Like many men of their age, a group of five longtime area buddies from Castle Hills and surrounding locales have met on the first Thursday of every month for more than 10 years to talk and drink.
Their beverages of choice started with craft beer and wines before discovering bourbon about five years ago. They decided to visit where that liquor was made and traveled to northern Kentucky nearly three years ago to tour the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. Over a day-and-a-half, they visited about a half-dozen distilleries – all by bus.
Castle Hills residents Darren Ford and Mark Stuart plus Carrollton’s Kurt Baxter and Plano’s Brian Locke and Jim Semans made that trek in November 2020 – in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic – and thoroughly enjoyed every place they visited and every bourbon they drank.
One such drink provided by a friend who lived in Kentucky especially caught their palate one Saturday morning. Called Kentucky Gentleman, it consisted of a mix of bourbon, a local ginger ale called Ale81, and bitters and tasted good enough to make them think making something similar in a can would be a good business to bring to Texas.
They spent about six months planning to raise money and putting a business plan together. Officially incorporated as Firsty Thursday, LLC in August 2021, they began work to create their first samples.
Contracting with a company in California, they put together the right mix of alcohol and juices. After toying with 10 formulas and recipes, they settled on four flavors of what they called Horse Neck Kentucky Bourbon – Ginger Ale, Mule Spice, Cherry Rye, and La Paloma.
“We were learning as we went along,” Ford said.
Starting close to home, they sold their first samples in late March at the Golf Club at Castle Hills and Castle Spirits. Since then, they have expanded to multiple locations in Texas and Arkansas. Today, the 12-ounce slim cans can be found in many area Goody Goody and Total Wine and more locations plus Worth the Pour in The Colony.
It took a while to get to market because of a combination of sourcing, testing, branding, marketing, and permits but the reception so far has been strong.
“It’s been amazing,” Stuart said. “There’s a saying in the industry of getting liquor to the lips. We do tastings with retailers and once people try it; I’d venture to say we have 95 percent favorability across the board.”
It doesn’t hurt that bourbon has been enjoying a resurgence.
“The bourbon market the last 10 years has swung pretty heavily,” Baxter said. “In Texas, 10 years ago there were maybe two guys making bourbon and now there are 25. That’s probably true in every state.
“When we were growing up, our dads were drinking it. It was kind of a ‘60s guys’ drink. It was very cheap and easy to get. I think through the 90s and the aughts the clear spirits with the younger crowd were big.”
The quintet has been putting their regular jobs – Baxter in marketing, Ford in business development, Stuart in the real estate title industry, Locke in consulting, and Semans in healthcare sales – to good use in building their new business. All have been married to understanding wives for more than 30 years and met through a combination of their churches and kids’ sports activities.
But they also spend much of their free time hustling places to distribute and serve their products.
“It’s done very well,” Baxter said. “We have a lot of momentum. We all have supportive wives. And they like the product.”
Their goal is to eventually go global.
“Our hope is to grow quickly, grow fast, and then we’ll see what happens,” Semans said. “The industry is highly inquisitive, especially the big liquor companies. We’ll see where this goes.”