Balcones Distilling recently had its first Bourbon Fest and, like moths to a flame, Texas-based whiskey drinkers (myself included) made the pilgrimage to Waco, Texas to check it out. One of the things that they were selling that weekend was a special bottling of their Texas High Rye Bourbon — and after one sip, I knew that this was something interesting that deserved a review.
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.
As a Certified Texas Whiskey, this spirit is about as authentically Texan as you can get. Balcones goes above and beyond the requirement of the appellation by sourcing most of the grains from Texas farms.
The bourbon starts as a mixture of 55% Blue Corn, 32% Texas Rye, 7% Specialty Ryes and 6% Golden Promise Malted Barley. The grains are milled, cooked, and fermented in gigantic on-site fermentation tanks that are allowed to sit for a full week so that the natural yeast can work its full magic.
Once the sugar in the grains has been turned into alcohol, the mixture is distilled twice in Balcones’ unusually designed stills — they sport an extra long copper neck, which works to remove sulphur impurities from the final product.
After distillation, the spirit is stored in charred new oak barrels for an obscenely long 43 months (nearly an entire presidency) to allow it to mature prior to bottling.
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. For this specific spirit, the Certified Texas Whiskey logo is prominently displayed along with the product information.
One of the things I appreciate about the whiskey coming out of Balcones Distilling is that it’s remarkably bold in flavor. For some people that might be a turn off, but I find it to be a wonderful American take on the soft and subtle scotch tradition.
In this case, the aroma is like being hit in the face with a caramel flavored sledgehammer. There’s a bit of vanilla in there as well and a good amount of alcohol burn singing the nose hairs, but caramel is definitely the prominent flavor I detect.
Taking a sip, I get a flavor that I’ve never really considered in the spectrum of bourbon: green bell pepper. Sure there’s the caramel and the vanilla that you normally find with a bourbon, but I can’t shake the green bell pepper flavor. I feel like it’s the interaction of the rye and the malted barley causing this kind of situation, with the peppery rye and the smooth malted barley creating a taste bud illusion.
Either way, there’s a smooth finish with a bit of pepper that lingers after the liquid is gone, and a distinct charred taste that’s left behind like I just smoked a cigar (but which is probably just a result of the extended aging process).
With some ice, the mysterious green bell pepper flavor is gone and the charred oak is the most prominent of the flavors in its place. It tastes exactly like I just stuck my head into a charred oak barrel and took a big ‘ol lick of the insides, but with a tiny bit of sweetness and caramel on the finish. Bold for sure.
I’m getting the sinking feeling that I may have found the upper boundary of my love for bold and well-aged whiskey. I appreciate the charred oak flavors and the bold aroma, but there’s not a whole lot of interesting things going on here.
Cocktail (Old Fashioned)
It’s good, but I think at this point the drink suffers from the same problem as a scotch whiskey in an old fashioned.
The boldest flavor and the most prominent one here is the smokey charred oak barrel flavor. So when the orange bitters are added there’s none of the typical sweetness to counteract that bitter taste — only the rich smokey flavor. It’s good in its own right, but it feels unbalanced and not quite right.
It’s an interesting flavor and one that I do appreciate, but I don’t think I would necessarily recommend it to an unprepared guest.
The one thing that I constantly call out in whiskey-based mules is when there’s nothing of the underlying spirit that makes its way to the surface, but in this case I absolutely cannot make that claim. The smokey and rich charred oak taste makes itself well known, despite the often overpowering ginger beer.
I actually think that this is a great use for this bourbon. The rye content adds the necessary pepper to make things interesting, the smokey flavor comes through the ginger nicely to tone down that brightness, and while the caramel sweetness might not be front of mind it absolutely adds to the flavor profile of the drink. I think it’s quite nice actually.
There are some spirits where the flavor profile is so subtle and interesting, that drinking it in any format other than neat is a travesty. This might be one of those spirits. The smokey flavor is intriguing but if smoke is all you’re looking for, their Brimstone version does a much better job of that. The surprising green bell pepper flavor, though, is at least worth a sip at your local bar if not a bottle for yourself. Overall, I think this might have sat in a barrel for just a touch too long. And that’s coming from someone who likes bold charred flavors.
Texas High Rye Bourbon
Owner: Balcones Distilling Co.
Production: Waco, TX
Grain bill: 55% Blue Corn, 32% Texas Rye, 7% Specialty Ryes and 6% Golden Promise Malted Barley
Aging: 43 months
Proof: 62% ABV
Price: $Not available in stores
Overall Rating: 3/5
Should have been voted out of the barrel in the midterms.