Home on the Range at Garrison Brothers Distillery
I like that when I walk into the tasting room at the Garrison Brothers Distillery, in Hey, TX, I'm helped not by one, not two, but three cheerful employees. There's Jack, one of the distillers, who will lead me through my tasting. Smiley Andrea, who handles the register, and Kate, my Polaris-off-roading tour guide.
If you are puzzling at the off-roading part, Garrison Brothers is comprised of authentic-looking homesteady buildings spread out across a giant ranch. I'm told there are cattle somewhere -they love the spent grains- but the only one I see is a massive, mirrored sculpture standing guard in front of one of the event halls. It was commissioned by one of the brothers Garrison and I'm guessing the artist is local, because I notice a couple other similarly ornamented bulls around Johnson City on my way out.
Garrison Brothers are all about bourbon, and are very particular about how they blend batches from each barrel. There is an elaborate marking system on each bottle (barrel date, bottle date, cask type, etc). The cynical (and usually right) part of me wants to say it's very effective marketing flair. Then Jake has me sample from a couple different bottles.
First, everything I'm about to try comes from the same mash bill: 74% white corn, 15% wheat (grown across the street, on Mrs. Garrison's farm), and 11% malted barley. Why white corn as opposed to the more common yellow? Garrison Brothers were, in fact, using yellow when one lucky day their supplier sent white by mistake. Not wanting to go through the trouble of returning it, the distillers tried it and preferred the outcome. This bourbon just like penicillin: both the result of happy accidents. (Though it wouldn't be fair to compare lives saved).
Jake points out the year marked on each bottle. It denotes when it was released from the barrel. I try a 2015 and a 2016. Both are 94 proof, aged about three and a half years. The 2015 has a sweet corn nose with mild cherry notes. I also remember a burn lingering on my lips for some time.
It's amazing. I was skeptical at first, about whether a batch could actually taste that different from year to year, if mash composition and aging remained the same. I stand humbled. It looks like Garrison Brothers has cracked the vintner's code of annual variety.
Case in point: my sample of 2016, in contrast to 2015's, hardly has a nose. If pushed, I'd have to say it's oak. The notes are more corn and spice forward, but without that lingering burn.
Finally, we get to a couple of single barrel samples. These are denoted by number, not year. Number 3776 has a caramel and a mellow, deep flavor of cherry and chocolate. Number 3771 has a nose of sweet woodgrain and notes of caramel candy and cinnamon spice. You get the idea - Garrison Brothers single barrel is a spin of the wheel.
The tour covers a lot of ground, literally. Kate picks me up in her Polaris off-road golf cart, which she handles like a pro. Each step of the spirits-making process is housed in a separate barn on the Garrison Brothers property, hence the wheels.
First, Kate shows me the mill shed (it's only half-enclosed) where the grain gets delivered and crushed to make the mash. We follow troughs carved into the ground, leading into the neighboring mash house. That's how the milled grain finds its way to a mashing. The troughs empty out into several mash tuns where all the grains, after milling, get a nice warm bath to prepare them for fermentation. I'd say this is the best smelling stop of the tour: nutty beer and bread. Next door, in another building, naturally, are the fermentation tanks.
In this room, I notice a woman sat a desk, hidden in the corner. She pops up when we walk in and she introduces herself. Sam. She's been working at Garrison Brothers for a year and a half but she was just recently promoted to this position: fermentation overseer. Actually, I don't know her official title, but it's obviously important. She is responsible for about two dozen vats fermenting mash, at any given time. She tells me she hopes to be the first female distiller in Texas. From my travels so far, she's about the only female I've seen on a production floor anywhere, so I'd say odds are in her favor.
On the wall are pictures of bourbon dignitaries who have visited and/or have a relationship with Garrison Brothers. There seems to be a lot of back and forth between Garrison Brothers and Buffalo Trace and Jim Beam folks. Here are the faces of men who clearly love what they do. (No women yet, Sam!)
Apart from the photos, evidence of the Buffalo Trace relationship sits in the middle of the next barn: a still purchased from the famed bourbon maker.
It has since been joined by two other pot stills. With all this output, that's a lot of bottles to hand label.
The last stop is the room that houses the bottling, wax-dipping and labeling machinery. Kate tells me they have "bottling parties" here. That means when someone buys an entire barrel, they and guests are invited to the premises to bottle and label their own batch, if they wish. Must be the same appeal as these grill-your-own-meat restaurants I come across occasionally, where you actually pay more for the privilege of cooking your own dinner. But the pictures of the parties hanging on the wall (I tell you, Garrison Brothers must own stock in picture framing) look like everyone's having a grand ol' time, so more power to them.
With Garrison Brothers, not only are you assured a unique-tasting bottle from each batch -or entire barrel if that's how you roll- but the personal touch of its employees goes a long way. I get the sense that Kate, Andrea, Jake and just about anyone else you'd meet on the grounds, are naturally focused on how they can possibly make your experience one ounce better. As anyone in manufacturing will tell you, those ounces add up quickly to a whole lot.