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Balcones - The Spirit at the Heart of Texas

by Cat Spencer     18. December 2012 16:19

We at MoM Towers love whisky. Can’t get enough it. We also love the USA (yes, it’s true!), and we have a special place in our collective, malty heart for Craft Distillers. So, when we first heard about an American, whisky-producing craft distillery, our minds were blown. Blown, I tells ya! This was well before we even had a chance to behold the amazing beards of Chip Tate, Head Distiller at Balcones, and Jared Himstedt, the Production Manager at the Distillery. Once we saw what these chaps were sporting and making, we knew we would be hooked.

Chip Tate started up Balcones in 2008 and snatched the glory of producing the very first Texas whisky. Balcones is named for the fault line that runs through the south-western part of the state through Waco, Texas where the distillery is located. A dramatic illustrated interpretation of the Balcones Fault can be found in the logo and is truly representative of some of the flavour profiles found in their whiskies: ground-breaking and earth-quaking.

 

Balcones shakes up the whisky/whiskey world.

As Chip says, “The art of being spontaneous is what Balcones is trying to achieve.”—quite a statement for an industry so at the mercy of time and tradition. Chip approaches whisky making a bit like a punk rocker: he makes up his own rules, he’s fearless, and wants to create something with passion and conviction. He uses corn as the main base grain for his whisky (though Balcones has produced a single malt) which is a risky business. He has implemented methods which fly in the face of time-tested production styles. He’s definitely making something the likes of which you’ve never tried.

 

Punk. Rock. Whisky. Beard.

Risky Whisky

Corn is a big deal in the US. High-fructose corn syrup can be found in nearly every food, much of the US-raised livestock is grown with corn, and it’s a staple grain in many foods (corn flakes, corn chips, popcorn). Yeah, corn is a big deal.

There are a number of corn whiskeys produced in the US (it’s the direct descendant of moonshine), and it continues to grow in popularity. Buffalo Trace and Heaven Hill have even been producing their own corn whiskeys in recent years. Corn has a high sugar content making it an efficient grain to ferment. Early American farmers found they could make loads more money selling their corn as spirit than as the grain itself. Talk about your entrepreneurial spirit (Ba-dum-ching!)

Chip uses blue corn in some of his expressions (if you’ve never heard of this or tried it, you are missing out. Get involved, people.) which he toasts before adding it to the mash, lending a distinctive nuttiness to the final spirit. His is the ONLY distillery which uses this grain, though due to its deliciousness, one doubts he’ll be the last.

Blue corn makes a delicious tortilla chip. Not to be confused with “Chip”.

Corn also possesses a high oil content (especially blue corn), making it extremely flammable. This is risky business in whisky making as so much heat is applied to the grain during the production process (oil and heat?? Kablammo!). This is even more dangerous when you decide (as Chip did) to toast the blue corn before adding it to the mash. “As for the fire risk, yes, it is a distinct hazard connected to roasting corn.  Corn roast fires can be explosive. We do a lot of fire suppression here at Balcones. Making Brimstone is even worse.” Take that, Sid Vicious. 

Chip Tate poses with a Balcones still.

Smoke Wishes and Cask Dreams

As if it weren’t enough to buck trends by producing Blue Corn whiskies (just writing about it awakens the Cravings Demon), Chip uses non-traditional methods to impart flavours to his spirit. He neither chill-filters nor adds any colouring to his whisky—what you see is what you get, people. So where in the heck does all that lush colour and flavour come from?

Balcones uses charred American Oak as well as European Oak casks. Though regulation and tradition dictate that the casks should be ‘used’ (in the case of corn whisky; malt whisky requires new casks), Chip follows his own approach to ‘use’ the casks before maturing his new make. He simply chucks some spirit in a new, charred cask, rolls it around, chucks it out, and voila—he has produced a ‘used’ cask. “We have to be creative to meet regulation and still use used casks in the programme,” he said. Punk. Rock.

This cowboy method of prepping the cask allows for that “art of spontaneity” Balcones aims to achieve. It’s all about small batches, responsiveness, and creativity. If you’ve never been to Texas (or the American South) you might not know that the temperatures are scorching in the summer months with the mercury rising above 36 degrees. This is a far cry from the cool summers of the Highlands (and Lowlands and Islands) of Scotland—it’s almost like ageing whiskey in a microwave:  you simply cannot keep whisky in a cask for 18 years in Waco. One can see why all the expressions from Balcones are bottled without an age statement.

Of all the no-age-statement whiskies Balcones produces, only one is a smoky whisky—or should I say, a smoked whisky. Yes, whisky lovers, Chip does not add smoke during the grain-drying process. Nor does he impart a smoke flavour by ageing his whiskies in casks that have once held peated whiskies. No, siree! He’s got to buck as many trends as he possibly can! He smokes the new make, before maturation. Rock. Star.

Chip doesn’t use any old wood or plant matter to impart that delicious smokiness to Brimstone, the rich, spicy and smoky whisky from Balcones. He uses Texas Scrub Oak, a profoundly drought-resistant species of Quercas that is native to the Lone Star State. This imparts a distinctive smoke aroma and flavour reminiscent of the American West.

Quecus pungens var. vaseyana.

The Whiskies

If the Balcones story and methodology aren’t enough to blow your mind, the spirit surely will. These are drams you can still recall the following morning. Brimstone stayed on my brain for days. Drum roll, please…

Baby Blue — £59.61

Nose: Sweetness abounds with candy floss and apple pie. Corn oil and sweet grass come forward and the unmistakable aroma of Brach’s Candy Corn and Big Red chewing gum pervades without overpowering.

Palate: Very spicy and sweet with strong maple syrup undertones.

Finish: The cinnamon stays through the finish which is immensely bright and sweet—not spirit-y.

True Blue 100 — £67.29

This whisky is 100 proof and 100% Blue Corn. True Blue all the way.

Nose: Deep and rich spice with nutmeg and potpourri coming through. Vanilla ice cream with chocolate chip cookie dough engulf the spice and migrate to chocolate cake. Very buttery and Big Red returns with brown sugar in tow.

Palate: Sweet and soft on the palate with banana nut bread that gives over to freshly-baked spice cake.

Finish: Long, lingering, sweet, and smooth. Blue corn whisky is something special, indeed.

‘1’ Texas Single Malt

A single malt whisky from Texas? Single Malt Tex Whisky? You know what they say: don’t mess with Texas.

Nose: Freshly-baked banana bread with undertones of honey and vanilla and just the faintest hint of cedar wood at the back. Suggestions of roasted chestnuts and heavy cream.

Palate: Ester-y with apple and orchard fruits. Brown sugar makes an appearance and transforms into molasses.

Finish: Warm, woody spices and some breadiness, but not necessarily maltiness, completes this luscious single malt.

Brimstone — £66.43

The devil is in the detail, and this whisky does not disappoint with a secret method that gives the spirit its smokiness.

Nose: Maplewood smoke, a smokehouse, brush fires, a forest service cabin with a spent fire. It simply smells like the American West.

Palate: Rich, spicy, and smoky. Perfect for a barbecue or bonfire night. Certainly warming and cosy with a comforting sweetness.

Finish: This one will definitely stay with you until the campfire has long gone out.

Comments (2) -

1/8/2013 9:02:59 PM #

Speaking as someone who has tried a lot of American craft whiskies: Chip is making the most interesting and best tasting ones around today.  He really sweats the details of the quality of the wood in the bespoke casks, and he pays a lot of attention to maturation; which takes place at high heat in Waco Texas.  I'd go so far as to say that Balcones products are the most striking and successful examples of high heat maturation in the world of spirits.  Even more so that Amrut or Kavalan.  The Texas Single malt is full of pan cooked buttered brown sugar caramel and sandalwood oak.  True Blue is rich with bright citrusy sugars and earthy corn.  Brimstone is a titanic sweet and rich "wild west" smoke - redolent of the chaparral desert and dust.  Brimstone has a titanic finish.  You should put it after Octomore in tasting flights.  It pairs incredibly with chocolate (or BBQ) and makes a superb Old Fashioned.  Balcones is the best of the American craft whisky scene.  Chip Tate is a hirsute genius!

Josh Feldman United States

8/3/2013 10:49:08 AM #

I enjoy what you guys are usually up too. This sort of clever work and exposure! Keep up the terrific works guys I've added you guys to  blogroll.

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