By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Dan Garrison of Garrison Brothers Distillery in Hye starts his straight bourbon by selecting high-quality organic corn. Each year he makes the drive from his distillery in the Hill Country to the Panhandle to analyze the starch content of different varieties of corn. He's meticulous about each ingredient and rejects shipments for a variety of reasons, never willing to risk a degradation of the final product.
Using both aquifer water and rain water, Garrison also has 65 acres of wheat near his distillery. "Everything comes from Texas except the barley, which doesn't grow well here," he says.
After the ingredients are in line, Garrison starts cooking. "Essentially, it starts as a giant batch of cornbread," he says. "We use the well water to cook with, which contains sulfites and calcium and all sorts of different minerals that we want. That's all basically the yeast's food."
Next the mash is pumped into fermentation tanks, where dry yeast is added, which brings up another process: finding a good yeast strain. Jim Beam has long proclaimed that the secret to good whiskey is yeast, and they keep their particular strain, developed more than 75 years ago, a closely guarded family secret. Garrison has a preferred strain as well, and he's not talking either.
Once the yeast has been added to the mix, it sits for a few days before being pumped into the still, where what essentially is a corn-based beer is heated until alcohol vapors ascend through the still. As it cools, the vapors are reverted back into a liquid known as white dog. But white dogs bite. So it's put in new, charred American white oak barrels until the white dog turns amber and is generally more agreeable, which typically takes a couple of years.
Persuading all those processes and ingredients to behave requires a special touch. There are usually a few exploded barrels of whiskey along the way, perhaps some nuclear-burned corn, even bankruptcy. Barrels arrive not sufficiently charred or rain soaks a load of rye en route to the distillery. All are mishaps every Texas distiller has experienced.
The last step in Garrison's process involves sealing bottles with a black wax. Like many craft distillers, Garrison dips each corked bottle in hot wax and seals it with his trademark star. His wax dippers come in the form of volunteers. Each season, when Garrison's next batch is ready, he puts the call out, and his dedicated fans hit Highway 290 west of Johnson City until they get to the tiny post office in Hye, where they turn south and drive past a rusting grain mill. They follow the beat-up one-lane road lined with knee-high grass, past a few farm houses and windmill before turning left at the cattle guard that leads to the distillery. From there, a pair of tire tracks winds past pastures of cattle grazing under big shade trees.
At the distillery, RVs and trailers crunch through the dry grass and pick a spot to pitch camp on, sometimes for a couple days. As the bottles get filled, the volunteers start the process of dipping the corked tops in hot black wax. Garrison signs each finished bottle.
At first it's messy and slow. Soon enough, though, the volunteers get a handle on it, and by the end of the second day, Garrison has to hustle to keep up as product piles up on his table. For their effort, volunteers are paid with a bottle of bourbon, which retails at around $75. There are more than 3,000 people on the waiting list.
Rebecca Creek Distillery sits off a two-lane road where north San Antonio starts to give way to wide-open spaces. Rebecca Creek's Fine Texas Spirit Whiskey started popping up on liquor store shelves last year, its rectangular bottle holding a light golden liquid, its label decorated with whimsical scrolls, all topped off with a dark, wooden cork. The distillery's owners have said that they modeled its flavor profile on Crown Royal, a Canadian blend of 50 whiskeys. But a sticker near the bottom of the bottle makes clear the story they're hoping to sell: "Produced and bottled with care in the Texas Hill Country."
"Nothing against Canada, but let's do something from Texas," co-owner Mike Cameron told the San Antonio Express-News in 2011. "It's a Texas-based company."
His whiskey is a blend of an 8-year bourbon purchased from another distiller and, per a mandatory statement on the back label, 31-percent grain neutral spirit (GNS, vodka), along with a younger whiskey Cameron says they distill. Blenders, or spirit makers, aren't in any way obligated to spill the booze on their recipes. Cameron says that they produce and distill the "majority" of what goes into each bottle, which might include the GNS, since they also distill vodka at their facilities.
So long as distillers have been producing whiskey, other businesses have seized the opportunity to rectify, mix or blend it. By the 1890s, rectifiers were so incessantly passing off blends as "aged Kentucky bourbon" that miffed distillers lobbied for the Bottle-in-Bond Act, which was passed in 1897 and established certain regulations that required bonded spirits to be the product of one distiller at one distillery in one season, writes Michael Veach in his book Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey: An American Heritage.
Lauren you did a great job with this article. The fakers have long been one of my pet peeves. Part of the problem lies with the TTB; our federal government has laws about labeling and technical if whiskey is distilled one state and bottled in another, then both states are to be listed on the label. The enforcement of said law is spotty at best. Liquor labels also have to be approved by the State of Texas as well to be sold here, so I also blame our State.
My other pet peeve is Spirit Awards. IMHO, these competitions are nothing but pay for play advertising. The largest of the bunch is the San Francisco World Spirits Competition. The last 'award' list from them was 38 pages long and had more winners than products competing (some products entered in multiple categories).
Tito's is still bragging in commercials about an award they 'won' back in 2001 at the San Francisco Spirits Competition. He fails to mention that 2 other Vodkas also 'won' double gold at same award show and another Vodka was named best. Speaking of Fakers, has anybody been to Tito's and seen his fermenting tanks? If you are not fermenting your product, exactly how does one have anything to distill?
Great article, Lauren. Cheers to the Dallas Observer for having the guts to call out the fakers. Texans are too proud of their state to put up with inauthentic marketers parading around as whiskey makers. Drink local, and educate yourself about what you're drinking! Thanks for helping Texans get more educated.
"6 score and several hangovers..." 120+ years? if you wanna make cute turns of phrase, at least know what you're saying
I was wondering how so suddenly we had all these "Texas" Spirits on the shelves, now given that more than half are fakes I know, and sounds like these spirit makers are just following the lead of some of the bogus "Texas" winemakers & specifically the GO TEXAN branding, which has been discussed at length on that other DFW food blog.
Localism is getting turned into modern day snake oil, Hey I was offered "local coffee" at the CM, LOCAL COFFEE !!!!! My cotton T-shirt is more local than my coffee
@scottindallas - I think the point was that 120+ hangovers were endured in the process of coming up with the unique spirits offered by Balcones Distilling. I hate to be this guy, but if you want to snark about cute turns of phrase, at least polish up your reading comprehension skills first.
This was a fine article, the cutesy "6 score" added nothing but confusion. Again, good reporting and writing, save the one silly and pointless sin
@gmit I'll give some credit to the true Texas craft distillers, the ones who products are grain to glass (fermentation, distillation, aging, bottling) all done in state - Balcones, Garrison Brothers, Railean, Ranger Creek, and Bone Spirits (Fitch's Goat). These companies have never sold anything they did not truly make themselves.