Interview With The Man Behind Garrison Brothers Distillery
By Richard Thomas
Sometimes I am asked that if Kentucky and Tennessee are America’s top whiskey states, who is vying for third place? In today’s booming craft distilling scene, Texas is on my short list for that bronze medal slot. The Lone Star State has a that combination of numbers, quality and long standing, and a big contributor to the last two factors is Hye’s Garrison Brothers, located 60 miles west of Austin.
RT: My understanding is that you started work in 2005, making you not just the first in Texas, but among the very few and first generally. That means Garrison Brothers didn’t have the many examples to follow that micro-distilleries now have, ten years later. What were the hurdles you faced back then that you think a new whiskey-distilling outfit wouldn’t face today?
DG: According to my mentor and friend Bill Samuels Jr. at Makers Mark, we were the first new bourbon distillery built in American since Prohibition. I’m kind of proud of that.
Legally, we started in 2004 but I’d really been at it since 2001. That is when I began experimenting and began my travels to Kentucky to learn bourbon whiskey. The Kentuckians helped me every step of the way and I am eternally indebted to them. Our federal permit was issued in 2007. At the time, I believe only 24 federal permits had been issued. Today, more than 900 have been issued.
I tried to keep my work under the radar because I didn’t want anyone to know. Back then, craft distilling was all vodkas, rums and flavored vodkas and rums because it is so easy and inexpensive to get in that game. But my dream was to make straight bourbon, from scratch, all by myself. I learned of two real whiskey makers in 2006. Jess Graeber was making a whiskey in Denver at Stranahans and Ralph Erenzo was making whiskey and bourbon at Tuthilltown in New York. Jess became a good friend and so did Ralph. Jess was very helpful though he thought I was crazy to want to make bourbon. I couldn’t figure out how Ralph was making his whiskeys and figured it wasn’t my business. I was too stupid to recognize the financial implications of putting away barrels that would age three to five years but I was also too bullheaded to stop doing it. I just kept running up credit cards and borrowing money from family. My greatest fear was that the major international liquor companies would somehow block my access to quality barrels, quality copper stills or the distribution network.
RT: You guys were first, but in the minds of many whiskey enthusiasts it was Balcones that got all the glory. At the same time, it seems that what you make sells out reliably enough, so you certainly have fans. Do you sometimes feel overshadowed?
DG: Chip Tate came to visit my distillery in 2009. He claimed he was going to open a Texas distillery but was not forthright about what he intended to make. We spent the day showing him around. We always welcome strangers.
When he left, I knew the cat was out of the bag and the copycats were coming. That’s when we decided to bottle and release our first bourbon, The Young Gun. There was no way, after 9 years of hard work and indescribable sacrifice, I was going to let someone else release an underaged whiskey and claim title to Texas’ first whiskey. We had the patience to hold back our bourbon until it was ready; others did not. The Young Gun sold out instantly and received rave reviews. I believe a bottle sold on EBay for a few thousand dollars.
Chip then started releasing dozens of young, small barrel whiskies, and he must have had one hell of a publicist, because he was suddenly in magazines all over the world. We were patiently waiting for our bourbon to mature. Sadly, great bourbon does not get the international attention that Scotch-style whiskies do.
I was very happy for the success Balcones was having. Winston and Jared over there are great guys. It is disappointing that management let money squabbles interfere with their craft; but I think most people intimately involved with this business saw it coming. I wish Chip great fortune in his new venture. We do not feel overshadowed at all. We are growing faster than anyone in the whiskey space. More importantly, we are making the highest quality, finest tasting bourbon whiskey in the world. Today, we are the shadow.
RT: As I’ve seen in your literature, you are committed to making bourbon and bourbon only. Why the singular interest? What made you settle on not doing a rye or an American malt so early on?
DG: I have loved straight bourbon ever since I stole my mom’s handle of Rebel Yell when I was 13 years old. Straight bourbon is the nectar of the Gods. Straight bourbon is all we will ever make as long as I’m sailing this ship. Yet our distillery is located in a town called Hye, so there’s no doubt a Hye Rye is in our future. But it will be a rye-based straight bourbon. I just can’t yet say when it will be introduced yet. Great rye bourbons take time and must struggle with Angel’s Share, of which we have plenty.
RT: If I recall correctly, when you picked up your current stills, Fat Man and Little Boy, you said that right about now is when the first bourbon made in those stills would be ready for bottling. What kind of a first product can we expect from your new copper vis-a-vis what came out of your old equipment?
DG: A better one. Our Garrison Brothers Straight Bourbon Whiskey, Fall 2014 Vintage, which is in stores in 16 states now, was produced off Fat Man and Little Boy. I think its the best release we have ever made. White chocolate, caramel, butterscotch and brown sugar, drizzling down the back of your throat. I’ll put it up against any Kentucky bourbon or any other craft bourbon in a blind taste test. If you don’t like this bourbon, you’ll never be a Garrison Brothers bourbon drinker.
RT: Studying your releases over time, it seems like each one might have a different source of corn or mashbill or any number of factors. What drives your process in creating each batch of bourbon?
DG: Barrel selection. The mash bill remains consistent. There might be slight variations in the corn, wheat and barley harvest, or the fermentation temperatures, but the uniqueness of each vintage is purely driven by the barrels that my master distiller Donnis Todd and I choose to marry together into a small batch. We taste every barrel before we decide if its ready or which vintage it should be part of. Today, we have the luxury of more than 7,000 barrels to choose from to try to nail a particular flavor profile for a vintage.
RT: Texas has a fiercer summer than over in the Mid-South, and climate is a big deal in whiskey maturation. What impact does your local climate have on the bourbon you are making? Is the evaporation bad?
DG: Angel’s Share losses are about 13% annually. That makes most distillers convulse and start to sweat. It makes me smile. Because what primarily evaporates from the barrel during maturation is the water. The whiskey remains in the barrel and the caramelized sugar to whiskey ratio becomes more concentrated. There’s a reason Garrison Brothers is so dark, has no burn, and has such a long gentle finish. That’s thanks to the Angels.