My first clue this would be no ordinary volunteer experience should have been the drink dispenser.

After arriving early on a crisp March morning at the Garrison Brothers Distillery in Hye, Texas, I joined the group standing on either side of a long wooden table set up with stations for packaging bourbon. As volunteers listened to bottling manager Chris Feller explain the day’s work, I looked around for caffeine and spotted the large iced tea dispenser. After pouring myself a full cup, I took a large gulp.

“That’s a John Daly,” part-time employee Russell Hartmann told me after I offered him the rest of my “tea.”

“It’s made with one-third iced tea, one-third lemonade, and one-third bourbon. There’s two full bottles in there.”

My day bottling bourbon at the first legal whiskey distillery in Texas was off to a promising start.

Once distilled, bourbon must age in new, charred white American oak barrels for at least two years. Industry-mandated regulations translate into an expensive and time consuming process to make bourbon, especially when it’s a small batch distillery like Garrison Brothers. There’s no automation – and after a day of manually bottling and packaging bourbon, it’s clear why Garrison Brothers relies on its dedicated corps of volunteers.

“We have only seven full-time employees,” Master Distiller Donnis Todd said. “It would be really difficult to package all the bourbon in a timely manner, so our volunteers allow us handle anywhere from 1,000 to 1,500 bottles per day.”

For 2017, Todd expects to bottle anywhere from 60,000-75,000 bottles, and volunteers are crucial to getting those bottles out into the market. Working with fine bourbon, I learned, makes for a memorable experience.

“We typically use 400-500 volunteers per year,” Todd said. “We find that all these volunteers turn into brand ambassadors for us.”

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The Volunteer Experience

The volunteers were indeed enthusiastic supporters of Garrison Brothers, taking pains to follow the bottling steps carefully, while sampling bourbon throughout the day.

After I recovered from my wake up slug of John Daly, I was presented with my first sample cup of bourbon. The ritual of repeatedly passing around samples was part of the day’s work.

Veteran volunteers Jim Ezell of Wichita Falls and his son James from Austin have been helping since the distillery started bottling in 2010.

“It’s an experience we plan for every year, and it has become an annual event for us,” Jim said.

The oldest volunteer there on my first day was 79-year-old Jean Track who lives in Ontario, Canada. She winters in Kingsland, Texas, and returned to Garrison Brothers this year to volunteer for her second time.

“It’s a great place to work, it’s lots of fun, and you meet interesting people, plus it’s an educational experience,” Track said.

On my first visit to the distillery, I heard about the volunteer experience and signed up for Garrison Brothers’ electronic newsletter. As soon as I received the volunteer signup email in February, I selected two separate days to help bottle bourbon. After 90 minutes and multiple server crashes, all 700 slots were taken. If for some reason I can’t make my second day, there’s a wait list 8,000 long.

There’s incentive for those who complete both volunteer days: After completing the second day, volunteers receive a goody bag that includes a bottle of bourbon as thanks.

How Texas Got Its First Bourbon Distillery

In 2006, founder Dan Garrison started producing bourbon at the distillery after a career in software marketing. Garrison Brothers is a family business, with Garrison’s parents, brother, and children all working for the distillery.

Dan Garrison signs bottle Garrison Bros
Either Dan Garrison (pictured) or Donnis Todd hand sign every Garrison Brothers bottle. Credit: Iris Gonzalez for the San Antonio Report

“My dad is 84 and is our bourbon salesman in the D.C. area, Tennessee, and Georgia,” Garrison said. “My wife Nancy runs the merchandise in the gift shops, and our two kids – a son who is a sophomore in college, and daughter who is a junior in high school – both work in our distillery over the summer.”

When asked who his competitors in the artisan bourbon market are, Garrison had a ready reply.

“We really don’t have any competition because our bourbon is unlike anything you’d get from Kentucky,” Garrison said. “A lot of it is the terroir of Texas. When you age bourbon in this climate, the temperatures can get up to 130 degrees in some of our barns.”

Garrison Brothers Distillery has been bottling bourbon since 2010 when its first batch had aged sufficiently. It’s only fitting that the first whiskey distillery in Texas released its first bourbon that year on March 2 – Texas Independence Day.

Future Plans

In 2013, the distillery started selling its unfiltered bourbon straight or “uncut” from the barrel at 135 proof. Aptly named Cowboy, this bourbon it is only sold in odd years. The 2014 edition of the Whisky Bible designated Garrison Brothers Cowboy bourbon as the “American Micro Whiskey of the Year.”

Donnis Todd Garrison Bros samples
Master distiller Donnis Todd offers bourbon samples from an uncut barrel. Credit: Iris Gonzalez for the San Antonio Report

On this bottling day, we worked on the output from a single barrel of bourbon. Each year the best barrels are set aside for bottling as single barrel releases. Master distiller Todd offered each of us a taste of the single barrel bourbon straight from the barrel – unfiltered and uncut, just like the Cowboy bourbon.

Its deep cherrywood color was the darkest I’d ever seen in a bourbon. Surprisingly, there was no burn or nose prickle at first taste, despite being 124 proof. My palate filled with intense flavors of vanilla, dark plum, and oak, and after my second sip, I passed the glass along and sat down.

“It comes straight out of the barrel at 124 proof,” Todd said. “We then ‘cut’ it by adding rainwater when we get it down to its final 94 proof.”

I learned one never uses the word “blended” to describe bourbon that is “cut.” A “blend” denotes the addition of an outside substance, like food coloring or inexpensive grain neutral spirits, to distilled liquor. Garrison Brothers Distillery never blends its bourbon.

Todd discussed plans for a double barrel bourbon – a bourbon aged in a new charred oak barrel, and then again in a second new one. He also pondered the possibility of releasing bourbon aged in port wine barrels, and of crafting Cowboy bourbon on an annual basis, not just in odd-numbered years.

“We have eight used port barrels from Llano Estacado winery and will age our bourbon in these for a port-finished bourbon, then do a run to test the market,” Todd said. “With our double barrel aged bourbon, it will probably be the most expensive bourbon on the market, unfiltered just like our Cowboy bourbon.”

If you’re looking to get your hands on a bottle of Garrison Brothers bourbon, you can find it at the distillery’s store, and across the nation at various bars, restaurants, distributors, and wholesalers. Or, you could always volunteer and earn bourbon the old-fashioned way – for a (mostly) honest day’s work.

Iris Gonzalez writes about technology, life science and veteran affairs.