When the head of the Texas Whiskey Association mentions that Balcones Brimstone reminded him of hot summer nights in Texas, you know there must be something there. Seeing as it’s currently the height of Texas summer here in Austin, I figured it was the perfect time to give this uniquely flavored whiskey a spin.
Prohibition was a huge wet blanket over the craft distilling industry. Not many businesses survived from before that era, and as a result the definition of the “oldest continuously operating” distillery in a given area can be surprisingly young.
Balcones Distilling is a relatively young distillery that claims the title for having the first Texas produced whiskey on the market since prohibition. Founded in 2008 by a handful of local Texans in Waco, Texas, they started in an old welding shop and spent the next year renovating the space before finally producing alcohol in 2009. Today, the distillery is open to visitors for tastings and tours — so now I know what I’ll be doing next time my wife tries to drag me to Magnolia.
The whiskey starts as a mash of 100% blue corn from New Mexico that is fermented and distilled at the Balcones Distillery in Waco, Texas.
Usually from this point, the whiskey is shoved in a barrel and forgotten for a period of time before bottling. In this case, Balcones decided to do something different with the spirit: infusing the smoke from some scrub oak wood in a proprietary and undisclosed process. The scrub oak is a variety of oak plant that is common in central Texas, typically used in fire pits to provide a little illumination on warm Texas summer nights.
Balcones has taken a very traditional approach to their bottles. They are using a rather standard round bottle with straight walls, which tapers at the shoulder to a straight neck. The bottle is topped with a cork stopper and a plastic cap that makes the cork easy to grip.
The label itself is in the same style as their other bottles, a square label smack dab on the front of the bottle with the branding clear and distinct. The color scheme is a little different, using a black label with white block lettering and a red flame in the background. It’s certainly evocative of the smokey and rich flavor within the bottle.
This is quite possibly the darkest spirit that I’ve tested yet. It’s about the color of a dark Earl Grey tea or even a watery coffee.
There are two aromas that appear to be competing for dominance. The first is a common aroma to a corn based whiskey, specifically an intensely sweet brown sugar smell. The other aroma that seems to be winning is something that any Texan should be able to recognize: scrub oak smoke.
You know the smell of an old flannel shirt that you’ve been wearing around a scrub oak campfire? It’s like they somehow captured that essence and put it in a bottle.
The flavor of the spirit is consistent with the aroma. There’s an initial sweetness that lingers for a minute, followed by a bit of an alcohol burn, and once that has subsided the scrub oak smoke flavor hits you in the mouth. It’s intense and lingers, and tends to tint the palate for the rest of the day. But it’s not unpleasant, it’s just… different.
With some ice, the scrub oak smoke taste and smell is significantly reduced. It’s not gone, but it’s much less “in your face” about it.
Taking the place of that smokey flavor is significantly more of the traditional corn whiskey flavors. There’s some vanilla and caramel snuck in there along with the brown sugar making it a little sweeter.
Cocktail (Old Fashioned)
So, this is surprisingly good.
The orange bitters do a good job of masking the unpleasant aspects of the smoke taste, and the sweetness of the traditional whiskey flavors provides a nice balance to the cocktail.
There’s still a smokey aftertaste that comes with the drink, and the smokey aroma isn’t something that orange bitters can cover. But if you’re looking for a smokey and unique take on a traditional old fashioned, then this might be the interestingly delicious experience you’ve been looking for.
Usually when I review a whiskey in a mule, it’s the peppery spice that I’m looking for. But really I’m just looking for some way that the whiskey is making itself known behind all that ginger beer — because if I can’t taste the alcohol, then there’s really no reason to use a whiskey instead of a vodka.
In this case, it’s the scrub oak smokiness that comes through in the drink. And I think it works. It adds a rich and earthy tone to the drink, which is a different flavor profile from what I’m used to in a mule. But different in a good way.
The head of TXWA was spot-on when he described this as a Texas evening, bottled. It’s just like sitting next to a bonfire at the end of a long Texas day. And it makes for unique cocktails.
This definitely isn’t for everyone, and isn’t for every occasion. But if the mood and the cocktail recipe is right, then this might be exactly what you need.
Owner: Balcones Distillery
Production: Waco, TX
Grain bill: 100% blue corn
Aging: No Age Statement (NAS)
Proof: 53% ABV
Price: $59.99/ 750ml
Overall Rating: 4/5
Probably an acquired taste, that requires you to acquire the bottle first.