Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Texas Born Bourbon

“If I cannot drink Bourbon and smoke cigars in Heaven than I shall not go” - Mark Twain (Lucky for us, Texas is the next best thing to heaven!)

The news is spreading like wildfire around Texas that the Garrison Brothers Distillery makes some of the finest sipping straight bourbon in the United States. I always heard that Kentucky made the finest sipping bourbon, so to find out for ourselves whether or not this Texas claim was true, Suzanne and I decided to pay them a visit.  As always, I entrusted Suzanne to set up a visit to the distillery while I brushed up on my knowledge of bourbon. 

It seems that only distilled spirits made from at least 51% corn and produced in the United States can be called bourbon.  Other U.S. standards include: must be aged in new barrels only; must be distilled to no more than 160 proof (80 % alcohol per volume); and bottled at a minimum of 80 proof. Straight bourbon must be aged a minimum of two years and cannot include any additional coloring, flavoring or other spirits. With all this new found knowledge in hand and a thirst for some Texas made straight bourbon, I couldn’t wait for our trip!

Suzanne confirmed our visit to the distillery in Hye, Texas for high noon on a Friday. Our trip was set. Rain or shine, this was one trip I didn’t want to miss.  I know what you’re thinking, “Where in the heck is Hye, Texas?” Hye is a small town just west of Austin between Johnson City and Fredericksburg on US 290 in the Hill Country area of Texas. 

As we journeyed to the distillery, the ominous clouds which had threatened rain all morning opened up and the rain began to fall.  I knew we needed any rain we could get to alleviate the drought conditions in Texas, but did it have to rain on my parade? I wondered if I was snake-bit. The closer we got to the distillery, the more it rained. Always a trooper, Suzanne barely flinched at the thought of sloshing through the muddy grounds of the distillery. Straining to see though rain, we caught a glimpse of the Garrison Brothers Distillery sign and pulled into the drive. At first glance the entrance appeared to be just like that of an ordinary cattle ranch, but the humorous No Smoking sign was a clear indication of the fun ahead.

A short distance up the drive we found the designated meeting area, a small visitors building. Suzanne and I made a fast dash in the rain to the porch. The rustic split cedar building provided us cover. There were drinks and food to snack on while we waited for our host. An outside fire pit and surrounding cedar wood chairs quietly beckoned Mother Nature to stop the rain. Soon, our host arrived to greet us along with the other two slightly soggy couples waiting for the tour. Instead of riding in an open wagon to the distillery as was the typical beginning of the tour on drier days, she asked us to follow her by car.  Eagerly we all jumped into our vehicles and like a wagon train from an old western movie, we headed up to the distillery single-file.

Once we reached our destination, our host rounded us up like a small lost herd of cows and led us to the grain hopper room. Here we learned about the definition of straight bourbon and the impeccable quality of the ingredients that go into their mash. After answering all our questions about the corn, wheat and barley, our host led us to the fermenting room. In the fermenting room, the master of the fermentation process (aka Master of the Mash) explained each step in making the fermented beer that is then sent to the distillation tower. After a short question and answer session, we left that building and proceeded to the distillation building. 

Climbing up a stairway to a large platform overlooking the distillation kettles, we observed the main distillation area. The operations manager addressed us and explained both the design of the equipment and the elements of the distillation process.  We were allowed the unique opportunity to taste the “white dog” (pure 160 proof alcohol) from the stills. After directions on how to sip the “white dog”, we all grabbed one of the little cups and very carefully sipped the clear liquid. We learned about the importance of the barreling of the bourbon and length of aging,then it was on to the bottling room.

As we stood in the bottle cleaning and filling area, we listened to the bottling manager explain the actual packaging process. The distillery blends and bottles their bourbon only twice a year. Today, as luck would have it, they were bottling product. Because the distillery has only a very small permanent staff, they use volunteers to help with the bottling as it is quite a production. Suzanne and other guests were given the opportunity to dip the filled bottles in wax as part of the packaging process. What a treat to help out! 

After this fun opportunity, we were ushered to the tasting room in an adjacent building.  This was the part I enjoyed the most; the tasting of the finished product! By putting tiny amounts of bourbon in your mouth and squishing it about, you could taste the various flavors imparted by the bourbon. The flavor was exquisite! The deal was closed. We purchased a bottle to take home … for medicinal purposes, of course.

This is a tour you will really enjoy. For us, the weather was uncooperative but the employees were friendly, informative and happy. You can sense their pride and enjoyment of their craft. For them to allow us to share a little time out of their work day and learn about the making of Texas bourbon was fantastic!

The Garrison Brothers Distillery is located at 1827 Hye Albert Road.  Reservations and a small fee are required for the tour, but I assure you that it’s well worth the extra effort. I hope you get a chance to visit the distillery and try their products as we have while traveling Texas Thru My Back Door!

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Raising Cane in East Texas

Ribbon cane has been a staple in East Texas since the mid 1800s. Those familiar with the East Texas country life probably have heard this phrase: “Pass the biscuits and ribbon cane syrup, please”. This phrase was probably the most frequently spoken phrase sitting around the table at my grandparent’s farm.  Their hearty traditional farm breakfast always included hot biscuits and ribbon cane syrup made in East Texas.  As thick as honey with a strong distinctive flavor, this syrup brings back many happy memories.

At one time, many farms throughout East Texas grew ribbon cane for their own use. An acre of sandy soil could produce enough ribbon cane to yield as much as 300 gallons of syrup. Once harvested, the cane was crushed with large rollers, usually powered by horses or mules, and the juice collected in barrels then fed into special 12 foot long cooking pans.  The long pans were divided into sections and the syrup would be cooked to a specific temperature and the waste skimmed off in each individual section down the length of the pan to produce the final product. Around the 1900s, most commercial cane operations in Texas were drying up.  By the 1950’s, only the old timers talked about making ribbon cane.  Excellent syrup making was considered an art and today that art is celebrated each year at the Heritage Syrup festival in Henderson, TX. The festival is held on the 2nd Saturday of November and includes syrup making demonstrations, folk art, and of course a chance to buy locally made ribbon cane syrup.  

Summer time is not the right season for finding fresh syrup, but AJ and I managed to score a possible source made on a farm in Garrison and sold at a small market in the tiny town of Timpson.  So armed with a challenge, we charted a course to Timpson  and began our journey up highway US 59 to find this stash of locally made ribbon cane syrup. 

Our first stop along our route was the “oldest town in Texas”, Nacogdoches.  This quaint historic town boasts that they have existed under 9 different flags over the course of the last 400+ years.  Although the city was home to Sam Houston for a short time, it’s most notable historic resident was Thomas Jefferson Rusk.  Thomas Jefferson Rusk was the first secretary of war in the Republic of Texas, a general at the battle of San Jacinto, and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the Republic.  He later went on to serve nearly a decade as a prominent US Senator.  Today, the Stephen F Austin University is located on part of his original homestead in Nacogdoches.

We toured the downtown area stopping at a few of the many antique stores and then it was on to lunch at CC’s Smokehouse.  This casual dining mainstay of the Nacogdoches area is really two restaurants in one with separate barbeque and steakhouse menus. There are even separate windows for placing your order.  We opted for the steak, frankly because we didn’t see the barbeque ordering window when we first walked in.  Although we both love our barbeque, the steak did not disappoint.  Juicy meat with excellent flavor and served Texas barbeque style along with tasty sides made the trip worthwhile.

We continued our trek along the highway with a quick stop at an antique store on the square in Garrison and continued on to Timpson. Once in Timpson, we spied the fortress that held our elusive prize, Miller’s Country Market.  The market, which opened last year, is owned and operated by a local Mennonite family. Mennonites are members of an anabaptist denomination that is often confused with the more conservative Amish church.  They carry fresh baked breads and locally made preserves, a variety of meats and cheeses, and a wide selection of Amish wedding products from Ohio.  The store hours are 9:00-5:30 Thursday and Friday and 9:00-4:30 on Saturday, so plan your trip for an early start if you are coming from the Houston area.

After all that driving, antique shopping, and eating did we find our quarry?  Indeed we did!  The next morning ribbon cane syrup gushed from the glass jar like a mud slide down a mountain side onto my prized homemade pancakes. Life is good, mmm mmm good in Texas Thru Our Back Door!

Join in our fight against breast cancer.  Visit Suzanne's new blog "My Equations for Life" as she reflects on life B.C. (before cancer) and A.D. (after diagnosis) and help support new early cancer detection research at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center with our Go Fund Me project below.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Angels Among Us

There’s an intriguing point of interest along the edges of Buffalo Bayou in Houston that some of you might find eerie, but most of you will find it inspirational. I’m referring to the Glenwood Cemetery. What’s so special about this particular cemetery?  In addition to its beauty and history, the fascination lies in who is buried there. I discovered this urban gem while researching historical figures for my book “The Second Coming-The Republic of Texas”.  Anson Jones, the last president of the Republic of Texas, committed suicide in Houston and was buried in Glenwood Cemetery. 

Located at 2525 Washington Avenue in Houston, Glenwood Cemetery was originally considered a rural location when it opened in 1872. How times have changed! And yet, as we entered the grounds of this romantic garden cemetery, the rolling landscape along the bayou immediately made us feel as though we had left the confines of the big city and landed in the French countryside. The curved roads and walkways through the trees along with the beautiful statues create a tranquil park-like atmosphere. In the middle of the cemetery is a beautiful cottage style building used as the office. Suzanne and I were both surprised and delighted with the beauty of this place.

In addition to Anson Jones, there are many other gravesites dating back to the Republic of Texas days. Also, there are four governors, over twenty Houston mayors along with numerous famous dignitaries of the Houston area buried there. You will be amazed at the names you will recognize!

Glenwood seems to be an invisible landmark in Houston, rich in Texas history. The artistry of the statues should not to be overlooked.  The famous Weeping Angel and the Avenging Angel are among the most well-known of the many angel statues throughout the property.  So put your paranormal fears away and visit this place of beauty. Here lies another Texas treasure Thru My Back Door!  Click to see many more beautiful photos.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Sign Up for Texas Flag Giveaway!

October 2, 1835 is the date many historians mark as the beginning of the Texas Revolution. To commemorate this important date in history, we are giving away a Texas state flag to be flown over the State Capitol on October 2, 2013. The 3’x5’ cotton flag, a personalized certificate authenticating that the flag was flown over the Texas Capitol and a presentation box will be given to the lucky winner.  To enter, submit your email address to “Flag Contest” located on the Texas Thru My Back Door web page. Contest ends on September 25, 2013 midnight.  Winner will be contacted for name and mailing address.  Thanks for y’alls support!

It was on this date, near the town of Gonzales, that the Texans took on the Mexican Army after refusing to give back a six pounder cannon that the Mexican government gave the settlers for protection from Comanche raids. This cannon became a battle cry for independence as the Texans made a simple homemade white flag with the words “Come and Take It”, a star, and a drawing of a cannon. By their act of defiance, the Texans sent a message to the central government of Mexico that they would not allow the government to disarm them.  A quote attributed to historian H. Yoakum in 1835 stated “Everyone who knows the Texans, or who as heard of them, would naturally conclude that they would never submit to be disarmed.  Any government that would attempt to disarm its people is despotic: and any people that would submit to it deserves to be slaves!”

Well, we know from history that the Texans lived up to their words by defeating Santa Anna and the Mexican army.  They kept their guns and the Republic of Texas was born! Visit the museum of Gonzales to see the cannon that started it all and learn more about Texas history as we see Texas Thru My Back Door!