HYE, TX (KTRK) -- When you find yourself lifting the dented cross of an old communion tray to reveal dozens of bourbon shots -- and it's only 9:15 in the morning -- it's likely a different day at the office. As the dedicated few trickle in, distillery founder Dan Garrison raises a toast: "To the great state of Texas!"
Welcome to volunteer bottling day at the Garrison Brothers Distillery in Hye.
A few miles outside Fredericksburg and set atop a hill that would make any rancher jealous, Dan Garrison sold Texas' first legal bottle of bourbon in 2010.
"We accomplished the mission we originally set out to accomplish, which is to make the finest-tasting, highest-quality bourbon whiskey in the world. We did that."
Since then, permits to distill in Texas have grown 500%, according to a trade group. Consumption of Texas made liquor has similarly exploded.
"There's been a gold rush," Garrison told us while hand-signing bottles of his single-barrel Bourbon, destined for a Chicago-area liquor store. "I guess we should feel proud we had a really good idea."
It's not easy to do. Bourbon is 51% corn, add in some other grain (usually rye), throw in water - boil, distill and then age in charred new oak barrels. It doesn't have to be done in Kentucky -- and in Texas, the heat makes it extra hard.
Over its years of aging, Garrison can lose as much as 40% percent of the liquid he puts in his barrels. In Kentucky, that number is closer to 15%. "That's okay," he tells us, "all the bad stuff evaporates. It's called the Angel's share."
It's just one difference in Texas, where most distillers simply can't create their bourbon in July and August, when it is simply too hot to cook the mash and cool it down enough.
Texas Bourbon Aficionado Andrew Barlow told us the heat contributes to the unique Texas flavor. "Typically Texas whiskeys, they come across with a good depth of flavor and some heat. They're quite pleasant."
Unfortunately, there's no degree you can earn to be a Texas bourbon expert, but with the wisdom that comes from the bottom of more than a few bottles and reading far more about the topic than most adults would admit to, Barlow assures us, "This is a huge time for Texas whiskey."
Bone Spirits founder Jeff Peace couldn't agree more. On a tour of his quiet distilling floor, Peace told abc13, "Bourbon is a hot category, bourbon is exciting. Bourbon is as unique as you and me." Peace sold his first Bone Bourbon just a few months ago, after aging for at least three years at his Smithville distillery. Bone prides itself on 'Farm to Bottle' spirits and makes bourbon with corn from farmers within an hour's drive of the facility near Austin. Like many distillers, Bone offers a full range of spirits including vodka, gin, bourbon and a version of Aquavit.
"It was hard. The first couple years, we lost a lot of money. The next four years, we barely broke even. This year, maybe we will be profitable," Peace said as poured samples inside the second floor tasting room.
It was empty mid-week, but Peace promises it fills up on weekends when tours are offered. His customers ("most recently - a lot more women") proving this Texas growth isn't just for the stereotypical mountain man Bourbon drinker.
"I wanted everybody, especially Texans, to appreciate high quality bourbon that everyone can afford."
Completing our bourbon tour (but far from a comprehensive one), we came home to Yellow Rose Distilling, just off Houston's North Loop on the city's northwest side. Here, the team makes Texas bourbon from 100% corn grown in the Texas panhandle.
"It doesn't have to be made in Kentucky. It just doesn't," Yellow Rose's Jason Valentine offered. Yellow Rose ages it's bourbon in comparatively small barrels, giving it a distinct woody taste that sets it apart from others. Valentine says the smaller barrels also allow them to age it a shorter time.
Like other distillers across Texas, Yellow Rose is feeling the pinch of a crowded market. Experts predict even more entrants from Texas in coming years.
"The more competition the better. I want to see more Texas products on the shelves. I want more people making bourbon from scratch in Texas to show the rest of the country we're for real."
And that last point is one of contention for the three distillers we stopped in on. They all make their Texas bourbon from scratch. Corn comes in; they mix with water, cook, distill and barrel it all here in Texas. Many Texas competitors are buying distilled liquid from outside the state and either aging it or just bottling it here and slapping a Texas sticker on the label.
Dan Garrison suggests it's worth asking about before you buy, "There's a lot of people making money fast with this. A lot of people have figured out all they have to do is bottle it. That's a lot faster than what we go through here." But Garrison warns faster doesn't mean better tasting.
PLAN YOUR OWN VISIT:
1827 Hye Albert Rd.
Hye, Texas 78635
Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays
Times: 10:00, High Noon, 2:00 or 4:00
Cost: $10.00 (Saturdays $20.00)
From Garrison Bros.' website: The "Sit and Sip" Tour is a guided walk of the ranch-distillery with detailed information about bourbon whiskey and the history of Garrison Brothers. Our cooks and distillers will explain the process from "corn to cork." You'll smell the sweet corn cooking, taste sweet mash, and observe the fermenting distiller's beer. You'll tour the legendary stillhouse and sample high proof "white dog" right from the stills. Finally, we'll walk you through our barrel barn for a small sample of our limited release. This tour takes about an hour.
Tours are $10 per person, $20 on Saturdays and free if you show up on a horse. Tastings are free for humans and horses.
802 NE 1st Street
Smithville, TX 78957
Tastings available Monday through Friday, 10am to 6pm
1224 N Post Oak Rd, Suite 100
Houston TX 77055
Friday - 4pm - 7pm, tours are at 4:30 and 5:30
Saturday- 11am - 5pm, tours start at 11:30, 12:30, 1:30, 2:30 and 3:30
Tours are $7.00 and include a 1/2 oz. tasting of four Yellow Rose Whiskeys and Howdy Stranger Vodka. (No reservations required)
From Yellow Rose's website: Please feel free to bring snacks and board games! Our bar is open during tour times so come early and grab a cocktail to take on the tour. Children are allowed and must be with an adult at all times.