Why Balcones’ Texas-Style Bourbon Deserves a Place in Your Bar
Waco-based distillery Balcones is inspired by Texan grains, Scotch and craft beer
“Wow, that was really fun!”
A fellow media member is sampling (and thoroughly enjoying) a cask-strength Texas Rye, one of the many standout whiskies at Balcones Distilling.
Based in Waco, TX — about two long hours from Dallas and home to Baylor University and endless mentions of real-estate reality show Fixer Upper — Balcones is part of a growing number of Texan distilleries that are making waves outside their home state.
Now in its 11th year, Balcones are the makers of the first legally sold Texas-made whiskey since Prohibition. While there was some turbulence during the growth, the craft distillery has racked up hundreds of awards in its first decade, most recently earning Brand Innovator of the Year and Master Distiller of the Year shortlist accolades at the 2019 Icons of Whisky America Awards.
We flew down to the distillery earlier this year for Texas Independence Day, during which fellow whiskey fans trekked hundreds of miles to sample all the tipples offered by the brand — a necessity, since Balcones is constantly releasing special editions and doing (very) limited runs, meaning that finding an expression outside of the core corn, single-malt and rye releases can be an issue if you don’t live in central Texas.
With that scarcity in mind, this early March weekend day also marked the release of Balcones Texas Pot Still Bourbon, an under-$30 bottle of whiskey that’s joined brand’s nationwide lineup. Crafted with a mash bill of roasted blue corn, Texas wheat, Texas rye and malted barley, the new release is distilled in Forsyth pot stills, aged for 24 months in new charred oak barrels, and bottled at 92 proof.
It’s an extremely approachable tipple, with kettle corn and graham cracker on the nose, honey, sweet cream and candied pecans on the palate and a soft finish. It’s also a nice, affordable showcase for the brand’s Texas heritage and the thought process that goes into each Balcones release.
Over two days in Waco and through a follow-up email interview, we spoke with the Balcones team about their surprising non-whiskey background, their Texas roots and why the brand takes more of its inspiration from Scotch and beer than American whiskey.
InsideHook: It seems like most of the Balcones staff has a beer background. How has that helped the distillery come up with new products?
Jared Himstedt (Head Distiller): Our distillery manager (Thomas Mote) has professional brewing experience in Portland, and a bunch of us come from home-brewing backgrounds and beer distribution way before we got into whisky. None of us have ever worked in distilling before, and it’s been a crazy ride of self-education and exploration to get here. The beer background has helped us ask some questions and try some approaches to whisky-making that were a bit divergent from traditional methods. There is an old-school model of making whisky where distilleries create a flagship whisky and then a few special release variants on that main product. But we’re more influenced by the craft beer approach to the year, with seasonal and constant new releases; we have a pretty large number of core products, annual releases and one-offs that happen every year. It makes our job that much more interesting and more complicated at the same time.
Thomas Mote (Distillery Manager): Now things have come full circle in that we’re in the early steps of adding a small 5 BBL brewery to our distillery where we will make beer primarily for on-site consumption. Beer will be available on-site and draft-only for the foreseeable future, but we will likely do growler fills for customers that want to take Balcones Beer to go.
IH: Blue corn is part of your bourbon mash bill. What does that bring to the table?
Thomas Mote: It has a slightly deeper toasty/nutty quality than yellow or white corn. Of equal importance to our flavor profile is the fact that the blue corn we use is actually roasted before we mash it. This gives an additional layer and depth to the toasty quality of the grain and when we mash in the blue corn, it smells like a tortilla factory in the brewhouse. It’s glorious.
IH: During my visit, one of the Balcones guys told me, jokingly, that your business MO is “being curious and not knowing what we’re doing; we have a healthy dose of ignorance and arrogance.”
Jared Himstedt: When we started making whisky we were probably naively confident and just uninformed enough to not just replicate how everyone else does things. Our exploration is always rooted in curiosity more than any intention to trail blaze or differentiate ourselves.
IH: What separates Balcones from other independent whiskey distilleries?
Jared Himstedt: Our blending process is one of the most immersive that I’ve seen. The intense level of interaction and assessment that goes into putting and bottling together is exhaustive. We try almost endless combinations of barrels to achieve the best blend we can with what we have. We never blend by numbers or just dump from a date range.
Thomas Mote: I don’t know anyone else that puts the same level of emphasis that we do on oak. Our barrels are customized to an almost extreme degree to pull the flavors we want in our whiskies in a 2-4 year period. They’re “normal” in their construction, but have a much finer degree of control in the toasting process that most distilleries don’t put much thought into.
All of our production is done 100% on pot stills made by Forsyths in Scotland and a lot of our fermentation/distillation parameters are much more similar to Scottish-style malt whisky production than American-style bourbon production.
IH: You guys have produced some unusual products, like single malts in rum casks and something called Rumble (a fermented Texas wildflower honey, Mission figs and turbinado sugar spirit) over the years. How does that come about?
Winston Edwards (Brand Ambassador): We’ll be enjoying something, and at some point we’re like “Wait a minute, we can make this, we have a distillery!” Same thing with our rye — we were drinking rye, and we thought, why have we never done this before? We have an idea, and we’ll get on it really quickly.
IH: What’s your relationship with other Texas distilleries?
Jared Himstedt: I’ve known and worked with many of the Texas distillers for years. We have a great community that is only getting more united and cohesive. For a long time it felt like we were all on our own islands, and with the Texas Whisky Association picking up steam [note: Jared is the association’s first president] we are finally enjoying the growing category together. The possibilities for future collaboration is super exciting.
IH: What was the thought process behind Texas Pot Still Bourbon?
Winston Edwards: We’re what we call a big small distillery; we’d have people come here and say “I want to try your bourbon” and we’d say, “Oh, we’re out right now.” We didn’t have a core bourbon, just specialty releases we had once a year. We wanted to make something inclusive and accessible, and also reasonably priced. Not everyone can afford a $55 corn whiskey.
IH: If I’m a whiskey drinker who’s never tried Balcones, what’s your pitch?
Winston Edwards: Balcones is a brand that embodies every distillers dream: spirit made without compromise. Every detail has been obsessed over, from the flavor-dense grains we start each spirit with, down to the way we filter the whisky for maximum enjoyment. We are a distillery that’s made its name on big flavors and big ideas, translating the tastes of Texas into critically acclaimed products recognized around the world. Our aim has been, and always will be, to make the best whisky we can.
The 5 Balcones Expressions You Should Try:
Texas Pot Still Bourbon: A grain-to-glass beauty, this is your everyday sipper and (affordable) bourbon for cocktails.
Brimstone: Smoked corn whiskey with Texas scrub oak. “Like peat, but barbecue-y,” as Edwards puts it.
Wheated Bourbon: Maybe Balcones’ most approachable release, this one is both creamy and sweet.
Texas Single Malt Rum Cask Finished: A single malt aged in the same casks that held the brand’s initial foray into rum, this limited-edition cask-strength release is the best of all worlds.
Texas Rye 100 Proof: Released for the distillery’s 10-year anniversary in 2018, this is 80% Texas-grown rye and 20% specialty rye (a cask strength version elicited the aforementioned “fun” comment).