Robert Likarish has to move a special sticker aside as he pours a glass of Ironroot Republic's Harbinger Straight Bourbon Whiskey in a private tasting room at the distillery in Denison.
The sticker says "2020 World Whiskies Awards World's Best Bourbon." The 115 proof whiskey is made in Texas.
Even Likarish, who has made the distillery his life since 2011, can't believe it.
"When people think bourbon, they think Kentucky and Tennessee ... I think everyone does and they should. They hold their own pretty darn good," Likarish said. "We've won a number of awards over the years for some of the different styles of whiskies we've made but obviously the big one, the one everyone talks about, is when we won Best Bourbon in the World.
"For us, it was historic. It was the first time a bourbon made 100% outside of Kentucky and outside of the Midwest that had won it. That was a huge, huge deal for us to break down that barrier," he added.
Being in a David vs. Goliath situation has some advantages. If Robert Likarish isn't checking the barrels, his brother, Jonathan is. The only other two on the quality control team are their parents, John and Marcia, and Marcia is affectionately known as "The Mother of Texas Whiskey."
They went against distilleries that make 1,400 barrels a day and hundreds of thousands a year. Since opening, Ironroot Republic has not made 1,400 barrels total, as the distillery averages 200 barrels a year.
"We don't have millions of barrels so we can pay attention to every barrel in our warehouse," Robert Likarish said. "We taste each barrel every four months. And we make adjustments to those barrels. If one barrel is getting a little spicy, we might add water to it, we might move it to a different part of the warehouse. There are a lot of different things we can do to help that barrel mature and become its best version of itself."
With a laugh he adds, "If you have hundreds of thousands of barrels, you can't taste through those barrels because cirrhosis would claim you before anything else."
The Whiskey World Championships were held in New York City. The black tie affair is like the Oscars of whiskey.
"It's the most prestigious of all because bourbon is ‘the’ American spirit. It's super humbling for a small, tiny distillery," Robert Likarish said. "The thing that is most exciting to me is the explosion of small distilleries across the country and you are starting to see these regional styles develop. Again, not to knock anything the Kentucky guys are doing, but they do it a certain way and a very certain style. We are showing American whiskey has way more breadth, way more complexity than anyone thought could be done. Each region of the country has developed very different flavor profiles."
When you attend a tour or tasting, they explain how to taste the fruits and oak. Another taste with a drop of water and you taste the bed of dark sugars, corn and rye.
While Ironroot is sold in 41 states and most liquor stores in Texas, they can only get six bottles at a time to each place and they are sold out in hours. It may take four months for the next delivery. With the award, the demand is even greater.
"It shocked us, first and foremost, but it really did put a shock in the world. We've had calls from literally all over the world trying to get our whiskey and trying to get our product," Robert said. "We always try to have two whiskies in stock at all times."
As Robert's father talks to a group who flew in from Lubbock for a tour, Marcia is opening a barrel to check quality as a group from Norway waits.
"I think it's something about mom," Robert jokes about the popular tours. "We have tours you can book in advance. You go through the entire process. You hear our story, all the crazy grains that we use, we talk about how we make the product, how we mature it and then ultimately you get to taste everything that we make."
Ironroot Republic (ironrootrepublic.com) is open from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday to Friday and from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday at 3111 Loy Lake Road in Denison. If you do not get a tour, Robert said, "You can always come in and taste everything we have in stock and we will still talk to you about what we have."
On cue, Marcia takes two people to see more of the distilling process. Robert smiles and admits, "And we may take you on a tour around."