Garrison Brothers Distillery is the first and oldest legal whiskey distillery in Texas. Like everything in the Lone Star State, the brothers dreams were big from the start. They didn't want to make just any bourbon – they wanted to make the best bourbon ever made. Anywhere.
Before he opened the distillery, proprietor and distiller of the small-batch operation Dan Garrison worked in the tech industry in nearby Austin. When the company he worked for was acquired by a California software firm years ago, he found himself jobless and strapped for cash.
“I felt sorry for myself,” says Garrison, “So, to get away from it all, I took a trip to Kentucky to visit the Bourbon Trail and fell in love with it.”
Rather than stay in the technology rat race, in 2005 Garrison bought himself a small ranch an hour west of the city where he would create what he calls “the first legal bourbon distillery in Texas history.” The concept of bourbon made anywhere else but in the Bluegrass State might seem a little odd. In reality, bourbon can be made anywhere in the United States, so long as its mash bill — the grain mixture used in the spirit’s production — contains at least 51 percent corn, it’s distilled at less than 160 proof, and it’s aged in new, charred oak barrels.
From the start, he had no trouble convincing friends and family to help out — who doesn’t like free booze after all? However, there was one person he had trouble convincing: his wife, Nancy Garrison. It wasn’t until after years of trial and error trying to concoct the perfect recipe — more than 50 recipes by his count — plus numerous trips to Kentucky to learn from the expert bourbon producers that she began to come around.
“I would go to Kentucky and bring back notes. I had no idea how much biochemistry and microbiology goes into making fine bourbon,” Garrison says. “I spent many nights experimenting with hydrometers, pH strips, test tubes, thermometers, and Mason jars. There’s a lot of science that went on behind the scenes, plus a lot of frustration, since I had to learn it for myself.”
To keep things interesting, Garrison and his team will vary the mash bill each season, increasing or decreasing the distillation proof and/or altering the volume of white dog that goes into each barrel. This allows them to produce a unique vintage every season. So one release may have more or less vanilla or oaky notes compared toanother release, which may have more of a smoky, hazelnut flavor.
Another reason Garrison’s bourbon stands out from the competition is his use of a sweet mash rather than a sour one. In brief, most bourbon distilleries ferment their mash bill with yeast to make a mash and distill that mash in one of their copper-pot stills to create a high-proof liquor called “white dog.” They’ll then add sour mash from a previous distillation and use it to make the next batch. This is to maintain a consistent pH level. At Garrison Brothers, he starts with a fresh (sweet) mash for each batch he makes. Of course, doing things this way is far more expensive, but the flavor profile of the grains is more pronounced in the final product.
The scorching Texas climate also has a huge impact on the bourbon. Once the charred oak barrels have been filled with the white dog, the constant fluctuation in temperature from hot to cool causes the bourbon in the barrels to swell and shrink, forcing the aging bourbon to cycle through the wood’s crevices. As it moves, the liquid extracts sugars from the wood’s pores, yielding a bourbon with a distinct, rich caramel color and bold flavor. “We believe the Texas heat makes a better bourbon than one made in the Kentucky climate,” Garrison says.
Some people may find this kind of inconsistency problematic, but not Garrison. “Making the same bourbon over and over again is boring as hell.”
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