After 15 years working as an attorney, including 10 spent practicing civil litigation in Fort Worth, Markus Kypreos took the next logical step in his career — he started a distillery.
The transition from law to liquor began slowly in 2011, when he enrolled in night classes at the Culinary School of Fort Worth.
“The first thing I learned was that it was hot, and I didn’t want to work in a kitchen,” he says. But still, he graduated, and the experience led him to study wine through the Court of Master Sommeliers, eventually receiving his sommelier certification. Rather than working a dining room floor, however, he enrolled in classes again, this time to study distillation, which Kypreos says is “a lot like cooking.”
All that is enough to make a less-driven person feel lazy and self-conscious about their résumé. But that circuitous path ultimately led Kypreos to quit the legal field and put together a business plan for Blackland Distillery, which opened in March 2019.
Located in Fort Worth’s Foundry District, the distillery is named for the Blackland Prairie, an ecoregion that runs from the Red River in the north to San Antonio in the south, and is characterized by its rich, dark, crop-friendly soil.
To take advantage of that soil, Blackland partnered with Fort Worth-based TexMalt to source locally grown grain as the foundation of its spirits, including the rarely-used triticale, which is a hybrid of wheat and rye.
Kypreos teamed up with Master Distiller Ezra Cox, who ran his own distillery in Washington before moving to Texas to take on beer-making roles at local breweries Revolver and Legal Draft. They’re using high-tech equipment from a company called iStill, which relies on a computerized system rather than human instinct to ensure precision in each batch.
“When making vodka or gin, you want a really clean spirit,” says Kypreos, which means taking a precise cut from the heart of the liquid, and removing the solvent-like aromas and off flavors you find in the heads and tails. “With our stills, we’re able to make the same cuts and be consistent with each batch.”
But they still had to dial in the recipes through trial and error. “We made a lot of bad alcohol before we made good alcohol,” says Kypreos.
Blackland currently offers four products. The vodka and gin are distilled from Texas wheat and produced entirely on site. The bourbon and rye are blends ― 80 percent 5-year-old whiskeys sourced from a distillery in Minnesota and 20 percent of Blackland’s young whiskey. The goal is for both the bourbon and rye to be fully produced at Blackland by late 2021 or early 2022 once the liquid, which they began distilling and putting in barrels in December 2018, has had enough time to age in the hot Texas climate.
People often say that vodka, a mostly neutral spirit, is the easiest to make. “It’s the quickest, but it’s not the easiest — there’s a lot of bad vodka out there,” says Kypreos. “From a business perspective, it makes sense though because it’s a quick turnaround from making to selling.”
He notes that gin is the most similar to cooking, because you’re flavoring neutral spirit with botanicals. But it’s the whiskey that has him most excited.
“I got into whiskey first, and that was the initial pull for me to learn more about distilled spirits,” he says. It’s also the focus of a Blackland experiment, in which they’re barreling a 100 percent triticale whiskey to release down the road when Kypreos and Cox deem it ready. “I don’t know anyone else in Texas who’s doing that,” says Kypreos.
Blackland’s handsome tasting room and lounge is currently closed because of COVID-19, but once it reopens, you can head there for craft cocktails courtesy of Megan McClinton, the experienced barkeep from the Usual and Thompson’s Bookstore.
Until then, you can find Blackland spirits stocked at most major liquor retailers across D-FW, including Spec’s, Total Wine and Goody Goody, and they’re also available online via Reserve Bar. The distillery is also offering curbside pickup for bottles, cocktail kits and even hand sanitizer, which they began making in March to assist with pandemic relief efforts.
Running a new distillery during a pandemic is no one’s first choice, but Kypreos has rolled with the punches. “Closing down in March and then again in June really hurt, but making hand sanitizer was great, because we were able to provide a need for the community and let people support us without coming into the tasting room,” he says.
For now, the plucky distillery will continue to make spirits and hope for the best. “The alcohol business is super competitive,” says Kypreos, and with bars closed these past few months, they lost a significant distribution channel. “In the short time we’ve been open, we’ve made a lot of headway. All we can do is keep going.”
Blackland Distillery is located at 2616 Weisenberger Street in Fort Worth. blacklandfw.com.