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My Handcrafted Opinions on Whiskies, Distilleries and Other Related Stuff

Garrison Brothers, Texas, USA

This visit had a lot of firsts for me.  It was my first bourbon distillery, my first US distillery and the first distillery where we were greeted by the founder and owner of the distillery, in this case Dan Garrison of Garrison Brothers.  Pretty cool.  Located in Hye, this is Texas’ first legal bourbon distillery since prohibition and is producing a very nice product.  They charge $10 for a tour but this is one of the most interactive distillery tours I have ever been on and as they patiently waited for their whiskey to mature while resisting the temptation to sell white dog spirit or put an immature product on the market I didn’t mind paying.  My favorite aspect of this tour (other the laid back hospitality I have come to love about Texas) was the fact we were able to try and taste at every stage of production.  We could taste the mash after the corn, wheat and malted barley had been cooked (it was bit like sweet breakfast oatmeal), then taste the distillers beer during fermentation (quite sour but with some fruit), white dog spirit off the still at 140 proof (hot and herbal) and finally (of course) the matured, Texas straight bourbon.   

What are the main differences between a single malt and bourbon distillery? The first was the grain recipe.  Garrison Brothers use corn, wheat and malted barley (but no rye which is often found in bourbon recipes) while single malt distilleries of Scotland use only malted barley.  In Scotland the sugars are extracted by adding hot water to the grains, in bourbon making the process involves actually cooking the grains in water to extract the sugars.  The fermentation process in most malt distilleries produces a “beer” of around 8% ABV, Garrison Brothers beer was closer to 16% ABV.  Finally the distillation of the bourbon was done in a single still but single malt is always double distilled and sometimes triple distilled.   Garrison uses 500 gal of beer at 15%  ABV which is put into the steam heated stills and in turn produces about 150 gal of 140 proof (or 70% ABV) white dog spirit that is aged for at least 2 years in oak casks so that it can be called “straight” bourbon.  Garrison Brothers use a #4 char, also known as alligator char (and the "alligator" in the Ardbeg Alligator).

They have no license to sell liquor so we couldn’t actually buy a bottle at the distillery so I bought a T shirt instead, but there is a licensed store when you turn off the main road for Garrison Bros.  I believe if you are whiskey loving Texan you will love this place and being in the middle of Texas wine country (yes that really exists) there are plenty of other reasons to make the trip and visit the area as well.  If I had to complain it would be the price per bottle.  At almost $80 / bottle retail this is very expensive for a bourbon, but there are good reasons for that.  In it's defence it is not bad when compared to the price of many Scotch single malts in Texas and hopefully with some sustained success, time (and of course increased volumes) we will see the price point reduce. 

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Highland Park, Orkney, Scotland

Highland Park, Orkney, Scotland

After so many distillery visits surely I have seen everything there is to be seen on a distillery tour?  Certainly that is the question I get from the nervous tour guide when they innocently ask the group at the start who has toured a distillery before and I put my hand up and mention I may have been to about 40 or so in last 3 or 4 years.  And yet, as is so often the case, this tour of the iconic Highland Park distillery did include a few things I had not seen before.  Like many of the better tours they start with well-produced video and then take you out into the site. Highland Park famously floor malts about 20% of its barley requirements and while I have seen distilleries with the relatively rare floor malting operations  before (inc. Kilchomen and Bowmore) the day I toured Highland Park they also had a peat fire burning which I had not seen on previous tours.   

I had signed up for the rather expensive ($100+ depending on exchange rate) Magnus Eunson tour, named after the distilleries founder.  The tour itself was actually the same as the regular tour, the difference was the very extensive tasting that followed.  With a knowledgeable guide I was led through a tasting of the entire range from new make spirit and the standard expression 12 year old through to the sublime 40 year old I have previously reviewed and raved about.   A fantastic experience and I was able (via the wonders of smart phone technology) to compare my previous Highland Park tasting notes with the experience of tasting while sitting in the distillery and while doing that something  occurred to me.  I was consistently missing the salty, fresh sea notes I often found in Highland Park.  The guide suggested that because I had been in Orkney for a few days (I had actually visited the oil terminal on Flotta by boat the day before) my nose had become accustomed to the local climate and salty sea air so was not able to pick it out anymore.  Interesting theory, however the fact I had also had a cold for a week or so before the trip may also have been a factor.

A classic distillery and a classic day with a strong focus on the unique features of Highland Park, primarily the use of sherry seasoned wood (both American and European oak) and the unique Orkney peat.  It was worth every penny as it is very unlikely I will ever make it back to Orkney and because I did not want to have any regrets about not taking full advantage of the opportunity, I decided, to use an American sporting expression, to "leave it all on the field" and pay for the full experience.  I left very happy (and mildly intoxicated; I walked back to Kirkwall Hotel) with a bottle of St Magnus Second Edition (which I then gave to my father for his birthday) and a few mini bottles of the more difficult to find expressions including the 16 year old and 25 year old, a nice blue tie and a book.  Can you tell I had been drinking?

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