonprofit downtown advocacy group Downtown Fort Worth Inc. this year.
Acre opened in December. Though it’s primarily a distillery, Acre also serves coffee made by local roaster Avoca. There’s food, too – the light-fare menu features items such as flatbread pizzas, sandwiches and cheese boards made by pastry chef Jane Sokolov.
The spirits get their names from infamous icons of Hell’s Half Acre. The bourbon, for example, is called “Longhair Jim,” the nickname of Marshal Timothy Isaiah Courtright, who was known to walk both sides of the law. (He was killed in a gunfight with Luke Short in 1887, a shootout that is re-enacted annually in the Fort Worth Stockyards.) The gin, called “Two Minnies,” is named after the Two Minnies saloon.
Acre’s building wasn’t part of Hell’s Half Acre, though. It was built after the red-light district began to wane around the turn of the 20th century, said Fort Worth historian Richard Selcer, who wrote the book Hell’s Half Acre: The Life and Legend of a Red-Light District.
Still, Selcer said, branding the business with the area’s history is a “brilliant idea.”
“I give them credit for that,” he said. “[It’s] one of the ways of tying themselves in to the history and also identifying themselves.”
Though Hell’s Half Acre may not have been the most moral place in Fort Worth, Selcer said it’s still an important part of the city’s often “romanticized” Western heritage.
“It’s something that only exists in imagination and in the book,” he said. “What the distillery is trying to cash in on is a dream, an idea, a fantasy of the rootin’ tootin’ Wild West part of Fort Worth.”
But today, law student Cox said he likes Acre for opposite reasons.
“I like it because it’s quiet,” he said. “A nice calm little atmosphere to get some studying done.”
1309 Calhoun St.
Fort Worth 76102
‘Lord make us good, but not right now.’ And ‘I’d rather be dead in a pine box in Fort Worth than alive in any other part of the world.’ – quotes attributed to “Longhair Jim” Courtright, Fort Worth marshal and gambler who walked both sides of the law in Hell’s Half Acre