Location: Hye, Texas. USA
By: Monty Whisenhunt
"You can always tell a Texan, you just can't tell him much." ~Origins Unknown~
Garrison Brothers Distillery, located about 45 minutes west of Austin in the Texas Hill Country town of Hye, began filling their first barrels of Texas Straight Bourbon Whiskey in 2008, as the first legal bourbon distillery in the state of Texas since Prohibition. However, Owner and Founder Dan Garrison began laying the groundwork several years earlier after having been a victim of the dot.com bust at the turn of the Millennium.
Dan Garrison's passion for bourbon and interest in distilling lead him to Kentucky, where he befriended a couple of bourbon legends, Elmer T. Lee of Buffalo Trace and Bill Samuels Jr. of Maker's Mark.
From the outset, Garrison's vision for his own distillery focused on making not only Texas Straight Bourbon Whiskey, but also a world class bourbon with the highest quality ingredients available. His friendships with Lee and Samuels Jr. proved invaluable in learning to appreciate the importance of water, grains, barrels, distillate and recipes. Garrison would make multiple return trips to Kentucky to visit with Lee prior to launching his distillery.
Ultimately, Garrison chose to create a wheated, sweet mash bourbon utilizing Texas Panhandle white corn. This was not going to be your typical bourbon.
Panhandle white corn is a very sweet, food grade style of corn and differs substantially from the more common yellow dent corn used by most distilleries. Soft winter red wheat, grown on Garrisons ranch, would provide the flavor grain, adhering to his desire to locally source where possible, while the remaining barley grain comes from the northwest United States.
The "sweet mash" process also differs from the more common "sour mash" process in that no backset is retained and reintroduced to subsequent batches. Each batch is entirely its own run from start to finish. Garrison's goal was to create an easy drinking and flavorful sweet corn profile without a burning finish. Highlighting the white corn quality was not accidental.
The ranch sits in heavy limestone country and Garrison Brothers utilizes well water for cooking and fermenting the mash. However, GB uses a rainwater collection system to proof down their distillate. Garrison says that the highly alkaline, mineral rich limestone water is great for fermentation, but prefers the neutral pH rainwater when it comes to proofing down the distillate and aged bourbon.
GB uses two 500 gallon, copper, hybrid pot stills manufactured by Vendome and affectionately named "Fat Man" and "Little Boy." For smaller, experimental runs, they have another 100 gallon hybrid pot still originally made for Wild Turkey and once belonging to Elmer T. Lee that they call "The Copper Cowgirl." Cowgirl was their original still and all of their early bourbon releases came off of her.
Master Distiller, Donnis Todd, brings the "White Dog" off the stills around 130-140 proof before proofing down to 115 or so prior to barreling. The mashbill runs somewhere around 74% corn, 15% wheat and 11% barley, according to the tour guide, Andrea.
Aging bourbon in the Texas heat is challenging, rapid and expensive. Garrison's approach is to utilize 15 and 30 gallon barrels to ensure high liquid-to-wood contact and very thick staves to minimize evaporation loss. This increases the cost of the barrels substantially, but having seen for myself the liquid penetration into the staves at GB and comparing them to the penetration in a typical Kentucky stave, the need for custom barrels is obvious. The Texas stave, although much thicker, had penetration very near the outer edge of the stave, whereas the Kentucky stave, much thinner, penetrated about half way. I was shocked! Even with the much thicker staves, the evaporation losses are more than double that of a typical Kentucky barrel!
I couldn't have picked a better time of the year to make the drive out to Hye. The Texas Hill Country is always enjoyable and picturesque, and the GB ranch is even more so. Comprised of numerous outbuildings designed to house every phase of the operation separately, the ranch style compliments the surrounding environment. The industrial nature of the operational distillery couldn't have blended better, giving no hint of anything other than a Texas ranch with rustic architectural design and seamless integration. Dan Garrison made this his priority and succeeded brilliantly.
Having just recently filled their 10,000th barrel, the folks at GB are starting to release some of their experimental bourbons. Along with their Flagship 3-4 year old, 94 proof bourbon, they currently offer a 94 proof single barrel and the highly coveted and award winning Cowboy Bourbon. The Cowboy Bourbon is released on the odd numbered years and clocks in at full proof, non chill-filtered and in very limited quantities. The 2017 is 137 proof and limited to 3,600 bottles.
Current "Distillery Only" releases include a double barreled offering they call Balmorhea, at 107 proof and limited to 4008 total bottles. Coming late November, the Estacado is a Port Wine finished bourbon and offered at 115 proof. Both priced around $70.
Also in the works for possible later release are Texas Opus, a Family Reserve 5, 7, and 10 year, a rye bourbon, and Operation Cadillac, which remains top secret.
Distribution is somewhat limited, but growing. Given its premium price and disparate reviews, people might be reluctant to spend the $80 for a bottle to try even if they can find it in their area. For example, Jim Murray in his Whisky Bible gave Garrison Brothers his Micro Distillery of the Year award and the Cowboy Bourbon a very high 96.5 rating while other reviewers such as Josh Peters over at The Whisky Jug gave the Cowboy an 87. Bill over at Modern Thirst reviewed the Flagship, awarding it an 83.
Garrison Brothers has received numerous other awards for their bourbons.
I'm often asked what I think of Garrison Brothers Bourbon since I'm from Texas and it's not available everywhere. My thoughts are that the flavor profile of their bourbon is substantially different than that of typical Kentucky bourbons and that the difference is enough to discern Garrison Brothers from most any other bourbon in a blind tasting. Its unique character will appeal to some and disappoint others who expect a more standard bourbon profile. If you do get a chance to try this unique bourbon, don't pass it up, but it really enjoys some time in the glass, so don't rush it.
I thoroughly enjoyed the time I spent at the Garrison Brothers Distillery. The ranch is stunningly picturesque and the tour was casual, yet comprehensive. You can even grab a beer out of the cooler at the visitor's cabin to take along with you!
Visit Garrison Brothers website for tour dates, hours and the most current happenings at the distillery.
Photos & Article By: Monty Whisenhunt
Graphic Art By: Seth Brown
Graphic Art By: Seth Brown
Regular readers of The Son of Winston Churchill properly knows who Monty Whisenhunt is, but for anyone new to this blog; As the "Newbie" over here at the Son of Winston Churchill, please allow me to introduce myself.
My name is Monty Whisenhunt.
Like many people, my affection for this lovely brown spirit called whisky was an evolutionary process. What started as a means to an end wound up being a deep appreciation for the craftsmanship and complexity of what I was drinking.
I come from a working class family and as such, keep a light-hearted humor about me at all times. Struggling to make ends meet while raising four kids will introduce humor into the strangest situations and my parents danced that dance their whole lives. You learn to appreciate things a bit more when it's earned by your own sweat and labor.
My intent is to review whisky from the perspective of having it stand on its own merits, regardless of price or value considerations. Value isn't something that anyone can determine for someone else.
While my first love was and always will be, Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, I enjoy and appreciate Whisky from all over the world, as well as the explosive craft and sourced whisky category.
That quiet moment, Sunday evening, when my wife and teenage daughter are asleep, you'll find me in my office listening to a vinyl record, amplified with vacuum tubes, voiced through Danish loudspeakers and getting intimate with a good whisky. That time belongs to me and my Dynaudios.
Monty is a sometimes whisky geek and always audio nerd living in Austin, Texas with his wife Jacky, daughter Miranda and cat Snowshoe.
Make sure to check back in tomorrow, where we are heading to Tevsjö Destilleri in Järvsö, Sweden with Erik Hasselgärde