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Interview: Garrison Brothers Master Distiller Donnis Todd Talks Making Texas Bourbon

Garrison Brothers is one of the best selling craft bourbons in America, and since it came to market in 2010, you could always find Donnis Todd at the helm of the distillery in Hye, Texas.

Today, the juice he oversees has made its way to a price point of more than $70 a bottle, can be found in bars and liquor stores across the country, and in nine countries around the globe.

An Air Force veteran, Todd said he always wanted to get into the bourbon-making business once he finished his service.

It was as a young boy, growing up in Marblehead, Ohio, where he would watch his grandpa make corn whiskey and cherished the time they spent together.

After graduating high school in 1998, Todd signed up for service and every place he traveled in the military, he made it a point to educate himself on distilling, by going to distilleries everywhere and anywhere he could.

When he was stationed in Texas, he fell in love with the beauty of the Lone Star State. By 2007, he made his way to Hye, Texas, and met Dan Garrison, founder of Garrison Brothers Whiskey. Todd asked for a distilling job.

In the beginning, there was no money to hire Todd. But obviously, they figured it out.

Donnis Todd recently visited with The Whiskey Wash about his journey to master distiller at Garrison Brothers.

Donnis Todd
Garrison Brothers is one of the best selling craft bourbons in America, and since it came to market in 2010, you could always find Donnis Todd at the helm of the distillery in Hye, Texas. (image via Garrison Brothers)

The Whiskey Wash: What was it that drew you to whiskey making? Was there an inkling of your whiskey future while serving the country in the Air Force?

Donnis Todd: “My grandfather used to tell the best stories about making corn whiskey. From a very young age, I felt the love in the stories and was inspired to want to make whiskey just like him. The desire never died down.”

TWW: What was the greatest challenge in those early years setting up the distilling process at Garrison Brothers?

DT: “The Garrison Brothers Distillery started on a shoestring budget, so there were a lot of ‘make do’ moments in the beginning.”

TWW: What makes Texas whiskey distinctive?

DT: “Texans do … and the massive temperature changes that happen almost daily in Hye.”

TWW: What are the challenges of distilling in a region known for weather extremes?

DT: “While it makes beautiful bourbon, the extreme changes in weather make it hard on Garrison Brothers team members and the equipment.”

TWW: Was recognition and awards a tough nut to crack for a non-Kentucky whisky maker 12 years ago, like California wine makers to the French foundational wines in the 1970s?

DT: “To be honest, Garrison Brothers was not focused on winning awards in the beginning. We didn’t enter many Spirit Competitions 12 years ago. The thought of sending two bottles along with a $500 entry fee seemed crazy. The cash and the bottles were too hard to come by to give it away.”

TWW: Where did the idea for Balmorhea come from? And what do you think makes it so special?

DT: “Early on as master distiller of Garrison Brothers, I kept hearing that all Texas bourbon is “fast” bourbon. Everyone was, and still is, fixated on how long it’s aged. A double barrel bourbon was a great way to highlight the craft and art of making bourbon. Balmorhea showcases the true art of bourbon, having been aged four years in new American white oak barrels, then transferred to a second new American white oak barrel, and aged for another year.”

TWW: Now that every Garrison Bros product virtually sells out and the special editions are as rare as hen’s teeth, what do you do to push the envelope?

DT: “Make better bourbon every day.”

TWW: What does the near future look like for distillers in the American whiskey industry?

DT: “Tough … just like it has been in the past. Ten years ago, it was hard to get new barrels, corks, glass and fill empty positions. Nothing has changed. At Garrison Brothers, my team is my family. Finding the support you need to make good bourbon in the people that surround you, makes everything better.”

TWW: What is a crazy whiskey project you’d like to work on, money no object?

DT: “That’s what I’ve been doing for the last 15 years!”

Gary Carter

Gary Carter has been at the helm of metro newspapers, magazines, and television news programs as well as a radio host and marketing manager. He is a writer/editor/photographer/designer by trade, with more than 30 years experience in the publishing and marketing field. Gary enjoys working to build something great, whether that be a novel project, a start-up, an organization, a fresh-face to the journalistic world, or even something as simple as a short story. A native Texan and a Pacific Northwest convert, he is a whiskey enthusiast who cut his teeth on it ... literally!

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