I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to review any Balcones whisky.
This is due to several factors which, in isolation, might not have kept me off the case. In concert, however, the cumulative effect of them made me throw up my hands and resign myself to ferreting out the new craft distilleries on the block, or at least those that have wanted for exposure and exploration.
On the topic of exposure: it’s not like Balcones whisky is uncharted territory here on Malt. I count 18 whiskies from this distillery reviewed over the course of nine pieces already. Mark kicked things off with the Brimstone expression back in 2013. This was followed shortly after by the Single Malt, and then in close cadence by the Rumble and the True Blue. December of that year saw Jason chime in with a look at the Fifth Anniversary Bourbon. Two more years passed until Jason participated in a tweet tasting of five Balcones whiskies. This briefly became an annual tradition for Jason, as he followed-up with another five reviews a year later. Adam favorably reviewed a pair of single malts in February of last year, awarding them very high marks. Finally, Jason returned with a perfectly average three year old single malt from Boutique-y.
Apart from the Malt corpus, I fear that everything that can be said about Balcones has already been said. My country’s newspaper of record covered the tawdry details of visionary founder Chip Tate’s acrimonious departure back in 2014 (incidentally, a targeted Google search reveals no mention of Tate on the entirety of Balcones’ website). Publications from local Texas news outlets to national financial magazines have featured recaps of the distillery’s core lineup.
I put an open query out on Twitter soliciting opinions on Balcones, to which I got a robust response. To say that the audience was “split” would be an understatement; reactions ranged from enthusiastically positive to decidedly negative. Some folks seemed to enjoy the extremes of flavor coerced from the grains and the use of smoke and cask finishes. Other people found them interesting solely as a one-off curiosity or were turned off by the severity of some of the more intense treatments. A few respondents were adamant that quality has slipped in recent years, while others confide that the whisky remains on an upward trajectory of improvement. Either way, the overwhelming impression was that everyone had already made up their mind, for better or worse.
It’s also worth pointing out that Balcones produces a diversity of whisky which means that the distillery, as a whole, defies easy categorization. Eight “Classics” form the foundation on which nine “Annual Releases” (including a rum) and five “Special Releases” are assembled. Grains range from corn to rye and malted barley, both peated and unpeated. In total, I had misgivings that a review of a single Balcones whisky could be of any use, except as a dot on a much larger pointillist canvas.
Finally, my personal exposure to Balcones had not left me eager to hunt down more of their products. I tried a variety of Balcones whiskies during my travels in Texas last year. These were in more casual settings (bars and restaurants) which did not yield themselves to attentive tasting and note-taking. To give you some indication of my impressions: I opted not to purchase any for export, reserving that honor instead for a bottle of sotol and some Appalachian corn whiskey. Such an exertion would hardly have been necessary, besides, as there’s a decent selection of Balcones at my local liquor superstore. Ranging from the entry-level Baby Blue and Texas Rye ($40 each), I’ve got twelve choices up to the Hechiceros single malt finished in Port casks ($100).
In all, I had put Balcones mostly out of my mind since departing Marfa. Yet, here we are in the preamble to a Balcones review. So, what prompted this reversal of course? I’m happy to report that it was that most wonderful of all things, one which permeates the whiskyverse: generosity. I was provided a sample of this whisky by PB, a repeat commenter and an appreciated presence on this site. As a devoted fan of ours, I felt that he was owed a full and fair consideration of the whisky he so graciously passed along.
As for the whisky: we have here a single barrel of the True Blue expression. True Blue is itself an upgrade from Baby Blue; the same raw material (roasted heirloom blue corn) is used, making this “straight corn whisky.” Compared to its little brother, the True Blue is comprised of selected casks bottled at a higher strength (100 proof, compared with 92 proof for the Baby Blue).
This was a barrel selected by Drammers, which describes itself as “A Global Whisk(e)y, Mezcal, and Spirits Club.” Membership is by invitation only and runs $99 per year. I am not a member, but a little sneaky web scraping allowed me to ascertain that this was one of 144 bottles, of which the club set aside 25 bottles for their own use. A peek at the label tells us this was barrel #14255, which was an ex-tequila barrel. The label also states this was “aged at least 43 months” before being bottled on 4/7/2020. This comes to us at cask strength of 56.6%. Drammers was asking $75 of their members for a bottle of this.
Balcones True Blue Cask Strength Single Barrel – Review
On the nose: Starts with a milky, creamy note of corn balanced against a clear agave influence from the tequila cask. These two elements balance each other throughout the nose, though there are also floral notes, freshly-ground nutmeg, and more exotic curry spice aromas of turmeric and cardamom. As the aromas move through the nose, there’s another richly sweet and creamy note, this time of buttercream frosting.
In the mouth: More creamy corn to start, though this instantaneously becomes very firm, with a citric tartness and a pert mineral note. A faint wisp of vanilla carries this to the middle of the tongue where this starts to take on a distinctive note of succulents including, naturally, agave. At the top of the tongue, there is a momentary roasted note of grilled corn that perfectly encapsulates the essence of this. Moving into the finish, this expresses a smoked salty flavor of sal de gusano as well as freshly squeezed lime juice, the combination of which is reminiscent of a well-constructed margarita. This finishes long, with a persistent mix of rocky soil, chili peppers, and an astringent, just-shy-of-bitter note of freshly-cut wood.
Here’s to shattering preconceptions! I was prepared, based on everything I had laid out in the intro, to either find this benign or in need of very sharp criticism. In actuality, the experience of drinking this is both relaxing and fascinating, a delightful paradox if ever there was one.
Most crucially: this has extraordinary balance throughout the nose and the mouth. The elements introduced by the corn and the cask are checked and complemented by one another, giving the sense of a very well-crafted and complete final product. Beyond that, there are other aromas and flavors which emerge to keep this from becoming a purely bilateral exercise. It’s got potency but also elegance; there are concentrated flavors but none too much so. Sweetness and spice, wood and grain, spirit and barrel all dance together in an elegant Texas Waltz.
In total: I’d happily try more of this whisky, and indeed any of the others from Balcones. The experimental approach has paid off handsomely in this instance, and for me that skews the risk/reward positively going forward.
Note: Image courtesy of the Drammers.