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January 23, 2012

A Talk with Dan Garrison

Dear Client:

Recently we spoke with Dan Garrison, proprietor of Garrison Brothers, a craft distillery located in between San Antonio and Austin that produces small-batch, Texas bourbon. Here's what Dan had to say as you, dear reader, are a fly on the wall.

WINE & SPIRITS DAILY: How did you get started?

DAN GARRISON: We started this operation back in 2005, so other than the legends like Tito and Fritz Maytag, craft distilleries didn't even exist back then. I spent a lot of time going back and forth to Kentucky and learning from the masters how to do it. I fell in love--not just with bourbon because I've always loved bourbon--but with the makers of bourbon and the history and the heritage of bourbon whiskey in America.

WSD: How did you learn to produce bourbon?

DAN: I visited a couple craft distilleries. Then I went up to see Jess Graber's operation, which is called Stranahan's up in Denver, and found Jess to be one of the nicest guys I've ever met in my life. He sat down across the table from me and poured us a couple of samples of his whisky he was making. Just the idea that I was sitting there with this guy tasting something he made from scratch was the impetus of wanting to get into this.

So then I came back here and started trying to identify where I could get used equipment. We bought our first cooker from a chocolate factory. We bought our first tanks that hold the white dog from a dairy. We also got tanks from the local breweries that they weren't using anymore. We did everything we could to try to do this on the cheap because it's such an expensive process unlike vodkas, whiskeys, rums and tequilas where you can basically pick up the phone and call 1.800.Whiskey and somebody will deliver bulk product to you tomorrow. That was never our ambition. We were going to do it from scratch. We were going to make our own juice 100% authentic and we were going to use Texas grains, so we had to figure out how to do it.

So I'd go to Kentucky, I'd take the tours, I'd draw some sketches of what they had up there. These places are enormous refineries. They're huge industrial complexes, so trying to dummy that down so a couple of rednecks from Texas could operate it was a real bitch. There is no distillery-to-go. If you want to open up a brewery or winery, you can go online and order all of the equipment you'll need. But for a bourbon distillery nobody had every done it before outside of Kentucky or Tennessee, so it was a whole new animal. We had to custom engineer all of our equipment. The whole place was incredibly Rube Goldfarb-esque. There's pipes and plumbing all over the place and nobody seems to know how it works except us. It's an adventure.

WSD: So you can make a bourbon anywhere in the US as long as you follow certain rules?

DAN: They're called the Standards of Identity and they're stricter and more expensive than any other distilled spirit. Bourbon has to be aged in new white American oak barrels and worse yet, the Texas climate is brutal on barrels because the heat dries them out. All of the barrels I was ordering from Kentucky, Missouri, Arkansas etc., we would fill them full of white dog and we would put them out in the shade to age and they would crack and leak or break. We lost hundreds of gallons of product that way. We had to actually form a partnership with a company that makes custom barrels for us that have staves (the piece of wood that winds the barrel) that are an inch and a quarter thick. That way they can stand up to the Texas heat. Some of our barns can get up to 130 degrees in the summer. We're basically cooking that bourbon inside the barrel for three or four years as it ages. That has a pronounced affect on the flavor of the bourbon. It's got toasted butterscotch notes and fig and caramel and a lot of chocolate and cocoa in it. Its just very different from anything I've tasted in Kentucky and I've tasted them all.

WSD: You release a new vintage every year, is that correct?

DAN: Thus far we've released one in the spring and one in the fall. It gets older every time we do a release.

WSD: Can you talk about the products that you have out now?

DAN: The only one that's available today is our fall 2011 Garrison bros Texas Straight Bourbon Whisky. That's because the liquor stores throughout Austin and San Antonio ordered our spring release and sold out of it in the summer. It will say fall 2011 and it's our best yet for sure.

WSD: Are you only available in the Hill Country Area of Texas?

DAN: I've seen it as far as Waco in a Spec's and I've seen it as far South as San Antonio.

WSD: What are your expansion plans?

DAN: We bought two big beautiful stills this past spring. One of them is called Fat Man and the other is called Little Boy because they're an awesome display of American might. We've been producing bourbon off of them since July. The problem is bourbon is expensive because you have to age it for so long, so that bourbon we're producing off those guys won't be available until 2014 or 2015. Until that bourbon is available we won't have enough product to expand outside of Austin or San Antonio. We do think we'll have enough to go to Houston probably in the spring and definitely in the fall. Dallas, North Texas, West Texas, East Texas - it's probably going to be 2015 or 2016. We do not have any plans to ever sell our bourbon outside of Texas. We want to be the bourbon from Texas. We want it to be home grown and we want people to feel a sense of ownership. At the same time, we operate in a beautiful stretch of the country. There are large ranches all around us and we don't want to build a big industrial facility around them. We want to keep it small.

WSD: What is your suggested retail price?

DAN: Our suggested retail price is $69.95 a bottle. Unfortunately most retailers think its worth a lot more than that. I've seen it at store priced at $98 a bottle and as low as $75.

WSD: So what can you do, ask them to stop?

DAN: Unfortunately it is out of our hands. You know how liquor distribution in Texas is. Once we sell it to a distributor we have very little control over it after that.

WSD: Who are your main competitors?

DAN: We really don't have any. Our bourbon is unlike anything from Kentucky. It's totally different. A lot of it is the terroire issues of Texas. When you age a bourbon in this climate, the temperatures can get up to 130 degrees in some of our barns. So we're basically cooking the bourbon for three or four years.

WSD: Who is your distributor in Texas?

DAN: Republic National. Our relationship with Republic is fantastic. They recognize we have something that's in high demand. If anything, I think that they're frustrated we can't produce more and won't produce more before its ready. We made a promise from the get go to bourbon drinkers, especially the connoisseurs, that we were going to age our bourbon longer and longer and it was going to get better and better.

WSD: I also wanted to hear your thoughts on the larger issues facing craft distillers.

DAN: TABC regulations are increasingly frustrating. We can't even mention the retailers that carry our products. We can't mention the bars or restaurants either. That does them a disservice too because they're stocking the product and they're promoting our product. There's a bar here in Austin that sold over 150 bottles of Garrison brothers in one month. That's ten times as much Jack Daniels as they sold. We can give samples out when people visit the distillery. This past weekend we had over 200 people out there. That's probably our best marketing arm right now.

I approached the legislature in 2010 and tried to have a bill passed that would allow us to sell one single souvenir bottle and the retailers think that we're trying to get into their business, I guess. If breweries can sell a bottle direct and wineries can sell a bottle direct its kind of hypocritical for TABC not to let distillers do it as well.

[Editor's note: Since this interview, a federal judge ruled in favor of Jester King Brewery in their lawsuit against the TABC. As a result, Texas distilleries are allowed to advertise where their products are sold.]

WSD: Anything else that's bothering you?

DAN: The reality is that there are craft distilleries popping up all over the place and all of these guys are introducing new "Texas" whiskeys and it makes me absolutely crazy because these products are not made in Texas. Many of these guys don't even own their own stills, all they are is bulk bottlers, who bring it in from Kentucky or Canada, put a snakeskin label on it and promote it as a Texas product. If you're making a Texas wine it has to be a certain percentage of Texas grown grapes. That should also apply to distilling. These folks that buy cheap whisky in bulk and call it a Texas product, they're lying and I find that very frustrating. And it confuses the hell out of the consumer.

WSD: Thank you for your time.


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