I once again admit to being way behind the eight ball. Everyone “discovered” Balcones about eight years ago and for many of you this is no doubt old news. Still, everyone’s whiskey journey is unique and I’m going to use that as my excuse for not alerting you, dear reader, to Balcones before now. What I’m saying is that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.
Balcones was making craft American whiskey in Texas before many people knew that such a thing existed. The first spirit ran from founder Chip Tate’s self-designed stills in 2009. Like a lot of upstart distillers these days, the Balcones team drew from their experience with brewing beer. Whiskey is distilled beer just like brandy is distilled wine, after all. With an emphasis on specialty grains and (especially) specialty malts, they took their familiarity with fermentation as a process rather than a means to an end and made some truly unique whiskies. Add to this the large temperature swings common to the climate of Texas – this causes whiskies to age ‘faster’ in oak barrels – and you have a recipe for really innovative whiskeymaking. The distillery opened its new facility in Waco in 2016, featuring expanded capacity and new Forsyths copper pot stills.
All Balcones whiskeys are pot distilled in batches and bottled without chill-filtration or added coloring. This particular bottle (which sounds downright placid next to siblings like Blue Corn Whiskey and Brimstone Oak-Smoked Bourbon) is distilled from a mash bill of 100% rye, including Elbon Rye from Northwest Texas and crystal, chocolate and roasted rye malts. The whiskey is aged for at least 18 months in oak and bottled at 50% ABV. My bottle is from Batch RYE10018-2 and is dated 6/7/2018.
Nose: Funky. Herbal. Chocolatey. There is a lot going on in here. I smell bruised bananas, dark roast coffee, funk that I haven’t smelled since Lost Spirits, pine sap, baker’s chocolate, burnt caramel, and the distinct sense that I’ve only scratched the surface.
Palate: Thin body. That dense, snappy chocolate and roasted coffee-bean note hits first, before a brief but intense tongue burn. Then, the coffee is tempered with a little cream and caramel, hazelnut, and banana cream pie. That all sounds really sweet but the whole effect is fairly dry.
Finish: Long. Those chocolate notes continue, inescapably dark and not-quite bitter. The finish doesn’t so much evolve as linger, filling the corners of my mouth with cocoa powder and black coffee for longer than I expect from a rye. An experience.
With Water: Several drops of water add a black pepper note to the aroma (although it could have been there all along, there’s such complexity here), and sweetens the palate. I suggest trying both without and then with a little water.
Overall: Wow. This is why I love (some) craft whiskies. This is so far off the map that comparing it to any old off-the-shelf rye is an exercise in futility. In other words, don’t think of this as a Rye Whiskey, think of it as belonging to its own category, with the only closest relatives being Tom’s Foolery, Lost Spirits, and Westland (reviews upcoming). None of those are even ryes. Basically, if you like rye or unusual whiskies or American craft whiskies or all of the above, you really ought to at least try this one.
Update: The Pot-Still Bourbon is also pretty good.
I also feel I should comment on the price. If I had paid $50 or even $60 for this bottle, I would have tasted it and then nodded sagely, and written something pithy about the cost of doing business as a craft distiller. I admit to finding a great deal on this bottle at $29, but even at $40 it’s quite an excellent deal, and far below the average for American craft whiskey of quality. At $29, I should have bought two.