The Angels’ Share: Is There Room for New Distilling Regions?

By Tyler "Rambo" Rambeau | 2/09/2015

In the same manner that Coke is the generic descriptor for soda, and Q-tips for cotton swabs; certain regions have a firm grip on our psyche when it comes to the quality of products. In the U.S., for wine, we look to California. Their feat over the French in a blind tasting competition, The Judgment of Paris, in 1976, helped to secure a spot on the global wine makers’ list. Similarly, anything distilled in Bourbon County, in Kentucky, is a safe bet for whiskey consumers roaming an endless aisle of bottles on occasions when you feel too proud to ask for a suggestion. Interestingly, the county, and the whiskey made there, gets its name from the House of Bourbon dynasty – originally a French settlement. Kentucky’s border neighbor to the south, Tennessee, with a similar climate and terroir, produces virtually the rest of the national caramel colored spirit output. So, does that leave room on the shelves for other regions in the U.S., and could those regions compete in quality against long established powerhouses? 

Miracle on the Rocks

Decades after the historic tasting that put California wines on the map; a small distillery out of Waco, Texas, made front page of the NY Times for being the first American whiskey to win, in a similar tasting competition, Best in Glass – sticking it as hard to Scottish distillers as the ‘Murican hockey team did to the Red Ruskies in the “Miracle on Ice.” Regions in Washington state and North Carolina have also began to gain notoriety as up and coming wine countries. There is even a small area out into the Texas Hill Country joining their ranks. Last week, I hit old highways on a sunny day to see what the wine was all about, but ended up stumbling upon some of grandpa’s firewater instead. 

Garrison Brothers Distillery

The drive, once out of the city, is quaint and slow. The road winds and rolls gracefully through peach orchards, pecan groves and small towns, with an occasional blinking light when you hit Main Street. The windows go down and the radio goes up – even in the middle of winter -  hell, it’s still 70 degrees outside. There’s a rundown mill turned antique market and a sign that says, “Garrison Brothers Distillery – 2mi.” I turned down a dirt road and looked anxiously for the next sign, which led me into a barbwire lined entrance. Driving by a herd of cows, I expected to be greeted by some hardened ranch hand, rather than the sassy gal - who was excited to pour samples of their small batches once it was made certain that I had no intention of corrupting their craft with any type of Coke mixture. 

The Angel's Share

Some of the spirits naturally evaporate through the barrels during aging, a phenomenon distiller’s call, “the angels’ share.” The angels must’ve known the Garrison Brothers were onto something divine, because in the first years of production countless barrels exploded under the swelter of the southern sun. The Brothers turned to whiskey makers in Kentucky for assistance, and were actually met with open arms, given that the barrels that did make it demanded attention. Where aging, at least 10-12 years, typically correlates to a more distinguished batch, the harsher heat in Texas actually helped to cook the barrels quicker and get a mature taste in about 2 years. 

Another similar practice, once a recipe is crafted, is to shoot for consistency. Garrison Brothers make no such attempt. They grow much of the crops on their mash bill on their own land and blend their whiskey, instead, based on vintages. In other words, whatever crop made for the best harvest will be the predominant notes to hit your palate when you’re trying to come up with bourgeois descriptive flavors: caramel, hints of this or that, butterscotch and wet Sasquatch blah blah blah. 

'Cowboy Bourbon'

When it comes to music and taste, I’ve always developed descriptions based on where I was taken. A good Cajun band can instantly take me back to the French Quarter in New Orleans, just like certain cuisines will help you find your way home when you’re lost. Garrison Brothers releases two batches each year –spring and fall. I was poured fall ’13, spring and fall ’14, and finally a single barrel – which I was told gave an elderly woman chills earlier in the day. I, on the other hand, found warmth. Each vintage sat, with a welcoming burn in completely different parts of the tongue. Their whiskey is also referred to as, “Cowboy Bourbon,” and each taste validated that term. Some whiskeys remind me of bar room brawls, or my grandfather’s den, but this whiskey put me out on a cattle drive under the stars. The blend of ingredients used to make whiskey is typically a short list, much like what an old herder might have been able to cook by the fire, but I like to think that the feeling of sustenance they got after a long day in the sun was the same feeling I got each time I tried another sip of Garrison Brothers. 

A Force to be Reckoned With

Can the small batch distillers compete with the big boys, in terms of quality, and where can they be found? Regarding quality – absolutely, especially since it could be argued that they have more freedom to try new things. No, quality isn’t their true struggle. Some of the small names to have made the biggest splash are based out of California, Colorado, Indiana, New York, the Pacific Northwest, Texas, Utah and Virginia. Many of them claim to be the first legal distillery because the tradition of making whiskey has had to go from breaking the law, to stay alive, to breaking laws down, in order to thrive now, as many states had laws and restrictions hindering the production and distribution of spirits. As those laws change, so will the selection on the shelves at your local liquor store – for the better. 

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