Dr. Rob Arnold, master distiller and author of The Terroir of Whiskey, will be the keynote speaker for the Craft Maltster Guild’s 2023 Craft Malt Conference scheduled for March 16-18 in Portland, Maine. 

Since January 2021, Arnold has served as President of Advanced Spirits, an innovative industry growth collaborator specializing in the procurement, financing, and aging of whiskies for their brand partners. Prior to that, he spent a decade as the master distiller of Firestone & Robertson Distilling Co. in Fort Worth, the makers of the TX Whiskey brand.

When Arnold first joined TX Whiskey, the distillery sourced grain from a large-scale commercial supplier. But the lack of control, variety selection, and sourcing transparency left the relationship lacking.

“I knew the corn was yellow, soft wheat was red, and they came from Texas farms. But that was it,” notes Arnold. “I had learned enough about the wine industry to realize there was a dichotomy between how winemakers approach grapes and distillers (and brewers) approach grain. I told people I used Texas yellow corn to make bourbon. That’s like a winemaker saying they use California red grapes to make their wine. That might be true, but the winemaker would also have a vast knowledge of the grape varieties and vineyard origins of those red grapes. I didn’t have that knowledge, at least not yet.”

Arnold’s foray into whiskey terroir would lead him to join forces with local Texas farmer John Sawyer. With Sawyer’s help, they started growing specific varieties of non-GMO yellow corn and soft red winter wheat for the distillery. This partnership allowed for the identity preservation of grain along the value chain and, thanks to Sawyer’s elevator operation on-site, the ability to farm and store the grain in a central location.

“John also cracked the code of how to grow barley and rye in Texas,” Arnold adds. “He became our sole supplier of grain: corn, wheat, rye, and barley. Our barley was then malted locally in Fort Worth by TexMalt.”

Along the way, Arnold also completed a Ph.D. in plant breeding and genetics at Texas A&M University, working under Dr. Seth Murray, the director of the maize breeding and quantitative genetics program.

“I wanted to do a Ph.D. for a few reasons. I left my first Ph.D. program to join TX Whiskey, so there was a personal goal to finish the degree,” says Arnold. “But I also realized that by working with Dr. Murray, we could prove terroir impacts flavor in whiskey and breed new varieties tailored for the industry. The idea of terroir, of the impact of grain variety and the growing environment, is fundamental to the science of plant breeding. So, it made a lot of sense to study that in whiskey. Especially since I already had some anecdotal evidence, through our work with John Sawyer, showing the importance of grain for flavor in whiskey.”

Arnold’s experiences and education laid the groundwork for him to write two popular science books, Shots of Knowledge: The Science of Whiskey and The Terroir of Whiskey: A Distiller’s Journey Into the Flavor of Place. The latter has been a popular read among the craft malting community.

In his Craft Malt Con keynote, attendees will learn about the science behind metabolites in grain and how these compounds transition through to flavor compounds as grain goes through the processes of malting, mashing, fermentation, and whiskey distillation and maturation. 

Early bird registration is $450 for Guild members and $650 for non-members through January 15, 2023. Learn more about the event and register here.