Exploring The Definition of Texas Bourbon Terrior With Garrison Brothers Distillery
By Father John Rayls
Those who venture to Hye, Texas, 50 miles west of Austin, to call upon Garrison Brothers Distillery will come across a Harley Davidson sign and a cross, prominently displayed on the distillery and bottling barn. When I asked about this, Dan Garrison explained the Master Distiller, Donnis Todd, is a Harley guy and Dan himself became a man of faith through many trying years of pursuing his vision for the very best bourbon in a ceaseless up-hill battle. It wasn’t until 2014 that the distillery finally made a very small profit, but through the reverses and seeming failures, the underlying principles never changed.
The best indicator of that unwavering devotion is simply to mention sourced whiskey at the distillery, and observe the animated, derisive response you get. This is a “grain to glass” distillery that has refused compromise. When asked how he survived after eschewing short term revenue schemes, Garrison said that everyone taking a tour of the distillery was required to buy the $25.00 T-shirt.
Of course, there was much begging and borrowing from friends, family and people too, and one thing Dan Garrison has always done well is cast a passionate, readily understood vision of making bourbon in Texas. He made three dozen trips to Kentucky between 2000 and 2006, long before even the earliest days of the micro-whiskey movement, to thoroughly understand how to bring his vision to fruition.
Being a small distillery allows Garrison Brothers flexibility in their production process, and they are quite frank that consistency isn’t something for which they are striving. The mashbill is close to 74% (Texas organic) corn, 15% soft red winter wheat (grown on their own land) and 11% malted barley (from Canada). However, process and formula are not rigidly fixed. The bottom line for every decision is the flavor, and to that end they use wine casks ranging from 10 to the standard 53 gallons in size, and made by 3 different cooperages. Factor in the fierce, variable Texas climate and a staggering angel’s share of 13 to 15% per year and variable levels of barrel fill, and you end up with the original Texas-made bourbon of modern times.
Their superb bourbon is loaded with oak on both nose and palate, as much a product of the Texas terroir as of traditional bourbon-making practices. Garrison Brothers Distillery now has close to 6,000 barrels baking in the Texas heat on their ranch, are filling about five each day, and opening around 900 barrels a year.
Garrison loves to use this story to illustrate Garrison Brother’s approach to making Bourbon. “Recently, a liquor store manager in San Antonio told me my bourbon was too expensive. He wanted to know why. I explained, ‘Well, we use organic, food-grade grain that costs four times as much as the grain used by the big commercial distilleries and we use custom-made 10-gallon, 15-gallon, 25-gallon, 30-gallon and 53-gallon wine barrels instead of whiskey barrels. These barrels cost three times as much as a traditional whiskey barrel.’
His response: ‘That’s crazy; you’d sell so much more if it was cheaper.’ Perhaps he’s right, maybe we should make cheap bourbon. But there’s a problem with that idea.”
Todd interjected, “We’re not accountants, we don’t do bar codes.”
Garrison concluded, “We are real. We are the original Texas whiskey. We are authentic. There’s no bullshit in the bottle. That’s all I got.” And among American whiskey enthusiasts, this singular focus has won the distillery a reputation for taking their time, doing things the right way, and turning out a family of products that shows what craft whiskey can be.