Bourbon 101

Words: Harrison Civick
Photos: JoMando Cruz

Tuesday nights are typically reserved for the humdrum—running errands, folding laundry, lounging on the couch, and watching reruns. So when the invitation to a Garrison Brothers-led bourbon tasting in a dark, seemingly clandestine hotel bar presented itself, how could we decline? And why would a beer magazine be writing about whiskey? The short answer is another question: Who doesn’t love whiskey?

In case you weren’t aware, the folks at Hotel Havana have recently been taking advantage of their charming underground cocktail lounge to organize some unique drinking experiences. The historic hotel (originally opened in 1914 by grocer Edward Franz Melcher as a guest home for his customers) has seen a lot in its years planted next to the San Antonio River Walk. From fires, ownership changes, and even an infamous FBI sting in the early 2000s, Hotel Havana has earned its listing in the National Register of Historic Places.

Descending the candlelit stairs to the basement bar brought us face-to-face with Dayton A. Vause, the Bourbon Evangelist for Garrison Brothers. Dayton’s cowboy hat, grayed beard, and bottle stash gave him visual credibility for the whiskey sermon he was about to preach. The attendees eagerly waited to listen, learn, and taste while Dayton poured the final samples for the Bourbon 101 presentation. The room was crowded with aficionados and novices alike, and he placed three Glencairn glasses before every guest. 

The Glencairn glass is the official drinking vessel for whiskey tastings and judging competitions around the world due to its tapered mouth that allows you to properly smell all of the nuances a given whiskey has to offer. The glasses contained samples of Garrison Brothers’ Cowboy Bourbon, a barrel proof much smoother than the 135 proof would lead you to believe; Balmorhea, a double-barrel bourbon on the sweeter side; and a 2018 vintage bourbon that’s seen limited production. 

Apart from being an employee of Garrison Brothers Distillery and close friend of the founder since childhood, Dayton has been around whiskey his entire life. Dayton shared stories about sneaking into his mother’s liquor cabinet as a kid no matter how many locks she enlisted. He led the tasting while providing a thorough history about whiskey as a whole and bourbon in particular. He spoke of the smoke and mirrors that is the whiskey world, including disguised vodka blended with a little bit of whiskey to make a bastard drink, hidden product sourcing, and unclear age statements. Dayton equipped the group with knowledge for their next trip to the bottle shop. We in particular left with a palate prepared for any tasting and a thirst to take on the world—er, bar.

From new spirit offerings, a revamped drink menu, and a dedication to maintaining the historic significance of Hotel Havana while remaining fresh, we are witnessing a burgeoning new night life at the Havana Bar. We greatly appreciate the invitation to this Bourbon 101 tasting and look forward to many more of these special events.