Lone Star Whiskey
A recent article in the Dallas Observer announced plans by Texas distillers to compete with Kentucky and Tennessee in the production of bourbon. As a life long resident of the Bluegrass State, I know that this a foolhardy enterprise. After all, no one “up here” considers the boys “down there” in Tennessee to be playing the same game anyway. A Tennessee whiskey is, as we all know, a separate category from bourbon (it’s the filtering through sugar maple charcoal that negates its designation as bourbon). So far as we’re concerned, Texas and Tennessee are welcome to duke it out for second place in the American Whiskey category – but there is only one Kentucky Bourbon.
For those who don’t understand the rules (and there are plenty), yes whiskey produced in Texas can legally be called bourbon provided it adheres to the prescriptions laid down by Congress. But does it taste like bourbon? I recently had a chance to sample one of the first bourbons to come out of Texas, and coming from the state where everything is bigger than elsewhere, I was expecting great things. Turns out everything really is bigger in Texas. Including the hype.
Garrison Brothers Distillery released their innaugural bourbon in late 2010. From a packaging standpoint, it’s an impressive product. The raised relief Lone Star on the bottle lets you know immediately this isn’t a product of Kentucky. On the side, the year of the corn harvest, the distillation and the bottling are listed making Garrison Brothers one of the few bourbons to attach a year to it’s product (Evan Williams Single Barrel vintage release is probably the most noteworthy). It’s with the date on the bottle that the problem begins. The bourbon is aged only two years – meaning it was barreled in 2008 – which is the absolute minimum required by law if the end product is still going to be called bourbon. I’ve never been a fan of doing the minimum to get by, and I sincerely hope that the financial pressures of starting a distillery forced the producers to unleash such a young product on the market. I would be glad to see additional aging in future releases.
Bourbon must be 51% corn and Garrison Brothers make much of their organic corn harvest. The grain comes through strong, giving it a musty corn nose that I’ve come to expect from young bourbons. Winter wheat and barley are the secondary grains, and here this Texas bourbon shares some traits with Kentucky’s own famous Maker’s Mark Bourbon. The use of winter wheat and the absence of rye is often cited by aficianado’s (myself included) as one reason Maker’s doesn’t rate high on their list of favorites in comparison to other Kentucky bourbons. It makes for a very good bourbon, just not my first preference when choosing a sipping whiskey. I would make the same criticism of Garrison Brothers. The rye notes so many have come to expect from bourbon – it’s what gives bourbon it’s “bite” – are noticeably absent. At no point does the bourbon market itself as “frontier whiskey” implying the kind of mind numbing, kick your horse in the rear type of whiskey enjoyed – or at least tolerated and sought after – in the Old West. However, leaving John Wayne aside, for my personal tastes I would like a little more … something. It doesn’t have to be a lot, but it should be present. Without it, the bourbon seems to me to just finish flat.
Kentucky Bourbon distillers make almost as much noise about their water sources as they do their mashbill. Many use limestone springs, and it is without question water having undergone the type of natural filtration process produced by the Kentucky geology tastes different from other sources. One of the more interesting tastings I’ve had was at Woodford Reserve’s “Bourbon Academy” where the raw undistilled whiskeys from Brown Forman – consisting of Woodford, Early Times, Old Forrester and Jack Daniels – were compared side by side. With starting mash bills not too dissimilar for some of the whiskey’s, the difference in the water’s source was definitely noticeable. In that case it was limestone spring versus filtered “city” water. Garrison Brothers uses “Hill Country rainwater”, and the bourbon’s nose carries an almost spring rain-shower quality. This would be attractive if not for the musty corn notes accompanying it.
Overall, my impression upon first tasting Texas Bourbon was not favorable, and trying to pin down why I kept coming back to the age – even more than the absence of the rye bite I so enjoy. I decided to compare the Garrison Brothers with another young bourbon, one with whose flavor profile I was a little more familiar. So, striving for context I reached for a bottle of Old Crow, that oft forgotten but legendary product now produced by Jim Beam Distillers (who bought the brand and distillery from National Distillers in 1987). Or more accurately, I had Mark the bartender reach for it. He tends to frown on any attempts by me to climb behind the bar and help myself to their selections. Old Crow was Henry Clay’s bourbon, and Senate legend has him keeping a supply onhand while in Washington. It was also, according to legend or just good marketing, the preferred drink of General Ulysses S. Grant.
So with my glasses ready, the stage – or rather, the bar – was set for a showdown between bourbons from the state Lincoln said he had to have to win the Civil War and which sported both Blue and Gray state governments during the Rebellion years, and the state which fought it’s own war of independence against Mexico before voting to join the Union.
Old Crow is not where Kentucky Bourbon is today. Like the abandoned distillery along the banks of Glen’s Creek in Woodford County that bears it’s name, it’s largely forgotten now in the state of its origin. Once one of the first nationally known bourbon brands, where small batch and premium bourbons now reign supreme, Old Crow is a tip of the hat to a bygone age. Which means it’s cheap. Really cheap. However at three years of age it was about as close to the two year old Garrison Brothers as I cared to get (there are some bourbons even I won’t drink). Old Crow had the same musty corn nose, as the Garrison Brothers but that’s where the similarities ended. Close in formulation to Jim Beam’s ubiqitous White Label (according Jim Murray of The Whiskey Bible), when tasted neat the Old Crow had the kick in the palate I’ve come to expect and enjoy from bourbon. Over a little ice the bourbon retained it’s character, whereas the ice seemed to dilute the already mellow Texas bourbon.
Everything about Garrison Brother’s Distillery makes we want to like them, from their website to their use of organic ingredients to the packaging, to… heck, the simple fact it’s from Texas! Although I wish they would stick to “Texas Whiskey” on their labels instead of invoking bourbon’s name, but I understand imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. However, putting what is obviously meant as premium product up against a old behind the bar well standby like Old Crow and finding the former wanting leaves me disappointed and unsure of where to go next.
I also take some issue with their claim that the Houston climate promotes year round cycling of the bourbon in and out of the wood of the barrels and that this is somehow a good thing. Every distillery I’ve ever toured has, in addition to emphasizing how Kentucky’s hot summers contribute to the bourbon’s maturity, also claim the cold winters allow the whiskey to “rest” in the barrel before starting another season. I’m neither a chemist nor a master distiller, but it seems to make sense that allowing a bourbon to rest in situ would promote all the flavor components to come together for a more well rounded final product. The principle applies in cooking. Equally confounding is their claim that filling the barrels only halfway somehow lends itself favorably to their production process. Knowing how much bourbon can evaporate during its maturation (the angel’s share as it’s called), I just don’t see how starting with a barrel half full makes financial sense. What they lose over the bourbon’s lifetime would seem to make the whole endeavor cost prohibitive. That is, of course, if they would leave the whiskey in the barrel long enough to start.
While I feel bad being this critical of anything from Texas other than the Dallas Cowboys (it’s probably my second or third favorite state after home), I just can’t be positive yet about Texas whiskey. I hope it gets better. I hope it gets older. I hope, in the end, Texas becomes the #2 American whiskey producing state. Take that Lynchburg.
All tastings conducted at The Bluegrass Tavern, Lexington KY.