The Best Little Stillhouse in Texas – Perhaps Anywhere
When most people think of great bourbon whiskey, they automatically think Kentucky: Pappy Van Winkle’s, Jim Beam, Blanton’s, Maker’s Mark, etc.
Well, we in Texas know better.
Along U.S. Route 290, a little more than 10 miles west of Johnson City, is unincorporated Hye, Texas, and its largest nearby business and tourist attraction, Garrison Brothers Distillery.
Founded in 2006, Garrison Brothers is the award-winning maker of fine Texas bourbon whiskey that can stand shot glass-to-shot glass with the best barrel-aged distilled spirits originating in the Blue Grass state or Tennessee.
As proprietor Dan Garrison is proud to note, everything about his bourbon is pure Texas, from the organic corn, winter wheat and barley that comprise the sweet bourbon mash, to the pure nutrient-rich rainwater, captured on site, and filtered with an ultraviolet light purification system.
“If we’re going to make bourbon from Texas, it damn well better be authentic,” Dan proclaims.
[Hear my full RANCHCAST with LEM LEWIS interview featuring Dan Garrison. By clicking at the bottom of this article.]
The intense summer heat of Blanco County, with temperatures nesting at 110 degrees, is the perfect humid subtropical climate for aging bourbon; better even, Dan notes, than Kentucky, Scotland, Ireland, or other regions of the world where they also distil fine whiskeys.
Garrison Brothers bourbon is aged in white American oak barrels in barrel barns Dan and his crew designed themselves. The summer swelter causes the bourbon to expand inside the barrels, forcing the liquid into the wood where it absorbs the tannins and sugars that leach from the barrels.
Nectar of the Gods
The tannins and sugars are what gives Garrison Brothers’ bourbons their beautiful colors and distinctive smooth flavor.
“Bourbon whiskey is the nectar of the gods,” Dan tells me on a recent visit to his distillery ranch. (We, of course, drink to that. Salud!)
The superior quality of Dan’s bourbons is no Texas boast.
In 2016, for the second time, Garrison Brothers’ Cowboy Bourbon – a small batch production that is aged for a total of five years and left at barrel-proof (137 proof), unfiltered and uncut – was given the U.S. Micro Whisky of the Year Award by Jim Murray’s annual Whisky Bible. Out of a possible perfect 100, the Garrison Brothers bourbon scored 96.5.
Garrison Brothers Distillery has rapidly become a Texas institution, with busloads of tourists and tasters regularly flocking to his ranch to drink in both the friendly Lone Star State ambiance and the distilled spirits. (The Garrisons have a cow-calf operation on their property that they lease out; running the bourbon business demands all of their focus.)
Incredibly, Dan and his salaried team rely on hundreds upon hundreds of volunteers to help inspect, seal, and box his craft bourbon. Once a year at the company’s annual bottling party, volunteers pour in from throughout Texas for two days, during which they’re fed and given a shot of “courage” every half hour in compensation for their hard labor.
“We have about 9,000 people on our waiting list to come out and bottle with us. It’s infectious,” Dan says. “We get truckers, we got lawyers, we got teachers, we got dentists. Space Shuttle captains. We’ve had them all.”
The experience is one that fosters a bond among men and women who were previously strangers. “Bourbon brings people together,” Dan explains. “It encourages them to share their stories. It encourages them to share their histories and their problems and their opportunities, so they talk. And when you talk, you get to know each other better, and you become friends. And that’s what Bourbon is all about.”
Best Workforce in Texas
Indeed, sometimes, Dan confesses, “I don’t think we’re in the Bourbon business. I think we are out there to set an example of what a business can really be like.” Dan, who swears he employs the best workforce in Texas when it comes to hard-working, friendly, loyal staff, says he and his coworkers have “created a corporate culture that crosses all slices of life. I’m really proud of that.”
Dan shares with me his story of shopping for the ranch that is now home to Garrison Brothers Distillery. Professionally, he began working in software and technology marketing back in 1995. And for a brief period of a few weeks, it looked he was poised to cash in on about 25,000 stock options that would leave him a very, very wealthy man.
Unfortunately, Enron collapsed and then the Internet bubble burst, not only leaving Dan without his anticipated fortune but also leaving him in serious debt to the IRS.
“I decided to get away from life for a little while, and I went to Kentucky,” Dan recalls. That proved to be a most fortuitous move.
In Kentucky, Dan became a student of how locals made bourbon and the ins and outs of turning a good bourbon into a better bourbon.
“I thought to myself, ‘Holy Shit,’ if we can do this in Texas, Texans are going to love it,” he says. And so his bourbon adventure began.
Dan screened 36 different ranch properties before eventually coming across the right one just outside Hye, Texas. One night, he recalls, well before he’d formally launched his distillery, he drove his truck to the top of a hill overlooking the property and on a napkin scratched out a sketch of where one day all the buildings would go and what they’d look like.
Like Walt Disney
Sure enough, much like Walt Disney looking at orange groves in California and presaging Disneyland, Dan Garrison’s vision became a vibrant reality. In fact, that napkin, with his moonlit scrawls on it, sits in a frame in his office: proof that Dan’s dream also came to pass, exactly as he envisioned it.
When Dan finally did get up and running back in 2006, Garrison Brothers Distillery became the first legal bourbon or whiskey distillery in Texas history, and at the time, only the second bourbon ever successfully produced outside of Kentucky or Tennessee.
The first Garrison Brothers bottles shipped in 2011, and they’ve been in great demand almost from day one.
“Garrison Brothers Texas Straight Bourbon Whiskey is NOT for everyday drinking,” the company notes on its website. “If you’ve been drinking Kentucky bourbon all your life, then you’re in for something special when you crack open your first bottle of Garrison Brothers. But once you step up, that step backward is a long step indeed.”
Although Dan and his family, who help him run the business, plan to grow their business sevenfold by 2022 – from 10,000 cases a year currently to 70,000 cases – he admits when success came he initially bit off more than he could chew – expanding distribution outside of Texas in a manner that wasn’t sustainable.
“We blew it,” trying to do “too much too fast,” Dan says. Rather than stretch their limited resources as far away as Florida and California, the Garrison family has recently decided to keep their focus on Texas, and only Texas, for the next couple years.
“Some say Texans are a little too proud of their state,” Garrison Brothers quips on its website. Confining their marketing efforts to the Lone Star state “isn’t going to help the situation,” the company adds wryly.
Garrison Brothers produces a variety of bourbons and plans another release of its Cowboy Bourbon later this year, as well as the introduction of some experimental bourbons that they’ve been working on for years. Despite the company’s renewed focus on its Texas home market, its bourbons can be found, by lucky patrons, in discerning establishments as far away as London, England.
Set You Back a Little
As Garrison Brothers readily acknowledges – almost boasts – in its marketing materials, buying a bottle, case, or barrel of its craft bourbons will “set you back a little.”
Indeed, there are many less expensive bourbon whiskeys, but few that can compete on taste and on the special pride that comes with sipping an extraordinary Texas-made smooth bourbon whiskey. In fact, to this day, Dan Garrison personally signs every bottle of bourbon – as though it is artwork – before his spirits ship; and he pledges to keep doing so, no matter how large the company grows.
On a personal note, besides being a rancher, real estate broker, hunter, pilot, blogger, and podcaster, I’m a certified whiskey sommelier and all-around lover of whiskey, especially bourbon.
It makes me especially proud to have the opportunity to showcase Dan and his Garrison Brothers, because they’re our Hill Country neighbor, producing world class bourbons born and bred in Texas, and showcasing for all of America to see alternative ways to be a successful rural producer.
If you’re a bourbon lover, like I am, you owe it to yourself to join the bourbon cognoscenti who recognize and enjoy Garrison Brothers as one of the very best bourbons to be found anywhere.