Whiskey Review: Garrison Brothers Balmorhea Bourbon

Garrison Brothers is one of the great distilleries in Texas, churning out some of the best examples of a rich and delicious Texas bourbon. I’ve had their “standard” edition and I’ve heard about their Balmorhea bottling — but I’ve never actually been able to get my hands on the latter. Until one happy day, that is. Recently I was walking through my local liquor store, found a bottle by sheer luck, and knew I would be spending my evening checking this out.


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History

In 2006, founder Dan Garrison found himself wanting to do something besides software marketing (probably one of the most stereotypical Austin, Texas professions) and was granted the first distillery permit for production of bourbon in the state of Texas. The distillery remains family owned and operated with Dan Garrison at the helm and his parents, spouse, and children all working in some capacity for the facility.

Since their first batch was released on March 2nd of 2010 (Texas Independence Day), the distillery has continued to grow and the Texas-produced bourbon can now be found in most states in the US.

Garrison Brothers regularly holds volunteer bottling events where members of the public can apply to be a bottler for the day, helping the distillery to package their product for sale while “quality control” sampling some of the spirit themselves.

Product

All whiskey starts its life as a mixture of grains and, as a bourbon, a minimum of 51% of that content needs to be corn here. Specifically (according to the markings on the bottle), the corn used here is Food Grade #1 White corn from a farm in South Texas. I can’t find any indication of whether there are other grains involved here — given that the standard recipe of their bourbon is a 74% corn, 15% wheat, and 11% barley mixture, it makes sense that this is just a differently aged expression, but there’s no confirmation of that in their materials.

That mixture of grains is cooked, fermented, and distilled on site in Hye, Texas (about 60 miles west of Austin).

The thing that differentiates Garrison Brothers from other bourbons is the extreme Texas heat that matures their whiskey. Instead of the more gentle warming and cooling cycles experienced in places like Scotland, the weather in Austin swings wildly and severely during the year. This temperature swing pushes and pulls the whiskey into the wood of the barrel more forcefully, leading to a deeper and richer taste. To combat the stress of that movement, the barrels used by Garrison Brothers are stronger and thicker than typically seen and need to be custom ordered.

In this case, the Balmorhea bourbon actually uses two sets of barrels in the finishing process. The first set of barrels is their usual thicker barrel from The Barrel Mill cooperage in Minnesota, and the whiskey sits there for a couple years just like their standard straight bourbon line. From there, a selection of their whiskey is dumped into a second set of barrels from the famous Kelvin Cooperage in Kentucky to age for an additional period of time in the Texas heat.

Technically this is a NAS (No Age Statement) whiskey — meaning they don’t make any claims about the age of their spirit. Rumor has it that the latest batch was aged for about five years, but that’s admittedly pure gossip.

Once the whiskey has been appropriately aged, it is slightly proofed down to 57.5% ABV and bottled.

Given the grain-to-glass production and the locally sourced materials, this whiskey has earned the Certified Texas Whiskey identifier.

Packaging

The Garrison Brothers distillery uses a pretty straightforward bottle design, but with some twists and splashes that differentiate the lines.

Overall, it’s a rectangular shaped body with a wider front and back but shorter sides. That body tapers quickly at the shoulder to a long neck, which includes a pronounced bulge in the middle to make it easier to pour. The bottle is capped off with a synthetic cork, and the whole thing is sealed with hot wax similar to (but legally distinct from) the Maker’s Mark line.

The branding on the bottle is pretty minimal, and I appreciate it. Not quite as minimalist as the Kings County folks, but still keeping it clean. On the face, there’s the brand and variety information painted on the bottle, and a silver band and star decoration affixed to the bottle.

Something I like is that Garrison Brothers differentiates their lines through the use of different colored wax seals and bands. It’s a nice touch, and I appreciate the color coordination. In this case, the distillery went with a turquoise color.

One thing I do have to note here — the bottle might be a fine looking example of branding, but the stuff they threw on it is downright gaudy. To be super Texas about it: this whiskey is “putting on airs”. The small paper item celebrating their double gold win I can forgive… but the actual metallic medal they created and draped around the neck of this bottle? A bit unnecessary.

Neat

Right off the bat, something is different. This whiskey is significantly darker than the standard edition, more of a coffee color than the usual caramel. That depth and richness follows into the aroma as well — I get some brown sugar and vanilla, but also some smoky mesquite, cinnamon, and chocolate.

There’s a good weight to the whiskey, as you’d expect at this alcohol content. The first flavors I get coming out of it are a quick flash of cherry, followed by some vanilla and charred brown sugar. That evolves into a bit of dark chocolate, but it surprisingly doesn’t have any of the bitterness that usually comes from that specific flavor. On the finish, I get more of that smoky mesquite note, almost like the Balcones Brimstone we’ve reviewed previously.

On Ice

I’m expecting some changes with the addition of the ice. Usually, the lighter flavors head for the hills and what’s left behind isn’t always as neat and delicious as it started out being. In this case, I think all the changes are for the better.

The biggest note is that the charred aspect of the brown sugar flavor seems to be well under control. It wasn’t prominent to start, but now it is much more of a contributing member of society. The smoky flavors remain though, continuing to add that nice depth and richness to the profile.

What’s really surprising is that the lighter flavors are actually more pronounced now. There’s some citrus coming out, specifically some orange and lemon zest that are making an appearance and adding to the party. It almost feels like it’s 80% of the way to being an old fashioned right out of the bottle even before you add the bitters.

Cocktail (Old Fashioned)

In a strange twist, I don’t think the bitters are actually adding any flavors here. Pretty much everything I taste was already present in some form with the added ice — the bitters are just accentuating those flavors.

And I don’t mean here that the bitters are covered up or drowned out — quite the opposite. I can taste them, but it isn’t the radical shift that you usually see. There’s nothing magical or groundbreaking after the bitters go in, just… more goodness? If anything, maybe the bitters add a touch of aromatics, like adding a mint sprig to the cocktail.

Fizz (Mule)

I think this whiskey has a bit of a handicap coming into the mule, unfortunately. Not much, but a slight one considering how I judge these. There’s two things I look for in this cocktail: a balance to the ginger beer, and some unique quality that I don’t get with vodka (because what is the point in using perfectly good bourbon here otherwise?)

On the first point, this absolutely meets and exceeds the expectations. There’s enough sweetness in the corn content to balance out the bitter ginger beer all by itself, but when you add in the rich and dark flavors in the whiskey this just becomes a delicious drink I could sip all day long. It’s nicely balanced, if anything a little on the richer side of things.

As for the uniqueness, that might be where it has a bit of a weakness. Usually, I expect some of the rye content in a typical bourbon to add some pepper spice and kick things up a notch, but that isn’t possible here. Assuming this is the same rye-free mixture as their standard version, the lack of rye means that the only thing left is that rich flavor to act as the uniqueness. And it does work — this is definitely different tasting compared to a vodka mule — but it isn’t ideal.


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Overall Rating

At this price range, we’re getting into the territory of diminishing returns. It takes so much more time and effort to polish the remaining sharp edges off an already good whiskey versus getting it to “good enough” territory, and that’s what is happening here. That dark chocolate note is really what stands out to me — 99% of the time that flavor comes with some bitterness and really needs to be toned down. Here, it’s perfect from the start.

This whiskey is absolutely delicious. Either neat or with a little bit of ice, the flavors that are inherent in the spirit are well worth the price of admission. And as an old fashioned, it’s pretty darn good, but doesn’t quite tick all the boxes as a mule.

The main issue comes with the pricing.

Our reviews are intended to answer the question “is this a worthwhile whiskey compared to the price and other spirits in the same range?”. Slap a $150 price tag on this puppy and I’d be singing the five star praises all day long. But at ~$230, this is one of the pricier bottles we’ve reviewed to date.

Is it worth the money? Absolutely. I regret nothing about the immense pain in my wallet I felt leaving the liquor store, and will thoroughly enjoy finishing this bottle. But it probably isn’t going to get me to shell out the bucks a second time around.

Garrison Brothers Balmorhea
Produced By: Garrison Brothers
Production Location: Texas, United States
Classification: Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Special Type: Certified Texas Whiskey
Aging: No Age Statement (NAS)
Proof: 57.5% ABV
Price: $229.99 / 750 ml
Product Website: Product Website
Overall Rating:
All reviews are evaluated within the context of their specific spirit classification as specified above. Click here to check out similar spirits we have reviewed.

Overall Rating: 3/5
The gold standard for what a Texas whiskey can be. Even though the bottle is blue.


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