Distillery Tours: Balcones Distillery

The city of Waco, Texas had been a relatively minor player in the Texas landscape for a few decades. The only two attractions in the city were Baylor University and the Dr. Pepper museum… which all changed in 2015, when the stars of Fixer Upper, Chip and Joanna Gaines, opened Magnolia Market (aka The Silos). Since then, the city has seen an explosion in popularity as a tourist destination — and correspondingly, in increase in craft production facilities. Balcones Distillery, located just three blocks south of Magnolia, might just be the more worthwhile attraction of the bunch.

The History

Balcones Distillery was born out of a mutual love of whiskey. A pair of friends bonded over a glass of the good stuff back in 2008, and before long they were in the process of setting up their own distillery to try and make their own expression of the spirit.

The name Balcones Distillery is taken from the Balcones Fault, a geologic structure which runs through San Antonio and parts of Hayes County. Originally, the water for the distillery was imported from a spring near this fault (in five gallon jugs) and, although they’ve since switched to a local Waco water source in recent years, the name stuck.

Originally based in a welding shop under the 17th Street bridge in Waco, they formed a team and started distilling their first products in 2009. By 2011, the business had grown so much that they needed to expand and purchased their current building. Using their profits so far, they built the infrastructure and the facilities in the new building to their own specifications and in February 2016 they officially swapped production to the new location.

This new building currently houses all of their distilling operations as well as the tasting room, gift shop, and (coming soon) a tap room for Balcones Distillery’s take on beer.

The Distillation Process

Grain storage silos in the distillery courtyard.

Balcones Distillery makes a wide variety of spirits from bourbon to rum and nearly everything in between, but the majority of their raw material comes in the form of blue corn (a variety of corn specific to the southwest United States) and malted barley.

The blue corn was previously imported from New Mexico, but within the last year their supplier has been able to provide 100% of their stock of corn from Texas farms.

As for the malted barley, that is actually imported from Scotland. The distillery uses Golden Promise, a variety of barley that is common in scotch producing distilleries. While there are plenty of other and far cheaper varieties available (most of which provide a higher yield, or more alcohol content per pound) the folks at Balcones Distillery decided that they wanted to use this variety due to the more complex flavors that it produces in the end product.

The grains are trucked in and brought through the mills prior to storage in these tanks. The distillery has two on-site mills — a hammer mill which is used to pulverize the blue corn, and a roller mill which more gently cracks the malted barley.

The Scottish mash tun

To start the process, the grains are fed into two vessels: a cooker and a mash tun. These two vessels use local Waco water along with some added heat and enzymes to cook the grains and break down the complex carbohydrates so that the yeast can do their jobs.

While the corn goes into a large vat cooker, the malted barley actually goes through the proper Scottish mash tun. This specific one was actually purchased from the Speyburn Distillery in the Speyside region of Scotland, where it had been used for some decades. According to the head distiller at Balcones, they were in the market for a much smaller, brand-new mash tun… but when they learned that this massive beast was available for pretty much the same price, they couldn’t turn down the opportunity.

Balcones’ fermentation tanks, water jacketed and temperature controlled

From the cookers, the sugary slurry is fed into the fermentation tanks outside. While the cooked corn is fed as-is, the cooked malted barley is actually strained prior to loading into this next phase of the process so none of the barley itself makes it through.

In these temperature controlled tanks (a feat in and of itself in the sweltering Texas heat), the mash is introduced first to the distillery’s blend of yeasts, specifically M1 and SO4. They say that adding one or the other isn’t usually best, as the competition between the different strains makes for better tasting spirits.

Once that yeast has completed its useful lifespan (within 72 hours), the liquid has about a 10% ABV alcohol content and normally would head off to the still. But in this case, Balcones gives the mash an extra week to allow the yeast time to work on the longer carbohydrate chains and add their own specific flavor to the batch.

A look at the stills at Balcones Distillery, from the bottom floor.

The folks at Balcones Distillery use pot stills for their process, which is a slower process than the continuous stills but is a more traditional and craft-focused way of doing things. They use a double distillation process, with the spirit coming off the first still at about 25% ABV and the final distillation resulting in the proper alcohol content for the barrel.

The stills were built by Forsyth, a respected Scottish still manufacturer who has been making stills since the 1890’s. Their stills were custom made, and with an interesting reason:

Copper is typically used in the manufacture of stills because it reacts with the sulfur compounds during the distillation process and keeps them from getting into the finished product. In other words, it keeps the whiskey from smelling like old eggs. More copper leads to less sulfur and therefore changes the flavor of the end result.

However, when Balcones started their distillation back in their first location, they didn’t have enough room to directly attach their still to their condenser. This required them to build a large copper tube which brought the vapor from the still over to the condenser in another room, giving the vapor more time to interact with the copper material and changing the flavor of the end result.

When they were moving on up to new stills, they custom designed them to keep that same elongated tube between the still and the condenser even though the physical constraint had been removed and everything was now in the same room. For the whiskey still, it’s in the form of a corkscrew, partially visible at the top of the above image, that is 6 inches wide and takes 10 full 360 degree rotations before getting to the condenser.

Balcones Distillery tasting and blending room.

After the whiskey is distilled, its placed into the appropriate vessel. For bourbon, that’s a new charred oak barrel; for other spirits, the barrel differs a bit.

The majority of the barrels (~80%) are stored in a facility about a 30 minute drive away. Just far enough that land is cheap enough to store large quantities of alcohol, but close enough that it gets the exact same climate as the main building in downtown Waco. The rest of the barrels are stored in the upper levels of the distillery until maturation.

Once the spirit is ready it is tasted and blended prior to being bottled on-site at the Balcones Distillery.

Things To Do at the Distillery

Like most distilleries, there’s a tasting room that is open to the public a good number of days throughout the week and there are tours of the facility available.

Coming soon, the distillery is planning on expanding into beer production and is working on building a tap room to let guests enjoy this new liquid expression.

But the best thing to do at the distillery might be what you don’t have to do. It’s close enough that you can send any interested parties (in my case, my wife) to the nearby Magnolia Market while you sip whiskey and enjoy the beautiful building in peace and quiet, undisturbed.

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