By Richard Thomas
The Hye, Texas-based Garrison Brothers Distillery has certainly earned its place at the forefront of the American craft whiskey movement. Part of that stature is its status as one of the oldest small whiskey distilleries in America and the oldest in the Lone Star State, predating even the more ballyhooed Balcones.
The other part is their focus on making traditional bourbon in the Texas climate, so they produce only bourbon and do it in full-size barrels. The result has been some of the best bourbon whiskey to come out of the craft movement, stuff that many think measures up to much of what the Kentucky majors produce.
Take the original Cowboy Bourbon, a 2013 release based on ten promising barrels that founder Dan Garrison decided to hold back for extra aging. It met with rave reviews among both bloggers and in the mainstream media, at least among those lucky enough to try it given the mere six hundred 375 ml bottles released.
So it was that many observers eagerly anticipated the release of the 2nd edition of Cowboy Bourbon. Bottled in full, 750 ml containers at a whopping 135 proof (67.5% abv), this whiskey instantly became 2015’s hottest item in craft bourbon.
Before I get to the statistics, I want to talk appearance, for owning a bottle of Garrison Brothers whiskey is something of a tactile pleasure in and of itself. The seal is the heaviest wax-dip seal I have ever seen, with a pull-tab made from a strip of leather. Cowboy Bourbon takes this up a notch with the huge silvered star on the bottle, similar to their single barrel but distinct from their standard offering.
Now for the color, and for that I will just point to the picture above, taken in mid-day autumn sunlight. This stuff is dark, a glorious amber-red dark. Even as a high octane bourbon, it’s amazing how much color was imparted to the spirit in just a few short years, a testament to what happens when you cook a whiskey barrel in the Texas heat.
Put those two factors together, and this is an eye-catching gem of a bourbon to have on your liquor shelf.
Onto material statistics. The corn was #1 Panhandle Yellow Dent, grown in Dallas County in 2009. It was mashed, fermented and distilled that same year, and despite the release date of 2015 is declared as a four year old. *
The alcohol content on this stuff is pushing 70%, which usually screams “add water.” But as I discovered from some exploratory sniffs and sips, this second Cowboy Bourbon falls into a range where water is optional, but recommended. I think you certainly can drink it straight and enjoy it, because the high octane burn is minimal, but it’s still too far up there to get the full benefit without some water. So, in went a capful and a half.
The nose smacks of orange zest and vanilla, roasted and toasted corn on the cob, and cedar, with a musty character reminiscent of my boyhood memories of old barns. Just to make things truly interesting, I also picked up a trace of dill.
From there, the liquid had a marginally oily texture on the palate, and tasted of vanilla, mint and nutmeg over a subdued floral sweetness. The woody aspect also reminded me of something I am intimate from my outdoorsy, farmhand background, namely fresh-cut green oak.
For something that is almost strong enough to run a car engine, the finish is surprisingly mild. It’s a bit peppery, with a restrained current of warmth. Although that is surprising, maybe it ought not to be, because that restraint makes it ideal for summertime drinking. This stuff was made in Texas, after all.
For a four year old, very high proof bourbon in particular, this is a delightfully personable, approachable and pretty to behold sipper.
Remember how I described this as the hottest item in American craft bourbon this year? Cowboy Bourbon is priced at about $160, but fetching about $200 a bottle with online retailers.
*Updated: According to Garrison Brothers, this Cowboy Bourbon draws from stock that is 4, 5 and 6 years old.