Hye, Texas, is a town of 105 people, located on U.S. 290 on the road from Austin to Fredericksburg. It's also the home of Garrison Brothers distillery, the first bourbon distillery in Texas and one which makes bourbon exclusively. Their bourbon is pricey, but it has always been highly reviewed, and I became a believer once I sampled some on one of my whiskey-tasting outings at Poison Girl.
On a recent visit to the Hill Country, I managed to persuade my lady friend and her mother that we should drop by for a tour on their way to buy peaches in Fredericksburg. They graciously agreed, so after sampling some homemade peach ice cream, peach butter, peach preserves, and, of course, fresh peaches, we turned back to take the 4 p.m. tour.
The distillery is well off the main highway, a mile or so up Hye-Albert road, where a sign indicates the visitor entrance, and where you can drive through the fence to the welcome center (a cabin), which is stocked with an honor bar featuring local beer, wine, and water.
If you're a bourbon fan and you've had Garrison Brothers, you know what kind of quality product they make, and I don't have to sell you on the excitement that lay in the possibilities of a visit. If you haven't had Garrison Brothers, you're in for a treat (hell, the tour is less expensive than most bars charge for a shot of their bourbon). If you don't drink at all, I have first-hand testimony that the tour was still fun and illuminating, showing the art, science, and human touch that makes for a craft.
While you'd expect a craft distillery to be small, actually visiting one really puts into perspective what "small" means. I had some idea when the website said the tours were limited to 28 people (ours was about two-thirds that), but I really didn't get a clear picture until touring the facility. Garrison Brothers only has eight full-time employees; as Chris, who led our tour that day, said, everyone has a primary job, but "We all need to know how to do a little bit of everything." Until recently, their bourbon was all made in a single 150-gallon hand-run pot still they called the "Copper Cowgirl." (They recently purchased two 500-gallon stills dubbed "Fat Man" and "Little Boy"; the Spring 2014 release is their first batch to be made in those stills.)
I didn't know Garrison Brothers only made bourbon; many of my other favorite distilleries bottle multiple expressions of whiskey, even if only a bourbon and a rye. (For an example of a distillery that makes neither, Balcones in Waco produces a single malt, a blue-corn whiskey, and a smoked corn whiskey.)
As a bit of a nerd for quantifiable data, I was also interested in the technical information provided on the tour, such as the exact breakdown of their mash bill, the general aging time for the bourbon, and the size of their barrels. The mash bill is 74 percent corn, 15 percent wheat, and 11 percent barley; the use of wheat instead of rye largely accounts for the bourbon's sweeter flavor. (And, if it matters to you, Garrison Brothers uses high-quality and local ingredients whenever possible: They use #1 food-grade certified organic white corn from the Texas panhandle, and soft red winter wheat also grown in Texas. Barley doesn't grow in this climate, so they source theirs from the Pacific Northwest.)
Garrison Brothers ages their bourbon a bit differently than distilleries in Kentucky do, because of the way the Texas heat affects the aging process. Garrison Brothers has to use smaller and thicker barrels, ordering custom 15-gallon barrels that are two to three times the thickness of typical bourbon barrels, which are also generally in the 50-60 gallon range. (Standard barrels would burst from the pressure caused by the extreme summer heat.) Whereas a typical high-end bourbon will age at least 12 years (and almost never less than eight), Garrison Brothers only ages theirs from 36-40 months, again citing the heat's effect, as it speeds up the interaction between wood and spirit and draws more sugars out of the wood. Since creating a bourbon is about balance between the oak and the corn, Garrison Brothers doesn't plan to age their bourbon more than five years, as the accelerated process would throw the flavors out of balance on a longer timeline.
If you're more interested in what those flavors actually are than in the proper strike temperatures or Brix readings required to reach them, rest assured that several samples were made available to us along the way. Toward the end of the tour, we got to sample both a newer and an older release of the bourbon, in this case the Spring 2014 and Fall 2011 versions. Before that, in the still room, we actually got to sample the "white dog" at 140 proof before it was diluted with rainwater and entered into the oak barrels (by law, it cannot enter the barrel stronger than 125 proof). For an unaged corn whiskey with no sugar added (most moonshine recipes I'm familiar with involve sugar in addition to corn), it was surprisingly sweet. I wouldn't drink it for fun, but I can certainly see how starting with a good distilled product results in a good bourbon. This story continues on the next page.
The gift shop has everything from curiosities and novelties to items that belong in the bourbon aficionado's collection. You could buy a T-shirt, bourbon-filled chocolates, and used barrels ranging in size from 1 liter to 15 gallons. You could also buy some tasting glasses stamped with the Garrison Brothers logo, and more importantly, you could buy their single-barrel bourbon (only available here) to sip from them. And if you're into cooked meat with your whiskey, the bourbon barrel smoker, which is exactly what it sounds like, is available for just a shade under $500.
All in all, I'd say the tour was very much worth the ten dollars it cost. (The Saturday tours are $20, something to keep in mind if you can only make weekends.) I didn't come close to covering everything the staff talked about on tour, but you get the general idea of the experience.
I intend to go back sometime. The one regret I have is that we arrived right before the summer shutdown, so no new batches of bourbon were cooking. (Every year, the distillery closes for a month so that everybody can take a vacation and visit their families-- "get off the ranch", as one person put it.) I'd like to go back sometime earlier in their production cycle, when I can see all parts of the machine at work.
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Garrison Brothers also has a volunteer bottling program. Rather than spend money on a tour, you could sign up to help bottle their next run of bourbon, which involves wrapping a leather opening strip around the cap and then hand-dipping the bottle neck in wax. (Another odd tidbit I learned: They have to be sure to stop the wax at the neck neat, because the look of wax dripping down the bottle is trademarked by Maker's Mark. I wasn't able to confirm this, but I believe I heard one of the tour guides say that volunteer bottlers will receive a bottle of the bourbon at the end of the day.
If you like bourbon, or even if you are just curious as to the craft behind it, I recommend adding a visit to Garrison Brothers to your itinerary the next time you're in the Hill Country.
Next time: I'll review the bottle of Single Barrel bourbon I purchased at the gift shop.