It’s pronounced “Bal-cone-ys” for those who don’t know, a fault line running east to west through Texas and in particular very close to Waco where in 2008 Chip Tate decided he would build a whisky distillery. Being the first in Texas since prohibition, Chip pretty much had a clean sheet to start from and set about gathering information, along with some plant and material, in what was to be a very hands on approach in the creation of the Balcones Distillery. With guidance from Jim McEwan of Bruichladdich in the form of a summers intense training, Chip set about literally building the distillery himself, even turning his hand to the creation of the copper pots stills that his spirit would eventually flow from. Hardly new to the alchemy of alcohol, Chip had a diploma in brewing and had consulted in the craft brewing revival that had taken place around America but it was whisky that caught his attention and taking this amount of time and effort with every aspect was sure to pay off.
These small craft distillers are seeing a rise in popularity, just like the craft beers before them, and it is no surprise that we see the likes of Balcones and Hudson to name just two, start to make there way across the Atlantic to our shores. But are they any good? Well, I have reviewed Hudson before here and below are my thoughts on four out of the seven available releases from Balcones. And before anyone points it out, Chip does not use the American “e” in naming his whisky most probably because it’s not quite what you might expect and as a result wants to keep it away from an instant association with Bourbons and American Whiskey. Chip is also using small bespoke built casks, and not all are brand new as bourbon production requires, playing with a few different sizes and varieties of cask to enhance and support the whisky he is creating. The results overall is a youthful spirit with a mature flavour and plenty of character. Certainly the quality of production is transparent in every sip, but somehow Chip has also managed to negate any discussion of age which is a bold move into a marketplace seemingly transfixed on age V’s quality with many unable to understand that young (not immature) can be great.
So first, whats it made of? Most American whiskies will be made up of a mixture of grains, know as the mash bill, and in particular a higher proportion of yellow corn with the remainder of the mash consisting of varying amounts of rye, wheat and barley.
Balcones “Baby Blue” for instance, is produced from 100% blue corn. Blue corn is not something I was terribly familiar with and have to say is something I don’t think I have ever tried in its natural form, but it is apparently an old varient of the yellow corn we know here in the UK. Popular in Mexico and the southern areas of the U.S., it has around 20% more protein and a lower glycemic index than the rest of the corn family which in turn tends to produce a sweeter, nuttier flavour when processed into food stuffs. So just how well will it transfer into a whisky?
Balcones Baby Blue Whisky
2 years average age
46% ABV Non Chill Filtered
RRP – £54
Nose: Rich notes of honeycomb dusted with cocoa, light clove and cinnamon then earthy notes of jute fibre and ginger with caramel/butter.
Palate: With all the finding from the nose transferring to the palate with a slight amplification to the spicy elements.
Finish: Prickly yet sweet. A good balanced finish of spice and toffee.
Balcones True Blue 100
100% Blue Corn
Heavy char cask
ABV – 61.5% Non Chill Filtered
RRP – £67.95
Nose: Fresh pressed apple juice, hard toffee covered with milk chocolate, heavy waves of cinnamon, cedar wood and “Crunchie Bar” (honeycomb in chocolate) warming spices of clove/mace.
Palate: Rich earthy spices and “chewy” wood, thick creamy chocolate and deep red fruits of cherry/kirsch, cranberry. Cutting with water rounds out the fire and balances the spices and fruit.
100% Malted Barley (Golden Promise-Berwick)
ABV- 52.7% Non Chill Filtered
RRP – £74.95
Nose: Banana bread, frangipani, cherry clafoutis, linseed oil over plums and apricots with a malt undertone.
Palate: Initial fruit bread with a slightly tropical edge, good youthful grip and warm vanilla spic. Cocoa nibs and malt towards the mid palate.
100% Blue Corn (smoked with Texas bush oak scrub)
ABV – 53% Non Chill Filtered
RRP – £64.95
Nose: Prune fruit, flint and hickory smoke. Liquorice root with a slight iodine edge and faint rubber/laytex glove. Notes of clove and amber with a deep aromatic character.
Palate: Arbrouath smokies, chewy herbal elements of light clove and “Oddfellows”. Vegetal smoke with vanilla and touches of dry oak after liquorice.
Finish: Fabulously integrated and lingering. Each element found in the nose and palate makes itself know time and time again.
Young it may be, American whiskey it certainly isn’t and following rules it never will – but it has the quality within and like all craft distillers, there is a noted difference in the delivery. I’m glad to see this brand make it over here, although the PPR’s are a little above budget for most who might wish to explore something different, at least there is nothing to fault with the product itself.