Dust flies out the back of our Jeep trailer as we bounce up a curvy dirt trail with nothing but trees, sky, and a few statuesque cows watching us zoom by. Maybe it’s the mixture of jetlag and sipping a bourbon highball at 9 a.m. Texas time, but the whole moment feels like I’m in the Clint Eastwood western “High Plains Drifter,” on in this case, Hye plains drifter.
I’m in central Texas hill country in a small town called Hye, population 609. Garrison Brothers Distillery owns this sprawling 60-something-acre lot and operates the first legal bourbon distillery outside of Kentucky and Tennessee, and all that limestone soil we’re traversing has been known to help make some of the world’s best bourbon.
“We didn’t know if it was even possible to make bourbon outside of Kentucky, so we asked. … By God, they said bourbon could be made anywhere in America,” says owner-founder Dan Garrison, nodding with his steel blue eyes and white Stetson hat, knowing he was sitting on a limestone goldmine.
The Jeep halts in front of a few small buildings and a broken-down, rusty tractor with a few American and Texas flags flapping in the wind. To the left is the stillhouse that’s wide open to the warm Texas air, whose five Vendome copper stills have been running sweet white dog (bourbon before it touches barrels) all night long.
“Whiskey legend Dave Pickerell taught me the ABCs of whiskey when he stayed with me years ago. … I cooked him up a steak and baked potato every night, and we’d share stories sitting around the fire,” Garrison says.
To be bourbon, the whiskey has to be (A) American-made, it can’t be made in any other country; (B) is for the barrel, which has to be newly charred oak; (C) is for the corn content, which has to be at least 51 percent of the grain bill, of which Garrison uses 74%; (D) is for the distillation proof, which has to come off the still less than 160 proof, anything higher, you’re in Tito’s territory; (E) is for barrel entry proof, which has to be 125 or lower; (F) is for bottle fill-strength, which can’t be lower than 80 proof; and (G) is for genuine, meaning no added colors, fillers, or flavors added.
Like true Texans, Garrison Brothers sources all of its ingredients from its stomping grounds, including the water it uses to proof down its spirit, which is pure rainwater collected from the roofs. The corn is from Pearsall, a couple of hours to the south, the barley is grown in Hamilton to the north, and the soft red winter wheat is grown right on the Red River bordering Oklahoma. So if you want to know what Texas tastes like, Garrison Brothers bourbon is a great place to start.
During the process, the zippy clear white dog whiskey is proofed down and tucked in for a long barrel nap inside the massive rickhouse beaming in the searing Texas sun. The barrels on top will breathe bourbon much faster than those on the bottom, which speeds up the aging process.
When dumping barrels to be bottled, a lot of folks on the tour ask if it’s charcoal filtered as the liquid gets dropped into a collection vessel filled with black chips before bottling. “Nope, that’s all the little char chips from the barrels,” says master distiller Donnis Todd, demonstrating that you can’t really see the charred barrel chunks fly out unless you capture it in a glass. “We get that much char released from our barrels due to the intense heat of our summers here.”
Todd samples each barrel, looking for key characteristics to decide what expression it may wind up in. Some barrels have a natural honey-like character and are slotted for Garrison’s Honey Dew bourbon. Single barrels that are well-rounded might get released as single-barrel releases. Barrels that are A++ might get re-barreled into their special Balmorhea bourbon, or even their 134+ proof behemoth Cowboy Bourbon.
“He tastes every barrel and decides which expression it’ll go into, so he’s the key here; he knows where all the bodies are buried if you know what I mean,” says Garrison about Todd, who has been with Garrison since the beginning.
When it comes to bottling, volunteers sign up on a waitlist to help bottle for the day. People show up, throw on a pair of gloves, and hand-dip each bottle into hot wax, getting it just right. I can’t think of a better way to end the day than to see a group of strangers dipping, sipping, and singing as happy as can be. Where do I sign up?
Book a tour through Texas Hill Country wineries and Garrison Brothers at Hill Country Wine Tours.