The evening began as a quiet, intimate gathering in the back room at Reserve 101. Amidst deep red walls accented by bricks and the aged wood barrels of past distilled spirits, 20 or so of us whiskey fans were mingling and ramping up for the tasting at hand: Garrison Brothers whiskey—or rather bourbon, as I should clarify—here to provide a special pouring for their new single barrel reserve. Garrison Brothers is a passionate distiller of straight bourbon (meaning it follows the ABCs of bourbon making, rather than the more loosely bound rules for whiskey).
As the oldest legal distillery in Texas, Garrison Brothers takes pride in their craft. Since 2006 they have been in the books with Texas barrels and Texas bourbon all aging together in the good old Texas heat. Dan Garrison started his distillery nine years ago after a mid-life crisis sent him on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail to find comfort. The cure to existentialism turned out to be good whiskey, and for Garrison, that came in the form of making good whiskey. After making some mistakes in those early years, Garrison figured out some important factors for distilling in Texas. Such as, our heat makes the product that much stronger.
For your average whiskey, the so-called “angel's share” (the small amount of liquid that evaporates from the barrels as they age) is 4 percent per year. In Texas, with our strong sun and burning summers, that share goes up to 13 percent each year. This multiplies the strength of the bourbon, giving a two-to-three-year bottle distilled in Texas the same taste as a 20-year aged Kentucky bourbon.
What can I say? Bigger and better in Texas, y'all.
The good folks at Reserve 101 did us all a favor by hand-picking a single barrel from the Garrison Brothers barn in 2013, and opened it for us this past Tuesday night. The single barrel reserve was a warm bourbon, rich in tawny color with an aroma that reminded me of browned butter and caramel. The single barrel is a warm, velvety blanket that has hints of cinnamon and spice to it as it spread a little bit of liquid fire down your throat. It’s a strong drink—or at least strong to a whiskey novice like myself—but comforting. The love that went into making it could be heard in Garrison’s voice, as he instructed me on how to properly “chew” my bourbon during the tasting, and let the warmth of it spread down my back.
Personally, I found the Fall 2014 bourbon to be a little easier to handle. With an unexperienced palate, I was able to taste more of the subtleties in the 2014 bottle. Being autumnal bourbon, it held more earthy flavors to it, like the corn used to distill it, or the grainy sense of hay and oats. It was a softer bourbon, not as sharp in its alcoholic burn, which made it easier for me to taste and really experience. Neither bourbon was the kind of drink one should take in a shot, though, as the real art of the craft comes out when you let the flavors linger on your tongue.
As the evening went on, Garrison detailed the process of his craft as well as the origins of his distillery. He has made it his new mission in life to distill honest, sincere bourbon, and I know how strange it is to use those words in regards to whiskey making. But turns out, there are a lot more politics involved in the whiskey world than I had thought.
Some of the big name brands like Angel’s Envy and Bulleit Rye aren’t necessarily as genuine as they might claim. Not even small time “craft” distillers are necessarily reputable, as I was given a crash course introduction on the issue with Indiana whiskey factories while I sipped my Fall 2014 glass.
Garrison may have declined to go into detail about the mass sourced distilleries, but other attendees at the event were eager to fill me in on the dishonesty involved in the MGP Indiana rush. Loads of “craft” and brand-name distilleries across the country are buying their whiskey from factories in Indiana, then bottling them in their own location to call them “local products.” It makes finding the genuine folks and real artisans all the more difficult, and makes a mockery of true artisans and their craft. Places like Ranger Creek and Garrison Brothers have to stay on the ropes trying to combat the corporate machines in order to carve their niche into the industry, and when some of these big name brands are rumored to pay off liquor store managers to push their products over others, things get rough.
But Reserve 101 has a strict policy regarding their whiskey selection—they refuse to sell or stock themselves in the mass factory-bought market. Rather, Reserve 101 insists on the product being an honest representation of its origin, so only brands distilled in the same places they’re bottled can make the illuminated glass shelves behind the bar.
Garrison Brothers is one of them, distilled in the heat and dirt, like the rest of us. Though you can go as far as to order your own single barrel—just for you!—it's far simpler to purchase a taste at Reserve 101 (careful, though, as the single barrels supplies are only available for a limited time, so go get your sip on before they run out). You can even become a part of their process: drive up to their distillery in Hye, just west of Austin and north of San Antonio, where you can volunteer to help them bottle the next batch.
For my part, I think I’ll stick with Reserve 101. I need to warm up my whiskey drinking skills a bit before I start making any pilgrimages of my own.