It takes a bold man to start making bourbon outside of its home in Kentucky. Fortunately for whiskey drinkers, Dan Garrison is a bold man.
Falling in love
The journey from ad man to the owner of the first whiskey distillery in Texas started in a catastrophe in 2003. Dan was a marketing executive for an Austin technology firm that was sold, and he was out of a job. For the next two years, he was executive director of a non-profit, but in the back of his mind was a goal of owning a business he could “touch and smell and taste”. In 2005, reading an article on a businessman who purchased a vodka still, this long time bourbon drinker had his a-ha moment: he would open a bourbon distillery, in Texas. Little did he know what a plunge it was to open a distillery making the first bourbon ever to be cooked, fermented, distilled, barreled and bottled outside of Kentucky or Tennessee.
The years 2006 and 2007 were filled with planning, education, and due diligence. Dan made countless research trips to the heart of bourbon country, learning from masters like Bill Samuels, Jr, son of the founder of Maker’s Mark. It was during those trips, that he fell in love. As he says, “I fell in love–not just with bourbon because I’ve always loved bourbon–but with the makers of bourbon and the history.” He took tours, sketching the equipment set-ups. By 2007, he was ready to start.
A quirk in the federal alcohol regulations meant he couldn’t have a still until he had a federal distiller’s permit. On top of that, the permit required owning land, with articles of incorporation in place.
So Dan found land west of Austin in the picturesque hamlet of Hye. It included almost 60 acres to grow the soft red winter wheat that would blend with corn and barley to make the mash that is the grain basis of any whiskey. The plot was covered every year in a riot of colorful spring wildflowers. Most importantly, it had a limestone aquifer underground just as in Kentucky and Tennessee. In late 2007, with a permit in hand, he bought a used still from Buffalo Trace Distillery and moved it onto the Hye property.
The next seven months were a period of trial and error. By mid-May, nearly exhausted both emotionally and financially, his father and brother arrived to provide encouragement and hands-on assistance. Together, they produced a mash that was the “sweetest, best tasting we’d ever made, and we knew we had it.”
Crafted by hand
It was a warm Texas summer morning as I navigated my way down the lane and a half road from Hye to the distillery. Turning off the road and across a cattle guard, it was a sort drive up the gravel road, the small stones crunching under my tires. At the parking lot, I was greeted by our tour guide, Stephanie. Climbing onboard a farm trailer, after a short ride we arrived at the distillery complex.
At Garrison Brothers, Texas grown organic food grade corn comes from Panhandle farms and is stored in corrugated silos. The wheat grown on the property is blended with barley from the Pacific Northwest and Canada (due to inhospitality of the Texas climate). The three grains are mixed to make a mash bill with 74/15/11% ratios, then ground. Mineral rich well water is blended in, then the mixture is cooked for 8.5 hours to release the sugars in the grain. Once the sugar reaches 22 brix (a measurement of the percentage of sugar in an aqueous solution), the mixture is cooled to 76 degrees, and yeast is added.
It is this yeast that converts the sugars into the requisite alcohol. I’ve been to distilleries all over Scotland, in Kentucky, and in the US, and the process is the same. It is the manipulations of the ingredients, and the process, that create the variations in distilled spirits. After the “beer” mash mixture reaches 10-20% alcohol, it is time to distill it.
From grain to spirit
The beer is moved next door to the beautiful copper stills. Garrison Brothers now sports three – Little Boy and Fat Man have joined the original Copper Cowgirl. All are under the watchful eye of master distiller Donnis Todd. The beer is heated until it vaporizes, and moves up each level of the still, until reaching the condenser at the top, where it is cooled and liquefies. It is further cooled at the bottom of the still. There, the clear high proof liquor – “white dog” – is sampled. The high corn percentage of Garrison Brothers comes through clearly in the white dog. Bourbon, by law, must contain 51% corn. At 74% corn in the mash bill, this is clearly corn dominated bourbon whiskey, and it is apparent in the taste. The 140 proof distillate is next thinned to 100 proof with neutral rain water, collected on the property and purified by ozonization and UV light.
It is now time for the white dog to be transformed into bourbon the only way it can – by aging in new, charred barrels made of American oak. After barreling his first batch in 2007, Dan had to wait while it aged. It was during this waiting time that he discovered an important fact: the barrels he sourced from Maker’s Mark barrel maker weren’t up to withstanding the climate change of Texas. At best, the barrels leaked. At worst, they exploded as the heat drove the volume of the liquid inside past the limits of the barrel’s strength. The solution was stronger barrels, now coming from a Minnesota manufacturer featuring staves 1 ¼” inches thick.
Time plus wood plus heat
Inside these barrels is where the clear white dog is converted into the amber colored bourbon. Here, the sizzling Texas climate extremes are now a good thing, now tamed by stronger barrels. The 130 degree temperatures sometimes reached in the Hye warehouses drives the spirit deep into the charred wood, as the barrels swell. There is where the tree sugars, hidden in the oak sap in the wood’s pores, such as lactones, eugenol, guaiacol, and vanillin combine with the distillate. The result gives the bourbon its distinct caramel, toasted butterscotch, fig, vanilla, and chocolate flavors and aromas.
Then, in winter, the process is reversed. Cooling temperatures drive that now-infused liquor back inside the barrel as it shrinks. The Texas temperature extremes are nothing like those in Kentucky, or Scotland, the terrible Texas weather a friend to the distiller. As a result, Texas bourbon is typically ready two years faster than in Kentucky, “cooked” inside the barrel courtesy of the severe Texas climate.
Starting in the second year, every barrel is tasted by Donnis and Dan. The barrels are pulled, not by a calendar, but by taste. Twice a year, it is time for bottling. The barrel proof liquid is thinned once again with rainwater, to reach 94 proof.
Twice a year, hundreds descend upon Hye to work as volunteer labor in what Dan calls his maquiladora. The bottles are filled, capped with a cork, then hand dipped in wax, proudly bearing the words “Born and Bred in Hye, Texas”. Every bottle is signed with a silver ink by Donnis or Dan. This is hand crafted bourbon, and they want you to know it.
After giving a maybe not too helpful hand to the volunteers, we head over to the rickhouse for a sample. This is bold bourbon, just like Dan. It is thick, and wraps itself around your tongue in a way I’ve never had a whiskey do. There is a distinct peppery side note to the usual oaky chocolate and cocoa tones, as you would expect in a Texas bourbon. This is a land of audacious tastes, and Garrison Brothers is staying in tune with the song. And a good song it is.
Soon, it is time to leave this frontier outpost of the distillers’ art. It may be hundreds, even thousands of miles away from its kin in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Scotland. The climate would be unrecognizable to those perpetually chilly Scotsmen. But as soon as they saw those copper stills, they’d feel right at home, bound to this place and these people by a devotion to a common art form.