Travel

Cowboys and Whisky

Our road trip ends in Texas
By Liza Weisstuch
The blending room at Balcones Distillery in Waco, Texas is a bright, airy space with brick walls and white tables. On a hot Monday afternoon in August, dozens of covered Glencairn glasses were laid out and Jared Himstedt and Zach Pilgrim, the distillers, were on a tasting duty. On hand: lots of samples of the flagship Texas Single Malt Whisky, which starts off in five gallon barrels, then blended and aged in 60 gallon barrels.

When Chip Tate, who had a contentious and well-publicised separation from the company, started Balcones in 2008, the distillery was six blocks due south of where it sits today. It was a rather ramshackle affair where they produced two 60 gallon barrels per day by the end of the run. Since they started distilling at the new facility in April 2016, they're producing between 500 and 600 gallons per day. This winter they're expecting the arrival of a second set of stills, which will put them at about 90,000 cases a year. Today the distillery has about four times the capacity of the other building. The original two stills were 1,000 litres each. The spirit still they use today is physically eight times bigger, but capacity is four times bigger. The building can hold up to four pairs of stills.

Winston Edwards, brand manager, walks me through the building, which the company bought in 2011 planning to simply use it as a storage facility. Little did they know how the place, which was completed in 1923, would be Balcones's future.

A grand and weathered vintage sign hangs high in the still room, a tribute to its past: "Texas Fireproof Storage Company: Moving. Storage. Packing. Crating." In a poetic sort of way, those words nod to process, a reminder that no matter what the task, there are many steps involved that take effort

and patience.

The still room is flooded with natural light from high windows and it smells fantastic. I'm getting wafts off the cooker in the next room over, where the stately mash tun and hot liquor tanks were sourced from Speyburn Distillery. The structures in this still room make up an elegant network of copper columns, shiny piping, steel stairs, corrugated metal surfaces, and iron beams. All those right angles makes the still stand out, what with its towering tightly coiled lyne arm, like copper piping wrapped ten taut times around an invisible form like a corset. Forsyths, the Scottish still makers, designed it this way to maintain the geometry of the old still, which had a lyne arm that was 18 feet long and angled. The new facility allows for other upgrades, too.

"In the old days, nothing was connected, so if we wanted to get wash to the wash still, we'd be dragging it over by hose to the fermenter and then pumping liquid to the still," says Edwards, with mock nostalgic. His phone rang. It was a distributor. He needed more product in Chicago.

Austin, Texas is about 100 miles due south of Waco. I took a Greyhound bus there hoping for a ride through desert and romantic scenery of tumbleweeds and cacti. It was mostly strip malls and box stores along the highway. Dan Garrison, founder and owner of Garrison Brothers Distillery, greeted me at the bus station and we drove about an hour in his Dodge Ram truck to the distillery, which is located down an improvised road off a main thoroughfare in Hye, a small town in bucolic Hill Country which, believe it or not, is dense with wineries.

"I love it out here - it's so rocky and rugged," Garrison told me. The distillery is his labour of love. He worked as a marketing director for a software company in Austin that went under during dotcom boom. In need of a new career, he found inspiration on a visit to the Maker's Mark Distillery. In 2004, he convinced his mother-in-law to invest in 68 acres. With his engineering and architectural know-how, he oversaw construction of the facility. Garrison Brothers became the first legal Bourbon distillery in Texas when Dan got his federal permit in 2007.

Flash forward to today: they're equipped with 16 x 500 gallon fermenting tanks, two 500 gallon cookers, a hammer mill to grind the grain, two massive boilers to make steam, and three stills, including what Dan calls his Copper Cowgirl, which 'worked for' Buffalo Trace from 1986 to 2006 and Wild Turkey before that. He declares it an "awesome display of American might." There are numerous tanks for rain water collection and Bourbon storage. Among the several buildings throughout the property, which has a distinct southern country charm, are three rick houses, a trans-Atlantic shipping container (aka: the Hotbox), and a machine shop for construction and repairs.

I had arrived on bottling day, a once-a-month occasion when volunteers enthusiastically show up to help. They're bankers and lawyers and truck drivers and retirees, and mums and astronauts. As some people make sure the bottles are rinsed clean, others fill them with Garrison Brothers Texas Straight Bourbon Whiskey while others dip the bottle necks in black wax and others adhere labels then pass the bottles to Dan to sign. It's much more of a social event than an assembly line. There'll be shouts of things "I just saw him in concert," in reaction to a particular artist that comes up on a playlist, which ranges from Led Zeppelin to classic country singers to local up-and-comers. Conversation never stops. Throughout the day, Larry Lindsay, part-time bottling assistant, comes around to everyone with a tray of thimble-size plastic cups full of Bourbon. Everyone toasts with much fanfare.

Like Dan, who has a remarkably laidback attitude for someone overseeing so much, Larry has a classic Texas manner about him. He tends toward concise comments that tell huge stories.

"You know what we do here in Texas? We drink," Larry proclaims. "My grandparents opened a liquor store in west Texas in the 1960s. I was selling beer for 30 cents a pop when I was seven years old."

Throughout the day, Dan calls out milestone numbers of bottles he's signed. "13,800!" he yells at 11.40am. Applause ring out.

The numbers are a tally of the bottles of the year's vintage, which is Garrison Brothers' modus operandi. He's aiming for 24,000 bottles of the 2016 vintage. Barrels are aged minimum of three years before they're even tasted. They spend the first year in the hot box, then they're moved to cooler barns, temperature swings less dramatic. They also release limited editions. There are countless experiments ageing in

barrels, too.

While demand for Garrison Brother's products grow, there remains a refreshing air of indie excitement about the place, a sense of plugging along as the brand gains ground on the greatness on the horizon.

"Everyone has to be a walking/talking Swiss army knife. If you're not able to do something, you have to adapt," says Sam Moreno, a mash cook. "When I took on my job, I didn't know I'd also have to be a ranch hand and an engineer. Those pumps in there - I know how to fix them. We have a few guys here who are the resident hunters/capturers." Then she proceeded to tell the story of how a desert animal decided to play hide and seek in the bottling room once. She laughs now, but, she said, she wasn't laughing then.

About that aforementioned greatness. As the awards keep streaming in, Dan is already planning the 2017 vintage. He's aiming for 3,750 bottles in the new year. Demand will certainly be higher than that. It's about 1.40pm and he's telling me about his Cowboy Bourbon, a limited small batch barrel proof release that's uncut and unfiltered. It's not predetermined which barrels will become that release. Donnis Todd, master distiller, brings a contender over for Dan to taste.

"It's unique and weird - you get that nutmeg, cinnamon, fig, red velvet. We could set aside for Cowboy." Then he goes back to signing bottles. "14,000!" he shouts. Larry is circling the room with tiny shots. Everyone is cheering.