Situated in the small hill country town of Hye, Garrison Brothers Distillery is leading the craft whiskey charge in Texas. Founded when the craft distilling movement was still in its infancy, they've been able to translate their lead in experience and dedication to quality into one of the best craft bourbons on the market. They've won accolades among the critics—their limited release Cowboy Bourbon was recently named the 2014 American Micro Whiskey of the year in the latest edition of Jim Murray's Whisky Bible—and their flagship Texas Straight Bourbon Whiskey is a unique take on the spirit that's left us feeling refreshed about the possibilities for the small guys making bourbon.
But I thought all bourbon came from Kentucky?
Not necessarily! Our labeling overlords (the TTB) only require bourbon whiskey be "whiskey produced in the U.S. at not exceeding 80% alcohol by volume (160 proof) from a fermented mash of not less than 51 percent corn and stored at not more than 62.5% alcohol by volume (125 proof) in charred new oak containers."
There's no geographic requirement, and no aging requirement, beyond that it must be stored in charred new oak containers. This has opened the floodgates for craft distillers, with many releasing "bourbon" aged for 6 months or less, sparking much controversy within the bourbon community. However, straight bourbon must be aged for 2 years or more, and if it's younger than 4 years the age of the spirit must be stated on the label. It's into this camp that the Garrison Brothers' Texas Straight Bourbon Whiskey falls—a straight bourbon with a 2 year age statement.
Size of the barrel? Or what comes out of the barrel?
Many new craft bourbons that have hit the market lately have been young, hot, and not particularly bourbon-y. With huge overhead and startup costs, small distillers are under immense pressure to get revenue streams coming in the door, and that means selling something. Some use smaller barrels for aging to try to get their product to market quickly, and unfortunately those bourbons end up tasting more like the lightly aged white dog that it is, than the bourbon it could eventually become. The practice has left a sour taste in the mouths of whiskey lovers, who view these immature releases as devaluing bourbon's reputation. Some go as far as to claim that if it isn't aged in a full sized 53 gallon barrel, it shouldn't be called bourbon. (Curious about this issue? Check out the back-and-forth at Whisky Advocate and Chuck Cowdery's blog.)
Garrison Brothers has been aging their whiskey in barrels of varying sizes (from 10 and 20 gallon all the way up to 53 and 59 gallon barrels), but most of their barrels have been 15 gallon, the size that they believe has produced their best tasting bourbon. Looking down the road, they may well eventually transition to larger barrels and older whiskeys, but I think what really matters most is what ends up in my glass, and Texas Straight Bourbon Whiskey stacks up.
Let's taste it!
Crafted from a mash bill of organic #1 panhandle white corn, red winter wheat, and malted barley, and bottled at 94 proof, Garrison Brothers' Texas Straight Bourbon Whiskey pours a deep copper color. The scent of sweet corn leaps out of the glass, mingling with butterscotch aromas and just a hint of spice. The flavor is also corn, corn, corn—sweet, ripe, and clean. There's a little dark stone fruit, but none of the deep spices you might find in a traditional bourbon. A smooth, lingering finish with brown sugar and molasses takes the whiskey home.
This isn't the most complex bourbon you can find, but I quite enjoyed it. Garrison Brothers' Texas Straight Bourbon Whiskey is unlike the standard bourbons from the majors, and it's much more full and rich than its craft competitors. At $80 for 750 mL, this isn't budget whiskey, but if you have the cash to invest in someone doing something different, this is a very interesting, well-crafted twist on bourbon. I'll be reaching for this one when I want to taste that sweet Texas corn and take a slow, deep breath of the promise of the future of a mature craft distilling movement.
Available in Texas liquor stores and online from Spec's.
About the author: Andrew Strenio is a lover of all things potable. Since sneaking his grandmother's bourbon balls, he's moved on to touring distilleries and sipping snifters. He works by day making documentary television and films as an independent producer in Brooklyn.
Tasting sample provided for review consideration.