I once took a Facebook quiz that told me the state I should live in is Texas. Which is odd because the only state I’ve ever declared out loud I won’t live in is Texas. So I think what the quiz actually meant was I should go to Texas and spend some time sipping Garrison Brothers whiskey at its tasting room on a 68-acre ranch outside of Austin.
I got a preview of such a visit last Saturday when Dan Garrison came to one of my favorite local spots, Brooklyn Wine Exchange. He had the cowboy hat to match the lonestar bottles, and he graced us with some bourbon and talk.
He’s a legit craft distiller. He studied under Elmer T. Lee, Buffalo Trace’s first master distiller and got some advice from Dave Pickerell, former master distiller at Maker’s Mark. He makes all his bourbon there on the ranch where he also grows the wheat, hopes to grow the corn, and one day wants to have his own cooperage.
Dan built his distillery in 2006. He bought the still that Elmer T. Lee used to create Blanton’s, so it was a blessed beginning. It’s a wheated bourbon in the tradition of Pappy van Winkle, which he claimed to love since he was 9 years old. It was hard to tell which part of that statement was more difficult to picture – a 9-year-old enjoying whiskey (plausible) or a 9-year-old scoring a bottle Pappy (almost impossible).
No less than three master distillers gave him recipe ideas – Elmer T. Lee, Dave Pickerell, and Drew Kulsveen (of Willett), but he went on to experiment with 119 different variations, including barrel size and char numbers, before he came up with the combination that he has stuck with. He also experimented with proof, but went with Lee’s original advice:
“Elmer T Lee said, ‘You are going to bottle that at 94 proof, right?’ And I said,
‘Yes, sir, Mr. Lee.’”
The barrels work for their flavor. They spend the first year of their lives sweltering in a 120 degree shipping container. Then they hang out in tall barns that have open bottoms to allow some breeze. For the last year, they relax as tourist fodder, resting as they give up their last bits of flavor in the display barn.
The result is some damn good bourbon. Of the two basic expressions we tasted, a lighter spring and a richer fall, I was definitely drawn more to the fall – I like my bourbon full of flavor and soft on bite. We also tried some Cowboy Bourbon, which is barrel strength and impossible to find. The flavor is big, but not intimidating. With a touch of water, my mouth was happy to take a little bourbon bath.
Dan was not short on facts and figures about the cost of producing whiskey (hint: not cheap), frustration about liquor laws (read: corruption), and bitterness about so-called craft distillers that take ready-made whiskey from a large producer, bottle it with their own label, and call it their own.
But despite these annoying obstacles, Dan’s gamble on whiskey seemed to have worked out for everyone. He will turn a profit for the first time this year. And we get to drink some yummy bourbon.