Fans of America’s native spirit are aware that spectacular bourbon is now made all around the country. The situation was very different back in 2006, when Dan Garrison obtained a permit for the first legal bourbon distillery outside of Kentucky and Tennessee—in Hye, Texas, of all places.
Garrison was a survivor. Prior to 2001, he was a happy bourbon drinker and Vice President of Marketing for a software company in Austin. In the fall of that year, his biggest client, Enron, abruptly declared bankruptcy in one of the biggest fraud scandals in history, and he was faced with the need to reinvent himself.
His journey was worthy of a Netflix documentary. Garrison headed to Kentucky, where he picked some of the finest brains in the industry: Max Shapira of Heaven Hill, Bill Samuels Jr. of Maker’s Mark, Craig Beam, Elmer T. Lee, Jimmy Russell at Wild Turkey, and famed distiller Dave Pickerell. Armed with a great deal of knowledge and no money, he returned to Texas and borrowed from his family. “We didn’t want to make just any bourbon,” he said. “We wanted to make the best bourbon whiskey on the planet.” He brought his brother Charlie on board to handle sales and marketing, but it took a while before there was something to sell: the entire first batch was destroyed when the barrels cracked in the 130-degree summer heat, and Garrison searched for a cooper who could produced custom-made barrels that would stand up to the seasons.
Today, Garrison Brothers is distributed in 42 states and has achieved cult status in many of them. Their high-end expressions are legendary. At the head of the pack is Cowboy Bourbon ($405), named “Whiskey of the Year” in Jim Murray’s 2014 and 2017 Whiskey Bibles, bottled at a staggering 131.3 proof. Equally prized is Laguna Madre ($960), aged eight years in-cask; Balmorhea ($185), twice barreled and released at 115 proof (57.5 percent alcohol); and Guadalupe ($325), which spends two years in Port casks before bottling.
The lineup begins with Small Batch ($90); aged three years, the 2022 vintage was released at 94 proof (47 percent alcohol), packaged in a rectangular bottle topped with hand-dipped black wax. The first thing you notice is the color: deeper and darker than other bourbons, as promised, with a rich amber verging toward black. Next is the assertive nose, loaded with aromas of molasses, honey and fresh herbs. The spirit is brash and boisterous as it enters the mouth, but soon resolves into a harmonious blend of butterscotch, vanilla and baking spices. The finish is long and memorable. It ain’t cheap, as they say in the hill country, but it’s damn good.
Mark Spivak specializes in wine, spirits, food, restaurants and culinary travel. He is the author of several books on distilled spirits and the cocktail culture, as well as three novels. His first novel, Friend of the Devil, has been re-released on Amazon in print, e-book and audio book formats. Has America’s greatest chef cut a deal with Satan for fame and fortune?