Garrison Brothers has the honor of being Texas’ oldest craft whiskey distillery. They broke ground on their distillery in 2004 and their first bottle of bourbon was released in 2010. Every craft distillery has something that makes them unique and Garrison Brothers started with a major one: figuring out how to control the runaway evaporation rates of their barrels under the relentless Texas sun.
Garrison Brothers Bourbon – by the numbers
Unique problems require unique solutions; which is why Dan Garrison and his team began to utilize barrels as large as 59 gallons (6 gallons larger than a Standard American Barrel). But if distillery pictures and social media are to be believed, a majority of their bourbon still looks like it’s being aged in 15 or 30 gallon barrels. Why haven’t they embraced only larger barrels? That’s something that my research couldn’t provide an answer for.
Garrison Brothers utilizes a wheated bourbon mash bill that is said to be 74% corn, 15% wheat and 11% malted barley. Its barrel entry proof is 114. This all sounds very familiar to Buffalo Trace’s specs for their wheated mash bill bourbon (aka Weller). To be clear, Buffalo Trace has never disclosed their mash bills but it’s rumored that one of the secrets to their flavor involves using slightly more malted barley than normal. If you’re thinking it could be a riff on Maker’s Mark recipe; their mashbill and barrel entry proof are already publicized and don’t line up.
You know how much I love speculation, so here’s a thought: Dan Garrison was quoted as saying that before he broke ground on his distillery, that he toured Kentucky distilleries to learn as much information as he could. I wonder if he found out/was told what mash bill Buffalo Trace was using for Weller during his visit? It could be plausible that he wanted to replicate a brand that was already doing wheated bourbon so well and not re-invent the wheel. Plus, it’s not like the bourbon he was going to make in Texas on a pot still with various sized barrels and different yeast would taste the same anyway.
Buffalo Trace would never divulge that kind of information today, but 2003/2004 was a very different time in the bourbon industry. Information was freely exchanged or if it wasn’t, it wasn’t as tightly held on to. Plus, many of the biggest names in distilling were on StraightBourbon.com talking about anything and everything. God Bless the days before NDAs were everywhere.
Small Batch means Small Batch
Moving on, I found it interesting that Garrison Brothers products aren’t bottled continuously. I was surprised to learn that their Small Batch bourbon looks like it’s released only once per year. The information wrote on the side of the bottle seems to confirm this. There are no lot numbers or batch numbers, just the year it was bottled and the bottle number. The bottle I’m reviewing today is number 9,442 and was released in 2023.
There are still a lot of unknowns I have about Garrison Brothers. Do the batches utilize all of the barrel sizes in their inventory (from 15 gallon up to 59 gallon)? If so, why? And why are they still utilizing such small barrels after 13+ years of distilling? Hot climate and high evaporation rates seem like it would empty the smaller ones even faster. Wouldn’t it make sense to convert everything to the larger barrels by now?
I even have a personal question for the owner – if evaporation is such an issue, have you ever thought of adding water back into the barrel as aging progresses? That’s not technically illegal to do and would be interesting to see this stuff at, say, 7-10 years old. I don’t think this would result in a product with below-normal proof either. If the water is evaporating first, you’re probably not going down in proof as much.
Ok! Enough talk. Time to get down to tasting. Thanks to my neighbor for the opportunity to try my first bottle of Garrison Brothers. Maybe this will lead to me wanting to try more of their products in the future. But first I need to see if I like their base-level bourbon. As usual, I sampled this neat in a glencairn.
Nose: Holding the glencairn up to my nose results in a big punch of raw, grainy corn. This stuff smells young, but not really astringent. Thankfully, there are no cardboard notes either. Notes of caramel, sweet tea (which borders on a raw sugar scent) and soft tannic scents (cigar wrapper, leather) are dominant. There even appears to be a maple-ish scent I can pick up from time to time. It’s a pretty nice blend of scents overall, but like I said, the youth is still there.
Palate: Surprisingly (and thankfully) the raw, grainy corn note doesn’t transfer to the flavors I find. They turn much more tannic instead. The two that standout the most are chocolate and leather. There is oak, but it’s more like barrel char. Other flavors include a mellow sweetness similar to a butterscotch pudding cup and Bit O’ Honey Candy Bars.
One thing that is curiously absent on the palate is baking spices. There is some pepper (more of a red pepper flake than ground peppercorn) but it’s not like I’d categorize this as spicy. The heat does seem more like it’s around 105 proof rather than 94 too. I think the wheat is responsible for giving the whole dram some softer notes while the Texas heat has extracted a lot of barrel flavors. And while I think the palate is nice overall, it’s not too complex.
Finish: Oak goes from being an afterthought to a bit more prominent. Chocolate and leather still dominate but the finish turns noticeably sweeter. Caramel, honey and a bit of Kahlua liqueur take over. Spice still remains mostly absent even though residual heat makes my brain still think that this was proofed higher than it is. This wheated recipe is probably at play by showing how mellow of a drink this really is.
If you’re looking for an opinion one way or another about this bourbon, I’m probably going to fail you. Is Garrison Brothers Small Batch a step up from most craft distillery’s’ products? Absolutely. Is this some of the best wheated bourbon I’ve had under 5 years old? Yes. Have they cracked the code on how to make a young bourbon that does not have youthful notes? No. But they’re close!
The best compliment I can give Garrison Brothers is that their wheated bourbon actually tastes good. It has nary a whiff of rubber erasers, petrochemicals or old-school magic markers. That’s been a major sticking point for me when I taste other craft distillery’s wheated options. This allows time to explore all the other flavors and scents without wanting to hold your nose while you drink it. Well done, Garrison Brothers.
There’s a dead horse that’s already been beaten enough when it comes to Garrison Brothers – their price. Almost every review out there brings it up. Small Batch is their cheapest product and it still comes in at $70. For the proof and the age, that doesn’t make sense for most. What you’re paying for is the inefficiencies of being a small distillery. Everything costs more, loans are still out on most equipment/facilities and the small amount of production means there is no room for error because that’s your money you’re throwing away. That’s something most people don’t often think about.
But you, dear reader, are a consumer with only a limited amount of money too. The decision to buy this bottle or not comes down to personal choice. The facts are that there are much better bottles for less money out there. So who’s buying this? I assume it’s consumers doing so based on loyalty to the brand or the state. I lived in Texas for 5 years and totally witnessed the loyalty vibe when it concerns anything with “Made in Texas” on it. But when it comes to this bottle being sold in other marketplaces, that loyalty has less of a pull. Maybe others buy it just because it’s a sharp looking bottle.
Still, if you’re a fan of wheated bourbon – and a lot of new bourbon drinkers declare themselves as such – then this is a bottle I’d recommend you buy at least once. But if you’ve had a wide range of whiskies and feel like there’s nothing new out there that can possibly impress you – then rest easy knowing that Garrison Brothers Small Batch probably won’t change your mind. They’re on the verge of having a breakthrough but Small Batch isn’t there yet.
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