Last week was a big one. We all heaved a collective sigh when a whistleblower stood up to White House corruption – could the Republic be spared after all? As the pundits speculated, we were ready do what any self-respecting American would in times like these: drink bourbon.
Turns out, Texas is the place to find it. Dan Garrison, owner and founder of Garrison Brothers Distillery, hosted us in Austin, as we experienced firsthand the process of making and drinking Texas Straight Bourbon. From red and rural Hye, to weird and wonderful Austin, we sipped, swirled, tasted, and toed the line of political discourse. By week’s end, we found ourselves enthralled with Austin’s charm, Hill Country’s bucolic farmland, and the hospitable (and decidedly un-P.C.) cast of characters we encountered along the way.
Here’s what we did.
Garrison at the Fairmont Austin
We started our journey at the Fairmont Austin, a 1,048-room high-rise located off Red River Street, adjacent to the Sir Swante Palm Neighborhood Park downtown. The hotel’s enormity does not eclipse its charisma, and the space echoed its surroundings with local art, design, and music throughout. Fairmont Austin prides themselves, as Texans do, on imbuing the South Central spirit wherever they can.
We met the Garrison Brothers at the aptly named restaurant, Garrison (purely a coincidence we were told) run by Chef Jason Purcell – formerly of such temples of gastronomy as Bouchon and Aureole. Over dinner, the gentlemen showed us the bonds bourbon can forge, and the delightfully effervescent cocktails it can anchor.
The chef’s tasting menu featured items like citrus cured snapper and a creamy foie gras tart, paired with bourbon-based cocktails thoughtfully crafted by Andrew Grenz, the hotel’s beverage majordomo. One table favorite was the “Farrah’s Watching,” a zesty concoction made with – naturally – bourbon, amontillado sherry, corn, lemon, and celery bitters.
Beyond the name, there was a natural kinship between the two Garrisons. From the wood-paneled walls, to the restaurant’s commitment to “open flame, wafting smoke, and high-quality meats” – all signs pointed to a Texas-born bourbon pairing, and the Garrison Brothers stepped seamlessly into the role.
Garrison Brothers Distillery
The next day we found out just where this bourbon comes from. On a winding hour plus drive to the Garrison Brothers distillery, we bore witness to America the Beautiful in some of its most rural forms: broad blue skies, cartoonish white clouds, tree-lined hills, and acre upon acre of ranches bearing lone stars, wood-burned signage, and the occasional Trump banner.
Hye (part of Hill Country) is rapidly becoming a destination for alcoholic beverage production, specifically wine, artisanal beers, and bourbon. The hills are made of limestone, which removes iron from local streams and creeks. Iron is the mortal enemy of any whiskey, which is why Kentucky makes such a great breeding ground for bourbon: the entire central portion of the state sits on a shelf of limestone.
Garrison realized the opportunity and capitalized on it. In 2007, he released his first run of Garrison Brothers bourbon – 2,000 bottles that sold out almost instantly; it was the first made outside of Kentucky and Tennessee since Prohibition. (Bourbon has to be American-made, but it does not have to be Kentucky-made.) He knew he was on to something. They now bottle some of the finest, richest bourbon on both sides of the Mississippi. We were more than happy to confirm just that.
Pitchfork Pretty + C.L. Butaud
Once back in East Austin, we made our way to Pitchfork Pretty, a vibrant, upscale eatry embracing the city’s local quirks and newfound cosmopolitan sensibilities. Executive Chef Max Snyder relies on local, seasonal ingredients from the restaurant’s own garden down the road, and the menu offered a unique collection of experimental-meets-down-home classics like habanero vinegar–brined fried chicken and poached quail eggs.
It was here we also met Randy Hester, purveyor and founder of Texas-based C.L. Butaud wines. Hester was yet another friend of Garrison Brothers (we sensed a theme), and for the night provided a sampling of his 2017 Tempranillo and 2018 Albariño, the latter was aged in whiskey barrels. He’s one of a few attempting to elevate Texas wine culture, and he’s got the chops to do it: he worked at some of the best wineries in Napa, including Cakebread, Realm, and Colgin. While continuing to perfect the craft in a new climate, with new growers, he’s keeping his sales local for now. But we imagine it’s only a matter of time before his labels – some designed by artist Deer Dana – start popping up in the best wine shops around the country.
For brunch the following day, we hit the seriously charming Hillside Farmacy. The building where the restaurant resides was originally built in the 1950s as Hillside Drug Store. It closed in the ‘70s, but the restaurateurs swooped in to revive the space, while maintaining its classic ambiance.
The design – white-tiled backsplashes, copper-plated bar seats, and antique china cabinets – harkens back to its ‘50s pharmacy roots, but the menu is decidedly modern and fresh. The chef indulged us with a selection of brunch favorites like buttermilk pancakes with blackberry compote, BBQ shrimp with lobster gravy and grits, and a Monte Cristo sandwich we still can’t stop thinking about.
Brunch, as it does, inevitably led to shopping – and we were fortunate to get acquainted with a local Austin favorite, HELM Boots. Owner Joshua Bingaman sat on a floor cushion in the store on East 11th Street and told us about the inspiration behind creating HELM. A former sneakerhead (he and his brother owned the wildly popular Subterranean Shoe Room in the Mission District in San Francisco), he recalled a pair of his grandfather’s work boots. “The boots, his coveralls, and his Lucky Strikes were what I remember most.”
Much like Garrison Brothers endeavored to transform perceptions about bourbon being exclusive to Kentucky, Bingaman shows there’s more to Texas than cowboy boots. A meld of hiking boot, dress boot, and moccasin, HELM even include a little nod to sneakerheads in their design: the white rim of rubber around the sole.
Our journey ended at South Congress Cafe, located on one of Austin’s more renowned avenues. Bunkhouse Group’s trendy Hotel St. Cecilia, Guero’s Tacos, the legendary Continental Club, and Allen’s Boots all called this highly trafficked stretch home.
We sipped, yet again, bourbon-based cocktails over crab cakes and beignets, and talked about Austin – how it’s changing, gentrifying, and how the influx of new city dwellers bring their own cultural influence to town. Change is inevitable. And though we may not always agree, there’s common ground to be found at tables like this one – over food, laughter, and of course, Texas Straight Bourbon.