A Culture of “Fessin’ Up” About Mistakes at Garrison Brothers Distillery

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I don't think I shared this episode of “My Favorite Mistake” here, but this was an episode with some people I really like and respect. They are Dan Garrison, founder of Garrison Brothers Distillery, and Donnis Todd, their master distiller.

Donnis Todd and Dan Garrison on Their “Favorite Mistakes” in Making and Selling Texas Bourbon Whiskey

Beyond that episode, I have two new stories that I share below in this post.

They both talked about a culture of “fessin' up about mistakes,” which is a very Texas-y way of putting it.

Here are a few quotes and excerpts:

there's something about your character growing when you own up to your mistakes

Dan Garrison has always been willing to give me the time to learn from my mistakes. He's been very, very patient with me.

Donnis tells a story about establishing that culture:

“I'd like to just share something with you that I implemented about a decade ago was that we were going to own up to all of the mistakes we make and believe it or not. We make quite a few here and sometimes it costs us a lot of money and we've had things where folks have stuck the forks through a building and burned up a pump. And the reason that I wanted to, to implement this and I did implement it was I didn't want to get caught, not knowing that a piece of equipment wasn't ready, available to me and be surprised and then not have what I needed.

So on your next visit, as you walk around the distillery, if you happen to see someone's initials to where the hide's knocked off of something, you'll understand, and what we did, we said, we're going to own up to our mistakes. We're going to get the group together and say, Hey, I just burned this up because I didn't open this valve. And we're going to learn from that mistake and we're going to get that pump replaced. So when the next person needs it it's ready, available. And the learnings from implementing this has been huge. My team we're we're much closer or much tighter. We all have matured and grown up so much.

There is just, there's something about your character growing when you own up to your mistakes. And we've just learned so much from it. I didn't expect all of that, but just the personal growth and the growth of my team.”

In the episode, Donnis tells a story about a mistake he made over-aging some whiskey to the point where yields were very very low, due to “angel's share” loss. Here's that story in a nutshell:

“My favorite mistake to date at Garrison Brothers, and it would be this chunk of 100 barrels that I filled in 2012. And in 2015, they were a little over three, three and a half years old, 15 gallon barrels. And I absolutely loved them. The bourbon was small batch quality, and I should have used those barrels right then and there. But I did not.

I literally lost 3000 bottles of bourbon that I should have just used in '15. So it, it hurt. It hurt financially. It hurt my pride to make such a stupid mistake.”

I'm glad (as is Donnis) that Dan didn't fire Donnis over a mistake like that. It was a learning opportunity and he's unlikely to make that same mistake again, at least on that scale.

Benefitting From a Mistake

Sometimes, we benefit from mistakes that we make — or mistakes made by others.

A few months back, I heard Donnis tell a story about a mistake made by their corn supplier. They originally used yellow corn from Texas to make their bourbon, and most distillers use yellow corn.

One day, a large truck pulled up to make the delivery and, upon inspection, Donnis noticed that it was white corn.

He called the company to let them know and they told him to just keep it. It wasn't worth trucking back.

“Hey, free corn!” was his reaction and, as a startup, you need to save money where you can.

So, he experimented with the white corn. And that turned out REALLY well — to the point that Garrison Brothers uses, exclusively, this organic, food-grade white corn to make their bourbons.

This corn pictured below has been dried inside of a display bottle for a number of years:

I just purchased and started reading a new book on Texas Whiskey that includes that story — the details are a little bit different, so maybe I misremembered how Donnis told it (my mistake) or his misremembered some details (his mistake):

A Recent Mistake That I Did NOT Benefit From

Back in 2014, my wife and I joined a membership club that Garrison Brothers offers. We get to attend an annual “Bourbon Camp” event and we're looking forward to going back in a few weeks after last year's event was canceled to due Covid.

That first day, in September of 2014, we were able to fill a barrel — pumping freshly distilled bourbon in a barrel that I then hammered shut (putting a “bung” in the “bung hole”) of the barrel and we then got to sign our names to it.

Mark hammering the bung into the bung hole

At the time, Texas liquor laws didn't allow us to plan on purchasing the aged contents of said barrel down the road.

We were promised the empty barrel back when it was done being used. I could use it as a side table or something.

But, liquor laws changed to our advantage a few years later, and we could then look forward to a day when we could bottle the contents and then purchase those bottles.

We tasted a sample after five years. Many of the Garrison Brothers whiskeys are sold after three or four years of aging. The aging is accelerated by the Texas temperature swings and heat.

Donnis agreed with us that our barrel could age another year without becoming overaged. Apparently the barrel was being aged in a cooler part of the warehouses. The risk in waiting another year was that we'd lose more “angel's share” and we'd have fewer bottles yielded from the barrel.

We were planning to bottle it during Bourbon Camp 2020, after six years, but, again, Covid. Donnis sent a sample to us via one of their reps and it still tasted great. But it could wait until Bourbon Camp 2021, we decided. We wanted to have a hand in bottling our special barrel, including dipping the wax (as I blogged about here).

But back to the barrel. When I was checking in with Donnis about the plans for our barrel, he said he had to go get it, as it was behind a bunch of barrels. I wasn't there, this was just an email exchange.

Last week, I woke up to a shocking email from Donnis. He was moving a “600 pound French oak barrel” and it fell, landing on and destroying our barrel.

That meant, of course, that the contents are lost.

The “angels” are even happier with that additional “angel's share.” We have some drunk angels, somebody please go check on them.

Our barrel, rest in pieces

Now, even though my wife and I are super disappointed by this news, we're glad that nobody got hurt. That's the main thing.

There's an economic loss to the distillery, so I know Donnis and Dan feel terrible about this for a number of reasons.

It's not worth getting upset about. If this is the worst thing that happened to me this month, my life is good.

They've offered to let us bottle and purchase the barrel that was filled just before ours. The number on the barrel is one lower. That means the distillate is from the same batch. It was being aged right next to our barrel. So, the whiskey that results would be pretty much exactly the same, except for any variation in the two barrels, the charring, and the flavors that would be imparted.

We might take them up on that offer. We might also “start again” with a newly-filled barrel. We were patient for seven years, we can be patient again.

Either way, I know they won't make the same mistake twice. Donnis fessed up to it — and they'll learn from it.

I appreciate their integrity. I mean, they could have lied and said that our barrel was a “leaker” so they had to put it into a different barrel and that our original signed barrel got lost. I didn't like hearing the truth, but, again, I'm glad they “fessed up.”

I will also tell this story in Episode #29 of the “Lean Whiskey” podcast, being released on Friday.

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Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker who has worked in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. His latest book is Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More. He is author of the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, as well as The Executive Guide to Healthcare Kaizen. He also published the anthology Practicing Lean that benefits the Louise H. Batz Patient Safety Foundation, where Mark is a board member. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.

4 Comments
  1. Samer says

    Just got my first bottle of Garrison Brothers based on them being in Texas (support local) & the great reviews. This just makes me want to support them more. That’s a really hard culture to implement, as employees worry about repercussions, but I love that they stand by their team and are open and honest with their team and vice versa and their customers.

    1. Mark Graban says

      Cheers! Or as Dan likes to say, “Salud!”

      I hope you enjoy their bourbon. I really enjoy their product… and the people and the place.

  2. Devin says

    I was not familiar with Garrison Brothers prior to reading about them here, but I am glad to know them now! Great to hear about a young company acknowledging mistakes and taking the necessary steps to avoid them in the future. Not to mention adapting and leveraging the mistakes of others in the case of the white corn delivery. Just subscribed to the podcast on Spotify!

    1. Mark Graban says

      Thanks for reading and for subscribing, Devin!

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