by Andrew Chalk
Going down to the Hill Country? Visiting Fredericksburg, Johnson City or Blanco? Make a spirited trip to Garrison Brothers Distillery in Hye (along the 290 Wine Trail) where they make Texas Bourbon. I delayed a visit until last month. I can tell you, I should have gone earlier. The whole visitor experience at Garrison is superb. Not just the quality of the finished product, although that is crucial, but also all the organisational aspects of the tour. In fact, wine makers could use the Garrison tour as a template of how to do winery tours.
The experience starts on Garrison’s web site, where you reserve your $10 (per person) tour. Tours take place at set times two hours apart Wednesdays through Sundays. The site is straightforward and reliable. In fact, I upped my reservation from two people, to four, and then, a few days later, to six as more friends heard that we were doing it. Each time, the site found my earlier reservation and incremented the number of people, charging me only the additional cost. We kept one reservation number throughout. One thing to bear in mind, no refunds for cancellations.
The entrance is a mile south of U.S. 290 on the only road in Hye. As the distillery is a half mile back from the road you board a trailer for the journey through the fields, counting deer on the way (they must be there because they also like bourbon…). Saturday’s are the busy day. Our tour time of 10am Sunday morning gave us just eight people to sample the breakfast of champions.
We dismounted our trailer at a set of interconnected barns that make up the distillery. Far from being led by a psychology major earning summer money we found all the right people. Even Dan Garrison, owner/founder, was driving a forklift carrying bags of grain for the batch that they were working.
The tour takes you through the process in the order that the steps are taken in bourbon making. So we started with the loading dock where incoming grain is brought in and stored in silos.A member of the distilling staff took a break from his work to explain that corn, wheat and barley make up the “mash” created when they are mixed with water and yeast for fermentation. Heat gets the process going and then the time old process of yeast converting sugars to alcohol and carbon dioxide becomes self-sustaining. The whole fermentation room is toasty warm all year around without the addition of any outside heat.
Fermentation produces a ‘beer’ as distillers call it, with an alcohol level of about 16% (the level of a strong wine). The beer is placed into pot stills and heat applied to distill the liquid into a high-alcohol grain spirit. At that point the liquid is transparent, hence its name “white dog” and tastes like fire water. We tasted small vials of white dog. The closest that I have had to it is unflavored vodka or Everclear.
The distiller intervenes in the distillation process to do things we learned about like separating the ‘head’ and the ‘tail’. Garrison’s distiller went into lots of detail about this, adding old mash back, etc. and answered questions.
Once distilled the liquid is aged, by law, in new American oak barrels (Garrison Bros. uses white oak from Missouri) for a period that can vary from three months to many years. The result is bourbon. Garrison’s distiller said that they are looking for a particular style, rather than a chronological period from aging so there is a movement away from saying “aged X years” to just releasing the product when the master distiller says that it is ready.
The last thing you see is the bottling line, a laborious, hand-intensive process involving hot wax, leather ‘bolo’ ties, and a little branding iron that puts a Texas star on the top of the waxed stopper.
You leave with a renewed appreciation of the labor of love that goes into every bottle and a pride that such a product is made from scratch right here. In case you need further convincing, the tasting room is the last stop. Just one drawback of an early Sunday tour — state law prevented us buying any bottles.