By Michael McCarthy By Michael McCarthy | January 18, 2023 | Food & Drink
Down in Hye, Texas, the distilling team at Garrison Brothers aren’t simply crafting bourbon whiskey—they’re making history.
American white oak barrels at Garrison Brothers
It’s an 80-degree November day in Texas Hill Country, and I’m riding shotgun in Dan Garrison’s Dodge Ram pickup, which has roughly 200,000 miles on the odometer. The founder of Garrison Brothers is driving me to the distillery’s dance hall barn, which is the size of a football field, packed floor to ceiling with casks holding bourbon whiskey that continues to win awards worldwide.
Garrison, who has the countenance of a rancher and the storytelling chops of a cowboy poet, still marvels at what he and his team have pulled off in Hye, a little more than an hour west of Austin. “I have a hard and fast rule: Every single new release that we come out with has to be better than the last expression,” he says.
This isn’t hype. Take, for example, Guadalupe, a recent release finished for two years in 22 Portuguese port wine casks (each holding 59 gallons), after its initial four-year aging in traditional white American oak barrels. The bottle won the 2022 spirit of the year at the Monterey International Wine & Spirits Competition, and it reeled in gold at the 2022 TAG Global Spirits Awards. At the latter competition, the brand’s Cowboy Bourbon (small-batch bourbon aged in American white oak barrels nearly a decade old) and Balmorhea (aged five years in two separate American white oak barrels) both earned platinum awards.
As Garrison’s truck climbs a hill toward the barrelhouse, its wheels kick up dust and gravel along the unpaved roads on the distillery’s 68 acres. The ancient live oaks, with brittle leaves hissing in the midday breeze, lean toward the horizon. The buildings—including the stillhouse, mash room and Whiskey Shack—look like they’ve been here for a century.
The stillhouse at Garrison Brothers; Balmorhea
But it hasn’t even been 15 years. Garrison launched the distillery in 2006 and produced the company’s inaugural bottle in 2010. This made Garrison Brothers the first legal bourbon distillery in Texas (American bourbon must be aged a minimum of two years in new charred oak barrels and contain at least 51% corn).
As origin stories go, Garrison Brothers has a good one, and it’s all related to bullish persistence. After learning everything he could about the bourbon-making process—and realizing he had thousands of lessons to go—Garrison ventured to Kentucky to seek advice from the gods of bourbon whiskey, including Freddie Johnson at Buffalo Trace and Dave Pickerell at Maker’s Mark.
Founder Dan Garrison
“They took me seriously because I asked the right questions and obsessed over the details like what kind of sap is in the white American oak in different regions of the country,” says Garrison.
When he told Pickerell he wanted to open the first bourbon distillery in Texas, the bourbon-maker, who’s credited with being the founding father of craft distilling, simply said, “You should do that. It’s a great idea.”
Another big decision Garrison made was hiring Donnis Todd as his master distiller. Todd, a military veteran, visited countless distilleries during his time in the service to learn about the craft. He showed up at Garrison out of the ether. Again, a great origin story. While the owner was in Colorado on vacation with his family, Fred Cook, Garrison’s first employee, invited Todd to help out around the place.
A good pour
“I pulled up to the stillhouse in my car with my entire family,” says Garrison. “I see a Harley-Davidson parked in front. I couldn’t find Fred anywhere, but there’s a tattooed, bearded guy wearing overalls tending the still. I asked him, ‘Who in the hell are you, and what are you doing here?’ He said, ‘My name is Donnis Todd, and I want to make bourbon for you.’ I told him we were just starting out, so I couldn’t pay him, and he said, ‘That’s fine. You look like a pretty smart guy. You’ll probably figure something out.’”
And that’s how Garrison and Todd quickly became the dynamic duo of bourbon whiskey. Along with searching for interesting ways to finish the liquids, including landing highly coveted casks like Limousin oak from France, the two men have redefined bourbon for a new generation of aficionados. Garrison says when Todd gives him 3-ounce test jars to taste, he knows it’s going to be a good night. “If he really likes something, I know I will. To do the same thing all of the time is boring. Bourbon drinkers are interesting people and fanatical. We want to remain vital for them, and that’s not easy to do.”
Way down here in Hye, Garrison Brothers proves that easy is relative. Perfection is not.
A chalkboard in the stillhouse
Photography by: PHOTOS COURTESY OF BRAND; DAN GARRISON PORTRAIT AND CHALKBOARD PHOTOS BY MICHAEL MCCARTHY