PACKED TO THE BRIM: To extract the flavor and provide the best flavor, Balcones keeps its whisky in oak barrels for a set amount of time before deeming them ready to serve.
Whether its the oak from the barrel or undertones of corn and butterscotch, Balcones Distilling will give you a flavor that will make you come back for more.
Story By Lukas Reyes
Photos By Gillian Taylor
The rustic interior of the nearly 100-year-old brick building gives off a homey feeling when you walk into Balcones Distilling. The warm earth tones match its vibe, layered and accentuated by years of aging that give it a charisma unmatched by the new and flashy. Such is their whiskey, as well.
In 2009, Balcones released Baby Blue, which reinvigorated a centuries-old tradition of Texas whiskey making and distilling, cut short with the Prohibition in 1919. The first Texas-made whiskey in 90 years went on to win countless awards, including double-gold at the San Francisco World Spirits competition. The reason lies within the flavor and what it says about craft spirits in Texas.
Nick Fagner is a bartender in the Balcones tasting room but refers to his job as “multipurpose” because he educates his customers on the intricacies of the whiskey they try and thus sees himself as a salesperson as well.
“Baby Blue is actually a corn whiskey. It’s made from a 100% roasted blue corn, grown in Texas. That roasted blue corn has a lot of nutty characteristics in it,” Fagner said. “In my opinion, the most highlighted flavor is this kind of nutty butterscotch and roasted corn flavor.”
The process of integrating these flavors takes time. The distilled alcohol requires years of aging in wooden barrels to properly mature and take on its desired flavors. Waco’s weather, unpredictable to say the least, presents its own challenges. As temperatures fluctuate, so does the rate of maturation of the whiskey, according to Dustin Patterson, a production manager at Balcones.
“Temperature swings here are great. It gets really hot, and sometimes it gets really cold, and sometimes that happens within the same week. The heat will force the spirit into the wood, into the pores of the wood, and will pick up wood sugar,” Patterson said. “Cold will kind of squeeze that spirit out of the staves, back into the inside part of the barrel with the rest of the liquid. And it will bring with it all those flavor compounds.”
After enough time, the barrel-encased whiskeys are ready to be used. Depending on their flavor profile, barrels with different whiskeys will get mixed together to create a new product or to continue an existing whiskey line. The process of blending is essential to whiskey production and establishes continuity of taste, while allowing for experimentation.
“The vast majority of people are looking for a specific label, a specific brand that they know they like, and they know they trust. And they know that when they buy a bottle of it, they’re going to get the same things they liked from the last bottle,” Patterson said. “The goal of our blending team is to ensure the highest quality whiskey, but a consistent high-quality whiskey.”
Balcones Distilling has eight available whiskeys on the market that are produced all year round as a part of their Classics collection. Additionally, there are 13 whiskeys that are either annual releases or single releases. Fagner’s personal favorite of the Balcones whiskeys is the Texas Single Malt, produced with Scottish barley and aged in new oak barrels.
“I get a lot of pear and apple. Just kind of different tree fruits. It’s really nice, and I think it comes from the grain itself,” Fagner said. “It’s so smooth, it goes down really easy, and it mixes well too if you want to have an old-fashioned or any type of Manhattan.”
Reflecting the uniqueness of Texas in their whiskeys is very important to Balcones Distilling. One of the ways Balcones does this is by ensuring that most of their ingredients are Texan. Their bourbon and rye are exclusively made with Texas grain, and aside from their flagship Texas Single Malt Whiskey, all the other barley used for their spirits is home grown.
The Texas influence is most noticeable in Brimstone, their smoked whiskey. Made with Texas scrub oak, the burnt-orange color liquor embodies one of the pillars of The Lone Star State: barbecue. This, paired with hints of fruit, will make any Texan feel at home. Flavors such as these are a result of experimentation, which is a key part of the creation of new whiskeys, and the refinement of older releases.
“We do a lot a lot of experimentation, and so sometimes, we’ll do an experiment not knowing what’s going to come and not knowing if we’re going to turn it into anything,” Patterson said. “We don’t have a ‘recipe’ for anything yet. We’re still constantly tweaking and constantly steering the spirit.”
Moving forward, Balcones Distilling looks to keep this high standard for their products and to introduce new spirits to their selection. In doing so, they hope to expand their customer base and to retain their current customers.
“Balcones is a homegrown operation, and now we’re international. And we love what we do and we’re happy to spread the gospel of Texas whiskey,” Fagner said.