It was a great Hill Country day to take a tour of Garrison Brothers Distillery. It was on our way and combined three irresistible draws: a trip that starts with a wagon ride, ends with a shot of bourbon, and is near a town whose name is a greeting–Hye.
We pulled into the rustic Visitor Area on Albert Road just a few miles south of the historic Hye Post Office, and lucked out with timing as a tour was just ready to go. You should reserve a spot online, but we happened to find a seat, and took a short ride to the “place where the magic happens.”
Making bourbon is a pretty simple process. After all, people have been doing it for centuries. But when Dan Garrison started Texas’ first “legal” whiskey distillery in 2008, he wanted Garrison Brothers Texas Straight Bourbon Whiskey to be “the best bourbon ever made.”
So it’s made pretty much by hand. Well, 18 hands. Currently nine full time employees take the product “from corn to cork.”
To be called “whiskey” a liquor has to be made from grain. At Garrison Brothers, they use organic red winter wheat, corn, and rye, ground fresh daily. Bourbon has the highest standards of all distilled spirits. Our guide emphasized it can’t be called “bourbon” unless it follows the ABCs:
A is for America.
Bourbon has to be American made, as voted by Congress in 1964. Take that, Canada.
The bourbon must age in barrels crafted of new wood, white oak from Missouri, dried for two years, made into barrels, then charred inside for exactly 53 seconds. No second hand wood for this drink.
C is for Corn.
No matter what types of grain are used, at least 51% must be corn.
Garrison Brothers use 74% corn from Dalhart–higher than the 70% used by most bourbons. They add 15% soft red winter wheat, and 11% malted barley, in case you are looking for the recipe.
That becomes the mash. This is the point where distillers extract the starches from the grain and convert them into sugar. The grain and yeast go into two 500 gallon cookers, where it is mixed with 300 gallons of good Hill Country limestone infused well water, and heated to the ideal temperature for the yeast to work. Yeast, you may remember from 8th grade chemistry class, converts the sugar into two by-products: alcohol–good, and carbon dioxide–bad.
The brew cooks for about eight hours, then ferments for five days. From here it is piped into the huge copper kettles for distilling. Anyone who has watched reruns of M*A*S*H knows how this works. The mixture is heated to the temperature that alcohol evaporates (lower than water). The steam is collected and passed through copper tubes where it is chilled by a water bath and converted back into liquid. And out comes a fiery liquid that is no longer mash yet not quite bourbon. They call it “white dog” because it has both a bark and a bite. It is so fierce they dole out samples in thimble size cups, and that is ample.
This stuff is about 70% alcohol and tastes like it. By the way, all information that follows is not guaranteed to be accurate, as the noise of the crowd downed out the spiel from the tour guides as the white dog loosened tongues.
I remember someone telling us there’s another important letter–G for Genuine. Bourbon must be 100% whiskey. That means no flavorings or additives. They can’t even add color. The coloring comes from being inside the barrel for six years.
The white dog is mixed with rainwater to cut it to 94 proof, then put in barrels. The barrel will impart its color and flavors of butterscotch, caramel, and fig. At least that’s what a previous guest’s tasting notes said.
After enough time passes to hold one and a half World Cups comes the magic day that bourbon lovers across the state eagerly await–bottling time.
With 48,000 bottles per release, Garrison came up with the solution of inviting in volunteers. Now about 30 volunteers come in for two days to help out, filling bottles, pigtailing with a deerskin lace, dipping in wax, stamping with a Lone Star, and hand signing every bottle.
It’s a party with lots of “quality control.”
The tour ends with a lesson on the proper way to drink such a fine product as Garrison Brothers Bourbon. It is a three-step process:
Do NOT shove your nose inside the glass as with wine, unless you want to singe your sinuses. You kind of have to sneak up on the side of the glass, then take in a breath through your mouth.
2) Opening up your palate
Do NOT sip yet. Instead, place a tiny drop on the middle of the tongue and, like at the rodeo, let it ride for 8 seconds. After the “burn” goes away, you can taste the flavors.
NOW you can sip that bourbon. And sip it straight, please. Maybe a little ice, but no soda water, juice, or other adulteration.
That’s it. You can take your own tour, and take your own notes. And at the end, you can buy your own bottle of what the owners claim is the best bourbon ever made.
In Hye or anywhere.