About an hour from Kerrville up State Highway 16, to US 290 and then east on US 290, is a very small burb called Hye, Texas. Hye is getting more tourism attention thanks to the William Chris Winery and Garrison Brothers, Texas’ fi rst bourbon distillery. Directions to everything are painted on the wall of the Hye Market liquor, wine, beer, and feed store. Jason Cook, the store’s proprietor, gave me a lesson in Hye history.
William Chris Winery
William Chris Winery is owned and operated by Bill (William) Blackmon and Chris Brundrett. They have assembled a very knowledgeable, wine smart team. Bill and Chris are principally grape farmers managing some 40 plus acres across Texas that provide the fruit for their premium wines. While the tasting room begins in a somewhat restored historic home built in 1905, a hallway connects it to an ultra-modern tasting room complete with some much needed indoor restrooms.
Even by 10:30 a.m. the tasting room was getting very crowded. Karen O’Neill gave me a private tasting in one of the side rooms so we could discuss the wines and the winery history. Karen is very knowledgeable of the history of the area and the making of the wines I tasted. Almost all of the William Chris wines are blends with names of something sentimental to them. Some of my favorites were “Enchante”, vinted from Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, and Cabernet Franc from Granite Hill Vineyards in Willow City, Texas, and “Emotion” made from Zinfandel, Merlot, Mouvedre, and Cabernet Sauvignon. To complete the selection, I tried “Jacquez”, a fine port made from Jacquez (a.k.a. Lenoir) and Black Spanish grapes, fortified with a superb California brandy. California? Yes, because no one in Texas has yet to take on the task of making a brandy.
William Chris is also a spot to buy retired professional football player Alphonsoe Dotson’s rare “Gotas de Oro” Muscat Canelli from Tow, Texas. This is probably Texas’ best sweet, white dessert wine.
William Chris provides a really great Texas winery experience – nice facilities, tasty wines, and a truly intelligent wine conversation with Karen. Wines are very limited production and a bit pricey compared to say, Becker or Messina Hof. Best way to obtain them and save a few bucks is through William Chris’s Hye Society Wine Club. For more information go to: www.williamchriswines.com
Garrison Brothers Distillery (five minutes southeast of downtown Hye)
Arriving early (a must for any tour) on a cool February morning for the Noon tour, I was greeted by Stephanie Whitworth, Director of Hospitality and Events. There was a nice fire in a fire ring with some comfy rough cut cedar furniture and an Honor Box cooler filled with cold local beers & ales, sodas, and William Chris wines. No bourbon is sold because Texas law prohibits the consumption of more than a gratis ½ ounce taste of bourbon at the distillery property. Tours are $10 and last about an hour.
Garrison Brothers has been written up by Time Magazine and the Smithsonian as well as a wide assortment of local and regional publications.
After graduation from the University of Texas and then ten years in New York in marketing technology, Dan Garrison began fulfilling his dream to make the best bourbon in the State of Texas. He obtained the first bourbon distillery permit issued in Texas. Dan bought his first still that was originally built in 1972 for Wild Turkey from Buffalo Trace Distillery. It is an all polished copper still that Buffalo Trace used for experimental batches. Dan calls it the “Copper Cowgirl” and she is capable of 30 gallons of bourbon production per day. It has been joined by two 500-gallon-per-day copper stills made especially for Garrison Brothers.
Most people assume that Tennessee’s Jack Daniel’s is the number one selling bourbon in the country. Jack Daniel’s is actually not bourbon and bourbon does not show up on its label. Even though it smells and tastes like bourbon, it is actually Tennessee whiskey because of the “Lincoln County Process” that filters it through a series of sugar maple charcoal filters to give it that mild flavor. It is filtered twice to make Gentleman Jack.
As I learned during the tour, “bourbon” does not have to be made in Kentucky. It has to be produced in the U.S. from a grain mixture of at least 51 percent corn, be free of additives, and rest in previously unused American oak barrels that have been charred inside. At Garrison Brothers they use Texas grown organic corn, North Country barley, and red winter wheat that Garrison Brothers grows and harvests themselves; at the distillery. These are stored in silos and funneled into a mill, where they are ground into coarse grained flour. The flour is mixed with well water to create a thick soup, then cooked and fermented with yeast. When the alcohol content has reached a 16 percent l evel or so, the mash is then moved to a still, where it is distilled into barrelready 129 proof alcohol. During distillation, this “white dog”, as they call it, Garrison Brothers Distillery (five minutes southeast of downtown Hye) is constantly monitored by the distillation team, who routinely smells, and tastes it (nice job, eh). Once the white dog is barreled, it is required by federal law to age a minimum of two years in new oak barrels to be called “straight bourbon”, and straight bourbon is exactly what Garrison Brothers makes.
The barrel proof whiskey is strained through a screen and cheesecloth and then mixed with the contents of the other barrels in a large tank. The whiskey is then cut with rainwater gathered from the roofs of the distillery to bring it to the finished, sippable 94 proof. Dan Garrison dons white gloves and inspects each and every bottle before he signs it and gives it a serial number.
If you are bourbon and Coke or 7-Up drinker, go ahead and use one of the readily available bourbons for your mix, like Jim Beam who makes 35 million bottles per year. If you like it neat (by itself) or savored over a couple of ice cubes, Garrison Brothers, at a production of about 15,000 bottles a year, is the treat you have always wanted in a fine glass of bourbon. Garrison Brothers is not a cheap drink. If you can find a bottle, it will set you back between $75 and $100 depending on where you buy it. When I wrote this article in early February, The Hye Market had a good stock of Garrison Brothers. At the Republic of Texas Bar at the Corpus Christi Omni Hotel, where I stay every other week on business, a decent shot (poured by Michael the Bartender) of Garrison Brothers is $14. www.garrisonbros.com
See you again in June, with a sampling of the rare Hill Country’s artisan bakers. If you know of an artisan baker worth featureing, email me at email@example.com – Don Grogg, Food and Wine Editor