Pictured above: Fox Trail Distillery in Rogers is the only distillery in northwest Arkansas and offers a stylish tasting room.

 

In a local landscape awash in malted barley and hops, Fox Trail Distillery in Rogers is northwest Arkansas’ only producer of spirits. There is not as much fanfare surrounding this maker of bourbon, vodka and gin but Fox Trail has demonstrated its commitment to the art and science of distillation and seems set up for long-term success.

 

Fox Trail was founded by Martin Tinnin in 2019. Tinnin is a grandson of the late trucking mogul, J.B. Hunt. His original vision for the distillery was for Fox Trail to be a production site first and foremost, but with a small tasting room in which to serve samples of its spirits. When the state’s rules loosened to allow on-premises consumption, plans changed to include a full-service bar and an upscale drinks program. Nowadays, the distillery is a destination and not just a label.

 

I paid a visit to Fox Trail on a chilly Saturday afternoon not long ago. Located just east of Pinnacle Hills Promenade, the distillery is in an impressive building designed by Core Architects. It is hard to stand out in the booming area that surrounds Interstate 49, but Fox Trail does so with its imposing presence on the streetscape. A wood-planked facade greets visitors, who enter the building through 10-foot metal doors. A black metal awning provides shelter for an outdoor seating area. The building reaches two stories on its north side to accommodate the large distilling equipment inside.

Part of the distillery is two stories tall to accommodate the equipment.

The tour I signed up for was supposed to last one hour, with a sampling of different bourbon varieties at the end. I expected to be a part of a large group but upon arrival I discovered that I was the only tour participant for the day. This proved serendipitous, as I was given unfettered access to my tour guide — Sunshine Broder — whom I peppered with questions over the course of the next 90 minutes.

 

Broder hails from Stone County in north central Arkansas and has a background in theater, radio and hospitality. She joined Fox Trail in 2021 and started conducting tours soon after. Having been on many boring brewery tours in the past, I was prepared for an academic recitation of facts, only to discover Broder takes an altogether different approach with the tours she conducts at Fox Trail.

 

“I’m an entertainer at heart,” she said. “I try to give my groups a fun and interactive experience. If people show up and seem uninterested, I can turn them around fairly quickly. The key is knowing what types of personalities are on the tour and understanding how to talk to each of them so that everyone feels like they had a good time in the end.”

 

We started the tour at the bar. The room was starting to fill with people, many of whom huddled in cozy round booths that flanked the room. Couches and leather chairs spread throughout, providing patrons with ample room to connect with their companions under semi-private cover. Dark colors create a moody environment — an ideal place to settle in for a drink.

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The Campfire Cornbread cocktail is garnished with a slice of charred corn.

A Fox Trail bartender made me a cocktail called Campfire Cornbread, composed of Wild Parallel Straight Bourbon, salted corn syrup and molasses bitters. The finishing touch was a slice of charred corn placed atop the block of ice that chilled the drink. The first sip was laced with nostalgia, as its buttery-caramel flavor reminded me of Werther’s Original candy. I immediately knew I’d need another before my visit was complete.

 

From the bar, Broder led me through a side door and onto the distillery’s production floor. Hulking copper and stainless steel equipment framed the large space. Fox Trail was equipped by famed German engineer and designer Arnold Holstein. According to Broder, the pieces were fabricated in France and shipped to the U.S. for onsite assembly. They seemed to embody both form and function with their beauty and intended purpose.

 

Generally, there are three pieces of equipment used in the distilling process. A still is used to heat up a previously fermented liquid so that alcohol will separate and rise as vapor. Fox Trail uses a hybrid pot-column still to accomplish the task. A condenser cools the heated vapor so it will return to liquid form. The concentrated alcohol is now known as distillate and the liquid is collected in a receiver flask before it is packaged or moved into barrels.

 

A 100-gallon gin still produces the distillery’s Artanical Gin. Juniper is the traditional characteristic in gin, but Fox Trail enhances the flavor profile of its version with additional ingredients. Elderberries and gin are macerated in the pot, and a gin basket affixed to the still is loaded with elderflower, lemongrass, lemon balm, rose hip, grapefruit and cucumber. The rising alcohol vapors are infused with the aromas and flavor characteristics of the botanicals before cooling and returning to liquid state.

 

The still used to make bourbon is significantly larger, at 1,000 gallons. The alcohol coming out of the condenser is separated based on alcohol type and quality, which varies as the temperature rises inside the still. “Heads” come from the beginning of the run and include unpleasant compounds such as acetaldehyde, acetone and methanol. These elements are not only unpalatable but can also have negative effects on human health.

Sunshine Broder provided a tour and tasting.

“Have you ever heard of the old moonshiners going blind?” Broder asked. “If they did, it’s probably because they were drinking the heads.”

 

The “hearts” is what a skilled distiller has his or her — ahem — heart set on. They contain ethanol and most of the flavors intended for the finished product. “Tails” are the last part of the distillate pulled from the condenser. They tend to be cloudy and bitter and contain a higher amount of fusel alcohol. Fox Trail sends its tails back through the distillation process to further refine it and collect more hearts.

 

Of course, distillation is not possible without a fermented liquid with which to begin the process. Making a fermented “wash,” as it is known, is much like making beer. In a combination known as the “mash,” grains are milled and soaked in hot water to convert starches to sugars. The resulting “wort,” or unfermented liquid, is combined with yeast to convert the sugars into alcohol. The outcome is a low-alcohol wash that is ready for distillation.

 

It is common for modern distilleries to source distillate from other producers. Some package and put their own label on it without modification. Others barrel-age or otherwise alter the distillate with additional ingredients to make it their own. The water used to reduce the alcohol content (a tactic known as “proof down”) can also add nuances not present beforehand, based on local conditions and mineral content and character. Sourcing distillate from other distilleries reduces costs associated with equipment, labor and ingredient-handling and it is usually how new distilleries start in their operations.

 

Fox Trail uses a neutral grain alcohol acquired from another producer as the base for its Boxley Vodka and the same distillate to make its Artanical, which is distilled a second time at Fox Trail with botanical infusions. Both products are proofed down to mellow the flavors. The vodka settles in at 80 proof, and the gin finishes at 88 proof.

 

Bourbons currently sold under the Fox Trail label were sourced elsewhere due to the amount of time it takes to properly age a bourbon (typically between four and 12 years), but the distillery has been making its own wash and producing whiskey distillate since it opened in 2019. In its first year of operation, 175 barrels were filled for aging. Those barrels — and many more — are currently sitting inside the barrel storehouse next to the distillery. The facility is capable of holding more than 5,000 barrels when fully loaded. Patience is a virtue in distilling, and the bourbon Fox Trail has produced in Rogers is patiently waiting to make its debut.

 

As we moved back over to the distillery for a tasting of Fox Trail’s various bourbon products, Broder gave me the rundown on the five rules governing bourbon while setting up several small cups for samples.

 

The first and most important rule is that bourbon must be made in the United States. Much like champagne (which must be made in a specific part of France), bourbon is region-specific. The other rules are as follows: bourbon must be aged in a brand-new American white oak charred barrel for at least two years.

 

“I think the oak lobbyists pushed that through the rules committee,” Broder said.

 

The mash recipe must contain at least 51 percent corn. The spirit must be under 160 proof coming off the still, under 125 proof going into a barrel and 80 proof or higher going into the bottle.

 

Fox Trail’s Wild Parallel Straight Bourbon Whiskey is just that — straight bourbon whiskey. Reverse osmosis water was used to proof it down before being placed in barrels, nothing more. The mash bill is 75 percent corn, 21 percent rye and 4 percent malted barley. It is lean, mean and provides a strong punch.

 

“Do you feel that burning sensation when it goes down?” Broder asked. “That’s what people in the industry call ‘the Kentucky Hug.’”

 

Wild Parallel Toasted Oak Barrel Finish was second in the tasting lineup. The toasted barrel creates more caramel and vanilla characteristics in the finished bourbon. It was much smoother than the straight bourbon whiskey and is perhaps an easier entry point for someone new to bourbon.

 

Next up was Wild Parallel Guyana Rum Barrel Finish. As Broder pointed out, the rum was strong in the nose but less so on the palate. Any tropical notes one might expect were mild, giving bourbon its proper place on center stage.

 

Last in the tasting lineup was O’Highlands IX, which is named for the Ozark Highlands. It was aged for 14 years and is intended to be the top shelf option from Fox Trail. The extended aging process resulted in a more refined bourbon that is complex, yet smooth. At 102 proof, the limited-run product is also deceptively strong and definitely intended to be sipped slowly while savoring a special moment.

 

“We see this as something you get out for special occasions,” said Broder. “It should be something you’re proud to share with your friends.”

 

In between sips, Broder shared that she sees different types of people on her tours. Some are from out of town, while others live close to the distillery. She gets serious bourbon fans from time to time, as well as the occasional tour filled with bachelor party revelers. Many tour participants are simply curious about how intoxicating elixirs are made.

 

For non-tour attendees, Fox Trail is a place for a sophisticated date or a lowkey meetup with friends. The lights are dim and the space is cozy. This type of environment is increasingly popular in Benton County, where the demographic trends older than the one in Fayetteville where the college crowd rules the roost.

 

“There are still a few bars in Fayetteville where they are serious about cocktails, but for the most part, the young people down there just want a Red Bull and vodka,” Broder said, and she should know. She has lived in Fayetteville since arriving at the University of Arkansas in the mid-90s. She even worked at the legendary Common Grounds on Dickson Street from 1998 to 2000.

 

“It was probably the best bar in town back then,” she said. “The people that worked there really cared about the environment they created for their customers — and we made great cocktails too.”

 

She listed Maxine’s Taproom, Vault, Leverett Lounge and Atlas as some of her current Fayetteville favorites that are still dedicated to the art of mixing a decent drink.

 

As for Fox Trail, its drinks program lures in people who are looking for quality, not quantity, consumption, people for whom flavor and flair are more important than a cheap buzz. An apple cinnamon spritz made with Boxley Vodka, Laird’s Applejack, apple juice, prosecco and Topo Chico has a special allure as does a cold brew martini constructed with Fox Trail’s Oak & Bean Coffee Liqueur, Boxley Vodka, locally-roasted cold brew, simple syrup and Angostura bitters. The combinations are countless at Fox Trail, and the drink menu is ever-changing.

 

“This is what happens when you bring in a bunch of incredibly skilled craft bartenders,” Broder said. “Our primary goal is producing and distributing our spirits, but something special is happening here inside the distillery.”

 

Based on what I experienced at Fox Trail, I completely understand her sentiment. There is something to be said for a moody yet mature venue that slings delightful drinks. Just be sure not to ask your bartender for a Red Bull and vodka when you pay your visit.

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