Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Have just tried - Balcones whisky

Balcones is an American distillery that is gaining plenty of recognition and attention at the moment.  It is based in Waco, Texas and was built by hand by founder Chip Tate with the help of his two other distillers.  Since the first product was launched in 2009, the distillery has racked up over 25 national and international awards for their whiskies including the prestigious Whisky Magazine Icons of Whisky - Craft Distiller of the Year award in 2012.

Before founding Balcones, Tate was a professional brewer and brewing consultant around the USA.  He then decided to tap in to his curiosity about the use of natural local ingredients and set up a craft distillery.  In 2008 he went to Islay along with two of his team to train under Jim McEwan, the legendary master distiller at Bruichladdich.  Following that, Tate and his team returned to Waco and hand built the distillery which including some equipment which was purchased on eBay.

The distillery is now one of the most highly awarded craft distilleries in the world and is producing the first whisky produced in Texas since the Prohibition period.  The Balcones range of Texan whiskies is now finally available in the UK and has continued to win awards.  It is available through selected specialist whisky retailers.  We were lucky enough to try three of them recently and our tasting notes are below.


Balcones Baby Blue
This is one of the most innovative products produced at Balcones - it is made from a roasted blue corn meal called atole.  This is boiled in to a thick porridge which is then fermented and distilled.  It is the first blue corn whisky in the world and was the first product ever released by the distillery back in 2009.  It is bottled at 46% ABV and is priced at £57.

The colour is a pale gold and the nose is full of initial heavy notes of butterscotch and vanilla.  Then comes an interesting mix of toasted nuts, buttered toast, sweet cereals and honey.  On the palate, this feels thinner than expected from the nose and the flavour profile is driven by the sweet, creamy cereals, vanilla and honey.  Some pleasant late wood spice (think of cinnamon and nutmeg) add depth and complexity, as do hints of icing sugar, coconut and dried grass.  The finish is relatively short and has a spicy warming quality (think of nutmeg and red chili) that lingers.  The initial sweetness disappears quickly leaving a drying, grainy feeling.

Balcones Brimstone
This is a rarity amongst American whiskies in that it is smoky.  However, we are not talking about traditional whisky smokiness originating from peat at the malted barley stage, but the whisky is infused with smoke from a fire made from Texas scrub oak chippings.  This makes it the world's first wood smoked whisky.  Interesting.  It is bottled at 53% ABV and priced at £65.

The colour is a dark orangey brown and the nose is pungent and highly fragrant.  There is an instant hit of bitter woody smoke which is reminiscent of those hickory chippings that you throw on to a barbeque.  Underneath are notes of sweet cereals, burnt caramel and something medical (think of surgical bandage).  On the palate, this has an instantly savoury feeling that has plenty of meaty, leathery notes that mix with some woody drying elements (imagine some toasted cinnamon bark) and lapsang souchong tea.  The intense bonfire-like smokiness is never far away and allows very little else through.  With time some much needed sweeter caramel and toffee notes come through as does a hint of orange.  The finish is long with the smoky wood smoke and lapsang souchong tea the leading notes that linger on and on.  Interesting but very strange stuff.

Balcones No.1 Texas Single Malt
The first ever Texan whisky to be made from 100% malted barley and labeled as single malt.  Named as the No.1, this is the most highly awarded of any Balcones product and is the premium product in the current range.  It is bottled a strength of 52.7% ABV and priced at £75 a bottle.

The colour is a dark golden yellow with a hint of amber.  The nose is very grassy (think of dried hay especially) and full of bittersweet malty cereal aromas.  Further notes of caramelised almonds, yeast, damp paper, burnt butter and orange oil develop to add depth.  On the palate, this grips the taste buds with the bittersweet cereal notes leading the way.  There is a treacle-like background note that compliments flavours of toasted nuts, spiced orange and warm buttered toast.  Some late woodiness (imagine cinnamon bark and nutmeg) add some late spice and dryness.  The finish is on the short side with a burnt sugary note developing in to distinct malty and woody notes.  Very drying in the end.

What's the verdict?
It is exciting to finally try some of the Balcones range after hearing and reading so many rave reviews about the whiskies coming out of the distillery.  However, it seems that these reviews and hype have created a problem that has manifested itself in a slight feeling of disappointment after tasting them.  They are certainly all very interesting, well made and show plenty of potential, but something seems slightly lacking in a similar way to most young new Scotch whiskies.  Maybe for us they could simply never have lived up to the hype that has been created around them?

We are clearly in the minority here though and so many highly regarded commentators cannot be wrong.  We cannot wait to see what Balcones try next or to try some more of their products.  They are at the fore front of the American, if not the world's, micro/craft distillery movement and the boom that has been created. This movement is one of the best things to happen in the whisky industry in recent years and has added so many diverse and historic products to the category.  That can only be a good thing.


Miguel said...

I have five samples at home of Balcones and they are now on the pipeline to be tasted over this holiday period. As you point I have only read great things about them. Hope not to be disappointed...

I have two samples of the Single Malt bottled at different strengths, is it result of small batches or what?

Anonymous said...

I am on my 5th tasting of Balcones. Having had Brimstone, Baby Blue, Texas Single Malt, Rumble, and Texas Blue Corn Bourbon. My two favorites are The Texas Single Malt followed by Baby Blue. The Butterscotch taste of the Baby Blue is definitely distinctive and very enjoyable. I wish I could determine why I prefer the Texas Single Malt but it's difficult to pinpoint. The finish seems to linger and is very enjoyable. As for all the hype, I do think they (Balcones) are on to something. Are there better Whiskies? Undoubtedly, since this is an individual's taste response. At this point, in my opinion Balcones Single Malt remains my favorite among all the Whiskies I've enjoyed, followed closely by Blanton's, Glenlivet, Auchentoshan 10 yr. Just My Humble Opinion as a novice whisky drinker.