City Lifestyle

Want to start a publication?

Learn More

Featured Article

Garrison Brothers

A Bull in the China Shop Produces Texas' First Whiskey

It seemed like an impossible task. When Dan Garrison decided he was going to become the first person to produce authentic, handmade bourbon whiskey in Texas, there was no shortage of people who told him he was out of his mind. 

But now, almost two decades after Garrison and his wife Nancy founded Garrison Brothers Distillery, he is definitely having the last laugh. 

“For most of my life I've been described as a bull in a china shop,” Garrison said. “I don't follow the rules. I don't do what society tells me to do. I just do whatever I want to do. In this case, it turned out pretty darn good.” 

Founded in 2006, Garrison Brothers is the first legal bourbon distillery in Texas history and is one of the first distilleries in America — outside of Kentucky — to produce authentic, handmade bourbon whiskey. Located in the Texas Hill Country, the Garrison Brothers’ Bourbon has become what Garrison always thought it could be, which is a distillery that produces the finest bourbon in the country. That includes the iconic drinks that come out of the heart of Kentucky.  

“Those types of bourbons were rich in Kentucky history, but they weren't massively distributed outside the state of Kentucky. So, you had to go to Kentucky to find them. The first time I tasted George T. Stagg from Buffalo Trace Distillery, I said, ‘I'm not going to go to market with my bourbon until it tastes better than George T. Stagg.’ It's taken us several years. But we beat George T. Stagg last year at the San Francisco Spirit competition. We won best in show of all the spirits with our Garrison Brothers Balmorhea Straight Batch Whiskey.” 

The path Garrison and his company had to take to get to where they are was not easy. Along with those who thought he could never do it, he had to withstand economic turmoil, industry downturns and bad luck. 

“One reason is swagger,” Garrison said. “We always believe we're going to get the job done even when the job is daunting,” Garrison said. “We have a lot of Texas swagger. That's been our mentality from the get-go. We never shut down and we never believed those who considered it couldn't be done.” 

Born and raised in Houston and Dallas, Garrison graduated from the University of Texas in 1989 before moving to New York. There he started working in advertising by day and bartending at night. It was in New York where Garrison met his future wife, Nancy, who also went to UT. The newlyweds soon moved back to Texas where Garrison began working with a technology company. Because of the stock Garrison had purchased in the company, he was on the verge of selling the options and being financially set. 

“I was going to sail off into the sunset on my new sailboat because I had 17,000 stock options in the company,” Garrison said. “And the very next week after we were acquired by Commerce One, Enron collapsed. Enron was the largest collaborative trading exchange in the world. And 12,000 Texans lost their jobs. And about another 10,000 Texans lost their jobs that didn't even work for Enron but ran comparable industries.” 

Garrison was 40-years-old and had no idea what the next phase of his life was going to look like. It was during that time that Garrison had his eureka moment.  

“I didn’t know what I was going to do for the rest of my life, so I decided to go to Kentucky and get drunk for a week,” Garrison said. “I went on the Kentucky Bourbon Tour and I thought to myself, this is doable. Every single operation that I walked into whether it was Maker's Mark, Jim Beam or Wild Turkey, I had the same thought. I get this, I can do this. I understand how this works. I understand how to make beer. I understand how to ferment beer. I understand the cooking process. I understand the grain grinding process. This is like working on a farm. And I can do this kind of work and I like it.” 

The light switch had been flipped on for Garrison. He told his wife of his plan to build a distillery in their home state. According to Garrison, she responded by telling him he wasn’t allowed to make bourbon in Texas. Garrison decided to find out. 

“I wrote a letter to the Tax Trade Bureau and I said, ‘If I want to make bourbon whiskey in Texas, can I? Or is this like France where all the champagne has to come from France? Does all bourbon have to come from Kentucky? Can they come from Texas?’” Garrison recalled. “And they said, of course, you can make bourbon in Texas. Why would you think otherwise? And I thought to myself, ‘Am I the only American who knows this information?’” 

While Garrison already knew how to drink bourbon, he had to go to Kentucky to learn how to make it.  

However, he had arrived at a time when bourbon was considered your granddad’s drink by the younger generation. The market was shrinking and the companies were cutting back on what products they were pushing out. Garrison’s idea started to seem ill-conceived and destined for failure.  

“I talked to folks and they’d seriously question why I was getting into bourbon,” Garrison said. “Bourbon wasn’t hot. What was hot was Vodka at the time.” 

Yet, Garrison didn’t let any of it dissuade him. He soaked up as much knowledge and trade secrets as he possibly could during his trips to the state. His biggest issue in those early days was just trying to raise the capital needed for his implausible venture.

“During the process of building the business I underestimated the amount of money that would be required,” Garrison said. “Fortunately, I am married to a beautiful and fifth-generation Texan who believed in this dream as well. And she's my co-founder in the business. My dreams were financed by her money and her friend's money. And my friend's money. We went out and raised some cash. And that part of the process was always the most daunting — the capital required to build the property. And it still is today.” 

The Garrisons were able to purchase 68 acres of land in Hye Texas. The family lived in a cabin and a travel trailer for the kids when they got older. The property has since expanded to a barrelhouse, stillhouse, mash room and a whiskey shack. 

“My mother-in-law was kind enough to buy this little piece of property out here in Hye Texas. She traded it to me a couple of years later and we built the bourbon distillery starting in 2003,” Garrison said. “We had the whole operation up and running by 2007. Got a federal permit to still alcohol in 2007 and a state permit in 2008. The next thing you know, we're making bourbon.” 

One of the first lessons Garrison and his team learned about the differences in distilling in Texas came early in the process. The first Copper Cowgirl batch of White Dog that they made and barreled popped when it was stored in the summer heat. Garrison and his master distiller, Donnis Todd, quickly regrouped and made the necessary changes to not only combat the high Texas heat, but also make use of it. That would help Garrison Brothers stand apart from their Kentucky counterparts.  

According to Garrison Brothers, “The extreme heat creates multiple aging seasons in a year, resulting in a darker, richer and fuller bourbon; bolder than almost any other bourbon on the market.” 

With Todd and Rob Cordes, who is Head Marketing Dude, by his side, Garrison Brothers’ first delivery was made to the Republic National Distributing Company in early 2010. According to the company, it was the first bourbon to ever be delivered from the state of Texas.  

“It was crazy. It was so fun. Those are the best times of my life,” Garrison said. “Because everything was creative and everything was new and fresh and young. It was just a determination period. Everything was a new experience every single day. Nobody believed it. But today they do.” 

The Garrison Brothers’ foray into the whiskey market seemed to have come at the perfect time. After decades of bourbon being deemed out of style, craft distilling was creating a buzz around the spirit industry. 

Garrison drove from California to Florida spreading the word of the Garrison Brothers distillery to anyone who would listen. He says he was on the road more than 300 days a year while Todd ran the distillery.  

The business turned its first profit in 2015. But that quickly gave way to a downturn in 2016 when the liquor market was oversaturated with source brands, which sold for a cheaper price than Garrison Brothers.  

“We were right on the verge of collapsing,” Garrison said. “It was bad — the verge of bankruptcy bad. 2016 was just a horrible year.” 

However, Garrison and his distillery persevered through the tough times and were able to find the capital needed to keep the operation running. Just as important, they were able to keep majority ownership of the business and full creative control of their product and the brand. This allowed Garrison to bring in new faces to run the business so they could grow from a regional product into a national brand.  

While Garrison already believed his distillery was producing the best bourbon in the country, his beliefs started to get back up in 2014 when Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible named Garrison Brothers Cowboy Bourbon “American Micro Whiskey of the Year.” They won the same award again in 2017. 

The awards have continued to roll in since then. That includes Garrison Brothers earning a pair of Double Golds at the 39th annual San Diego International Wine & Spirits Challenge for its Small Batch 2020 and Balmorhea 2020. 

“We don’t want to make run-of-the-mill bourbon,” Garrison said. “We want to make exotic bourbon. We want to make bourbon that is sexy. So we’re constantly trying to ride the edge of the envelope and do something new and different.” 

Like most things in Texas, Garrison has plans to become bigger and better in the future. From continuing to produce high-quality bourbon to a multi-million dollar distillery expansion, Garrison’s vision seems to have no boundaries.  

“I told you I'm the bull in a china shop. So, when I wrote my business plan, the first section of the business plan is our mission statement and our core values,” Garrison said. “Our mission statement is to make the highest quality, finest tasting bourbon in the world. Few thought I could ever raise enough money to go international, but today we're selling in 64 countries and 42 states. So, we're getting there.” 

  • Dan Garrison
  • Dan Garrison
  • Master Distiller, Donnis Todd and the Copper Cowgirl
  • Dan Garrison