The folks up north at Balcones Distilling have a pretty good track record with whiskey collaborations. We reviewed their Shiner Bock collaboration Balcones Texas Bock about two years ago and the bottle is still prominently on my liquor shelf in a place of honor. More recently, they worked through the pandemic with the Houston-based band ZZ Top to come up with something inspired by their particular tastes, and today we’re going to check out the results.
It may be possibly the most obvious statement ever, but prohibition seriously hurt 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.
It’s for just this reason that Balcones Distilling, a relatively young distillery, 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 if Magnolia and Baylor aren’t your thing, there’s something for you in Waco, too.
This is a noteworthy collaboration between two Texas giants: Balcones Distilling and the sharp dressed rock band ZZ Top. The pair worked together on the project through the pandemic, organizing tasting sessions over video and ensuring that the finished product reflects the band’s own tastes and preferences.
As a nod to the trio of band members, this whiskey uses three grains as the main components: roasted Texas blue corn, malted barley, and rye. All of those components are individually distilled and matured into finished whiskey before they are blended together to create the final product.
Those grains are cooked and fermented on-site before aging for a full week and then heading off to distillation. This allows the natural slower-acting yeast to take a crack at converting some of those sugars to alcohol instead of relying on faster, cheaper, and less flavorful industrial yeast. Once the sugar in the grains has been turned into alcohol, the mixture is distilled twice in Balcones’ unusually designed stills, which are unique in that they sport an extra long copper neck, which works to remove sulphur impurities from the final product.
After distillation, the spirits are individually matured. The malted barley based whiskey specifically sits in new oak barrels for a softer tone, while the maturation of the other spirits is not disclosed. The strains are then added in exact proportions to create the desired flavor profile.
Balcones has taken a very traditional approach to their bottles. The bottle itself is a rather standard round bottle with straight walls, which tapers at the shoulder to a straight neck, and is topped with a cork stopper and a plastic cap that makes the cork easy to grip.
The label is a great homage to ZZ Top, the three bearded Texans who make up the Houston-based band that has been touring since 1969. The design is similar to the other labels at Balcones in that it is a square monotone label with the brand information at the top and some artwork — but the artwork this time is much more distinctive than they usually opt for. I still think that this label is a bit unnecessarily large, but for the cheeky and fun artwork, I’ll let it slide.
Even on first sniff, this seems to fall into the same pattern as the other Balcones spirits we’ve tried: well saturated flavors, good maturation notes, and some interesting characteristics probably from the fermentation process. Immediately, I’m getting some aromas of brown sugar, caramel, and vanilla, but with a floral malty component that’s almost like you dropped a splash of Highland single malt into your cup. I’m not picking up much of the rye at this point, which is usually expressed as some crisp apple and black pepper.
That delicious combination of new world flavor and old world sophistication translates through to the flavor as well, with even more depth and complexity than before.
At first, the flavor starts out in distinctly bourbon-ish territory with some deep brown sugar, caramel, and vanilla vibes that have a richness and saturation that makes it almost feel like taking a swig of maple syrup. As the flavors progress, though, the bourbon picks up some dark chocolate aspects and a tiny touch of bitterness, closely followed by more of the scotch whisky influence from that malted barley, with some honey, sourdough bread, granola, and flower blossom components starting to appear. Near the finish, that malty component almost gains a bit of smoke, like the end of a campfire dying out, and it lasts through the finish combined with a little bit of that black pepper spice that provides a bit of a kick in the end.
Thanks to the saturation of all these flavors, most of the important components have survived the addition of some ice. But whereas before this was more of a bourbon with a splash of scotch in it, this is now a scotch with a splash of bourbon in it.
The malted barley components are in the driver’s seat here. Honey, sourdough bread, floral blossoms, and a tiny wisp of smoke are the primary flavors that are coming through, with some brown sugar and vanilla undertones supporting it all. I’m missing most of the rye here, but I do feel like there’s a tiny bit of spice on the finish that’s a result of that grain trying to make an appearance.
It’s a softer, gentler, but still deliciously tasty drink even with the ice. One thing to note is that the slightly bitter dark chocolate is still in the mix (and still being slightly bitter) but somehow it isn’t overwhelming. It’s just adding some depth and character to the spirit.
Cocktail (Old Fashioned)
Sadly, I don’t think this cocktail quite works.
The problem we’re running into here is that the flavors of this whiskey, with the ice added, already had a lot of floral and herbal elements. There was some depth and richness, but the brown sugar and caramel that usually makes for a good old fashioned has been pushed into the background. It’s a much lighter spirit in terms of character and that’s just not something that works particularly well in an Old Fashioned.
One other note is that the bitterness of the bitters, plus that dark chocolate bitterness in the spirit itself, creates an end result that is a bit on the tart side. It isn’t overwhelming, but it is noticeable and not really all that enjoyable.
What we’ve got here is an interesting take on the mule. The flavor profile is overall lighter and more focused on the malted barley components (honey, granola, sourdough bread) and that smoky component all making an appearance to balance fairly well with the ginger beer and lime juice. There’s just a missing depth and richness to the cocktail that we usually see with a bourbon whiskey.
I do appreciate that there’s a bit of a texture on the finish here, though. I think the combination of the smoky note from the barley and some black pepper spice from the rye give it just enough of a bite to be interesting without being overpowering. It’s a solid finish to the cocktail.
I think this is a really cool and interesting blend of American bourbon components with Scottish traditional flavors. There’s something nifty about the flavor profile when taken neat or on the rocks that leaves me wanting more, trying to unravel all of the different flavors in here and where they come from.
That said, it makes a pretty mediocre cocktail in pretty much any way you use it. Either in a classic Old Fashioned or something with a bit of a fizz, it just doesn’t have that sweetness and richness that makes some of Balcones’ other offerings stand out as superior.
I’d absolutely buy this again, and I plan on drinking the whole bottle. I feel like I got my money’s worth, but not much more.
|Balcones Tres Hombres Whiskey|
Produced By: BalconesProduction Location: Texas, United States
Special Type: Certified Texas Whiskey
Aging: No Age Statement (NAS)
Proof: 50% ABV
Price: $52.99 / 750 ml
Product Website: Product Website
Overall Rating: 3/5
A blend of old world and new world flavors, like a bourbon and highland scotch mixture… and all in a sharp dressed bottle.
This is so frickin’ AWESOME! ZZ Top Whiskey would be FUN to drink.