At a Storied Bourbon Maker, She Represents a New Wave of Distillers
Samantha Olvera vividly remembers the first time she took a sip of bourbon. She was seven years old.
“My grandfather was an avid bourbon drinker,” she recalls, “and when he’d get in a fight with my grandmother, he’d retreat to the garage. We had a code: when he’d touch his nose, I’d know to go into the house and sneak the bottle of bourbon to him.”
One time Popo, as she called him, offered her a sip. “It was horrible,” she says with a laugh. After swallowing the bourbon she asked, “Popo, why do you drink that stuff?” Luckily, Olvera give bourbon another shot a decade and a half later. “I liked it much, much better,” she says.
Even then, becoming a bourbon distiller wasn’t necessarily part of Olvera’s life plan. She was in college studying respiratory therapy when, you could say, the spirit moved her.
While working in a bar to help pay rent, she’d serve drinks to workers getting off their shifts at Garrison Brothers, the family-owned distillery just a few miles away in Hye, Texas. She was impressed that they’d order the company’s products even though they’d just spent all day working around bourbon. They told her more: that their employer was the oldest bourbon distillery in Texas, that it was the first to acquire a permit to make bourbon outside of Kentucky and Tennessee. Of course, the brand’s rich, delicious product left a mark too.
Then, a door opened. “The hospitality manager at the time told me they were hiring and said I’d be perfect for the job after watching me run a busy bar solo on a Wednesday live music night,” she says. “I was hired on to the hospitality team that same week I applied.”
“Everything changed that first day on the job when they were teaching me the bourbon-making process,” she says. “It blew my mind that bourbon is essentially just grains, yeast, water, and yet it’s so complex and delicious. That day they created a monster, and I couldn’t turn back. It was that moment I knew I wanted to become a distiller.” It was there at Garrison Brothers she learned the trade and graduated from tours focused on their bourbon to making it.
Not that making it is easy. “We have a saying, ‘Everyone wants to make bourbon until it’s time to make bourbon.’ People think we are just partying and drinking bourbon.” But Olvera, who has been at Garrison Brothers for seven years now, adds, “There’s never been a day that I dreaded going to work. I love being there.”
You can see and hear that love when Olvera starts to talk about Garrison Brothers’ celebrated bourbon and what goes into it. “I’ve never tasted anything similar to our bourbon,” she says, lighting up about how the terroir of Texas affects the flavor of the whiskey. “It has to do with the Texas heat that speeds up the aging process. We don’t have four seasons. There are two: hot and cold.” These extremes mean Garrison Brothers uses a thicker kind of barrels than distillers in the East. The result is a bourbon as bold as the Texas weather with deep hints of butterscotch, smokiness, and a powerful finish.
But there’s more to Olvera’s story than falling in love with a craft and its product. As a woman distiller—and a Latina one at that—she’s proof that the world of whiskey is evolving.
Twenty-five years ago, 15 percent of U.S. whiskey drinkers were women. Today, that number has grown to nearly 40 percent. Things are changing inside the distilleries too, where women like Olvera are becoming a common sight.
But it hasn’t been an easy journey for women entering this historically male-dominated world. “In the past, when men have heard me talk about bourbon with the knowledge I’ve gained while working at Garrison Brothers… there’s this attitude where people might think that I don’t know what I’m talking about because I’m a woman,” Olvera says. “Even at a bar, when someone overhears me order a bourbon, they look at me like, what are you doing?”
Olvera is doing her part to change that attitude by “supporting other women and creating a culture of support within the industry.” In addition to personally advising women looking to break into the field, she cofounded the Texas chapter of Bourbon Women. The national organization promotes the libation to women, educates them on the drink, and showcases and supports the rising generation of women distillers.
“When I first started seven years ago, there weren’t any courses or information to access in terms of making bourbon like there are now,” says Olvera. Examples of these easily accessible bourbon resources include the American Craft Spirit Association’s online webinars and offerings from Moonshine University in Louisville. “We’ve really advanced in this industry as far as education goes,” she says.
She continues, “Growing up in south Texas everyone either worked in the medical field, law enforcement or at the military base. Even though I went to school in the medical field I knew deep down it wasn’t my calling. Being a Latina, and being in the alcohol industry, I have been asked by people of all ethnicities if I’ve ever considered making tequila… That’s not my calling either. ”
Fortunately, her male colleagues at Garrison Brothers been incredibly supportive. “I love the guys I work with,” Olvera says. “The company is truly family-oriented, and that’s hard to find that these days.”
While it’s taking time for men across the industry to get used to the sight of Olvera and other women in distilleries, the two people most surprised by her trajectory are closer to home. “It took my parents a while to grasp that this is what I wanted to do,” she says. “The first thing they said was: ‘your grandfather would be very proud of you.’”
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