Who Says Kids Can’t Dream of Becoming a Master Distiller?
When Donnis Todd was eight years old, he stood on a stage at his elementary school in Marblehead, Ohio, as his classmates announced to a packed auditorium of doting parents what they wanted to be when they grew up. “I want to be a police officer,” one of his classmates declared. Another said he wanted to be a fireman and the one after that said she wanted to be an astronaut. Todd was nervous. He had a dilemma. Should he lie and, like his classmates, pick a more conventional profession—or reveal what he really wanted to do with his life? When it was his turn to speak, he cleared his throat and bravely announced, “I’m Donnis Todd and when I grow up I want to make corn whiskey like my grandpa.”
Consider it destiny or just a lucky coincidence, but today Donnis Todd is a grown-up who happens to make corn whiskey. And not just any ol’ whiskey. He’s the master distiller at lauded Garrison Brothers Distillery in Hye, Texas, a family-owned and operated company. The brand was given the first distillers’ permit in America outside of Kentucky and Tennessee, making it the oldest legal bourbon distillery in Texas.
“I wanted to be a distiller because of the stories that my grandfather told,” says Todd, who learned how to make whiskey from his grandfather during junior and senior high school. “I would egg him on to repeat his stories if there were new people around. I fell in love with the stories he told about distilling, even though I knew they would become increasingly fabricated—stories about how he supposedly invented the harvester combine he used, and so on.”
Todd’s path to making great Texas bourbon involved a lot of twists and turns. He joined the Air Force in 1998 and ended up stationed for a couple of years in Japan and South Korea. But that didn’t shake his lifelong desire to be a distiller. During his free time, he’d show up at local distilleries, hoping he could learn how to be a better distiller. “There’s a universal language there, so when I was in Japan and Korea, I began learning more about the distilling process by simply hanging out there. They would say ‘there’s that American guy who won’t go away,’” Todd says. He ended up learning a ton. “The distilleries had over a hundred years of fermentation logs and were very detailed in their documentation of every batch,” he says. “It was a powerful tool to look back at and I applied this same method here at Garrison Brothers. So now we have 14 years of fermentation logs; basically every batch is documented.”
As for how Todd got to Texas, chalk it up to the legendary Texan pride. “Everywhere I went in the world, it was always the Texans who’d be waving their state flag around,” he says. “You never see people from Ohio or Iowa waving their state flag. That’s when I knew I wanted to be on their team.”
So in 2007, when he noticed a company called Lone Star LLC had applied for a distillers license, he traveled down to Hye, Texas, and ingratiated himself with the owner, Dan Garrison. “I went up to him and said, ‘Hey Dan, I’m Donnis Todd and I’m going to make your bourbon for you.’ He said he didn’t have any money to hire a distiller at the moment and I said, ‘You’re a smart guy. You’ll figure it out.’” Garrison finally did figure it out. A few months later Todd was back as Garrison Brothers’ official master distiller. “I like to think he finally wised up and gave me a job,” laughs Todd.
And how did Todd put a taste of Texas in Garrison Brothers’ bourbon? The deep and complex flavor, with butterscotch, vanilla and oak notes, is Lone Star to the core. “Texas definitely influences the flavor of our whiskey,” he says. “It’s hot here. And we have huge weather swings. People think it’s 100 degrees every day and that’s just not true. I think that plays a part in the production of bourbon. Our grains—the corn, wheat, and barley—are local to us and everything is grown here in Texas.”
But it’s not just the Texas climate and landscape, his grandfather’s distilling guidance, and the knowhow he picked up in Japan and Korea that inform Todd’s distilling philosophy. There’s a touch of his Midwestern kindness and Texas’ famous proclivity for courtesy and respect too. Case in point: Todd personally knows the farmers who make Garrison Brothers’ grains. “I know the sacrifices they’ve made. I even know their dogs’ names. And because of that I’m going to be extra careful and sincere with their product.”
And let’s not forget about American pride. “When I was a kid, I read one line about bourbon that sold me on it forever,” says Todd. “That line is: ‘the distinct product of the United States of America.’ When I first heard that, I thought, what a powerful statement. My dad served in the military. My brother was a Marine. My brother-in-law was in the Army. We are a proud American family. I want to make a distinct product of the United States of America.”
Now, just like his grandfather, Donnis Todd is the one telling all the great stories.
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