My friends, Pam and Cecil, recently suggested we spend a Saturday in the Hill Country. They had a pair of tickets to tour the Garrison Brothers Distillery in Hye, but they wanted to trek on from there to nearby Fredericksburg.
It sounded like a perfect day out of town — except I forgot until the day we went that we were headed into a cedar pollen central. So, doped up on decongestants, I joined them for a ride that is a bit of a blur. Thankfully, I was fine by the time we arrived in Hye. We were a little early for our appointed tour, which left us with enough time to join the rest of the visitors and make some s’mores by the fireside before we headed off to the distillery.
“Texans drink a lot of whiskey and we need our own bourbon,” our guide, Stephanie, told us.
Dan Garrison has been only happy to oblige. His distillery, the oldest in the state, has been making Garrison Brothers Texas Straight Bourbon Whiskey according to the rules for seven years now. And in case you think I’m joking, there really are hard-and-fast rules, which were established by trade agreements under the Federal Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits. They require that any drink labeled bourbon must be made of at least 51 percent corn. It must also be aged in new oak barrels that have been charred on the inside. It cannot be distilled at more than 160 proof, and it cannot enter its new oak barrels at more than 125 proof. When it comes time for bottling, it must be at least 80 proof. For a distiller, such as Garrison, to use the term “straight bourbon,” the liquid must spend at least two years in those barrels.
Garrison Brothers’ recipe calls for organic corn and red winter wheat, which is grown on the property when the weather allows. The recent drought did not allow it. Barley, which needs cooler temperatures to grow, comes from the Pacific Northwest. A mash of these three ingredients is created with the starches turning to sugar, while yeast feeds on them. At the distillery, you can hear and see the pop and crackle of the yeast in action before the mash is transported to the copper stills where it is turned into white dog, or white whiskey, as some call it.
Then it is aged in oak barrels until it is ready to bottle. During the two years, the white dog acquires its caramel color from the charred oak. It also picks up a host of flavors, ranging from fruit and nuts to vanilla and warm spices. At that point, Garrison treats his bourbon like wine. He tastes each barrel and creates a blend that reflects the best and most complex bourbon he can make. It is then bottled, usually by a crew of eager volunteers, and hand numbered by Garrison himself.
The final product costs about $80 a bottle, which is not inexpensive. But as Stephanie said of her boss, “He wanted to make the best bourbon, not the cheapest.”
Garrison Brothers has yet to make a profit, but a December story on craft distilleries in Southwest Airlines’ Spirit magazine featured a picture of Dan Garrison on the cover and brought the little business into a new spotlight. He sold a great deal of bourbon across the state based on that story, and better still, he got a good deal of repeat business.
The whiskey scene may be relatively new to Texas, but it is unquestionably welcome. In addition to the attention that has come to Garrison Brothers, Balcones Single Malt Whisky (that’s right; they use the British spelling) from Waco recently won Best in Glass at a London blind tasting of whiskeys from all over the world, including some finely aged scotches.
After a fortifying trip to the tasting room, we headed to Rebecca Rather’s new place, The Pink Pig, for a quick moment, just to pick up some of the Pastry Queen’s irresistible baked goods. I have a weakness for coconut, so a sweet macaroon dipped in dark chocolate was an obvious choice. So was a triple chocolate cookie that was like a crackle cookie on the outside and a decadent brownie at the center.
Perhaps the biggest surprise was the signature pink pig cookie. It looked liked one of those bland, glazed sugar cookies you find at the supermarket that always catch your eye but somehow never taste good. You know the ones, they often taste like there’s too much baking powder in the mix and not enough of anything else. That was most definitely not Rather’s cookie. Hers was a thin, buttery piece of shortbread, firm when you took a bite and yet it seemed to melt on the tongue. I’d wanted to eat it sparingly, a little at a time, so that it would last the rest of the trip. It didn’t make it to our next stop.
Fredericksburg’s Main Street is a food lover’s paradise, with its restaurants, wine tasting rooms, brewery, ice cream parlor and stands chock full of local preserves, jams and pickles. Der Küchen Laden is a kitchen supply store on steroids, with every chichi gadget and appliance you could ever dream of finding. But my favorite place is Dooley’s 5, 10 & 25, a five-and-dime store that has everything a guest to Fredericksburg could want, from cowboy hats to souvenir tchotchkes. Sure, some could call it junk, but to do so is to miss the nostalgic glow that warms me whenever I see a Swedish angel chimes on display or bins of household goods that include sewing kits, refrigerator magnets or gardening tools.
Pass by the fascinating array of kids’ games, many of them old-fashioned delights, and you’ll find plenty of kitchen supplies that range from ceramic mixing bowls to grapefruit spoons. Cast-iron pans and speckled enameled pots, corn cob holders, squeezable ketchup and mustard bottles, scoops in all sizes — great and small, they’re all fun to sift through in the hopes of finding some item you never knew you needed.
After leaving the treasure chest of plastic Texana and household essentials, we headed for Lincoln St. Wine Market, which has been a destination on most every trip I’ve made to Fredericksburg, and it’s been interesting to see how the place has changed over the years. Instead of growing, the main tasting area seems to have gotten cozier over time as the accumulation of bottles and other wine-related decorations over the years have filled in nooks and crannies. Luck wasn’t necessarily on our side that day, however. Pam ordered a half bottle of sparkling wine, and the first was corked. The second had not spoiled, but it also had not aged well and the fruit had diminished to the point that we didn’t regret leaving some in the bottle before heading on to dinner.
We had reservations at the Nest, and we were glad we’d made them. About a half-hour into our dinner, the place was so overrun with diners that the hostess had to turn people away. A bowl of French onion soup, made from a hearty stock, took the cool edge off the day and was a welcome starter. But what I loved most about the meat was the broad array of side dishes that came with my steak. There were five vegetables; each was well-prepared and each was served in a generous amount. This was not some uncooked string bean cut into three pieces and artfully arranged on the plate. Each was thought out and well prepared, providing a richness of flavors that reminded me of family dinners when I was growing up and our garden was overflowing with great tastes. Yes, the steak was fine, but it’s the beets that I remembered on the drive back home.
Garrison Brothers Distillery
1827 Hye-Albert Road, Hye
Tours are $10 unless you ride up on a horse.
The Pink Pig
6266 E. U.S. 290, Fredericksburg
Dooley’s 5, 10 & 25
131 E. Main St., Fredericksburg
Lincoln St. Wine Market
111 S. Lincoln St., Fredericksburg
607 S. Washington St. Fredericksburg