The Texas whiskey scene is one of the most fun whiskey microcosms outside of Kentucky and Tennessee. The warmer climates allow the juice to age (and take on oak notes) a bit more quickly than they would in cooler environments and the local agriculture adds a unique dimension to the various whiskey expressions. One of the shining examples of Texas’s whiskey output is found in Waco, at Balcones Distilling.
Full disclosure, I ride for Balcones pretty hard. I found them when I was searching for blue corn whiskeys. As a food writer covering (and cooking) Indigenous food, I find that blue corn tortillas and cornbread have a much richer flavor than standard yellow or white corn varieties. So I figured whiskey made with blue corn must also be intrinsically better. That’s how I stumbled upon Balcones and the outstanding work head distiller Jared Himstedt is doing with the cereal grain.
After years of testing their various expressions, I traveled from my home in Berlin to the Balcones headquarters in Waco. It was a dream trip — with lots of roadside barbecue, a fair number of Dr. Peppers, and some excellent drams of Lone Star State whiskey. My love of the brand only deepened on that (pre-quarantine) adventure, so I was only too happy to run a taste-through of their core line last week, along with food writer and influencer Caitlin Sakdalan.
Check out our tasting notes below!
Baby Blue Blue Corn Whisky
Average Price: $45
This is a great intro bottle to the distillery. The juice is made with 100 percent Hopi Blue Corn that’s grown sustainably in western Texas, along the New Mexico border. The mash is twice distilled and then aged in small-format, five-gallon oak barrels in Balcones’ rickhouse. Finally, mineral water from Texas’ Hill Country is used to cut the whisky down to a manageable 46 percent ABV.
Clear notes of browned butter mingle with a sense of cinnamon spice, toffee, and vanilla. More butter mixes with a wave of bright fruits (carrying a sweet edge). Brown sugar, worn leather, and a hint of dark chocolate pop with the addition of a little water. The finish is short and full of spice, fruit, leather, and buttery goodness.
Value Per Dollar %: $45 may feel high, but this is a well-crafted with a sustainable and unique cereal grain base. 100%
True Blue 100 Proof Blue Corn Whisky
Average Price: $57
This is the same juice as the Baby Blue. The difference is simply that less of that mineral-heavy Texas Hill Country water is added, leaving a higher ABV.
The fruit is more front-and-center on the nose but is still supported by a bit of spice and sugar. There’s a real leatheriness and a serious sense of oak char next to hints of salted caramel and bitter black tea. Dark berries and chocolate whisper in the background as the sip slowly fades away.
Value Per Dollar %: Again, this seems reasonably priced for a high-ABV expression of something truly unique. 100%
True Blue Cask Strength Straight Corn Whisky
Average Price: $65
This, again, is the same juice as the Baby Blue and 100 Proof but is from barrels that hit just the right spot to be bottled directly.
There’s a lot going on here — from notes of pecans to buttered crusty toast to grapefruit. The sip leans into a maple syrup sweetness with a dried fruit underbelly. A little water helps the more fragrant florals release. The dram takes its time on the senses and fades through those florals, sweet notes, and ends on a clear sense of barrel warmth and bitterness.
Value Per Dollar %: One dollar per ABV feels like a fair price to drink something made from blue corn. 100%
Texas Single Malt Classic Edition
Average Price: $75
Jared Himstedt has one of the best collections of Scotch single malts I’ve seen outside of Scotland. This expression is his salute to the classic style. The juice is made from 100 percent malted barley in copper pot stills before aging in variously sized barrels before getting finished in a single, large barrel. The final product is a single malt unlike any other that’ll help you fall in love with the style.
Hints of pears and bananas greet you with a sense of rose water and citrus. The sip shines with a feel of rich, sweet, and bitter marmalade with a base of sourdough toast dripping with rich, creamy butter. This sip is like a warm hug that you didn’t know you needed.
The dram fades slowly through the senses as burnt sugar, cedar, and honey notes linger on the palate.
Value Per Dollar %: Single malts are not cheap. $75 is the price of a decent one from Scotland. Still, this could easily be a $100 bottle. 125%
Brimstone A Smoked Whisky
Average Price: $57
This is the perfect backyard BBQ summer sipper. The juice is the same as Baby Blue. But, before the juice goes into the barrel, it’s smoked with Texas Scrub Oak. So, instead of smoking the corn before mashing, they’re actually smoking the liquid before aging. That process makes for one hell of a unique and delicious dram.
Graham crackers pop upfront with hints of peaches. There’s a sense of an old smoker that’s held a lot of fatty smoked meats. More smoked meat and even smoky butter (fat really) with a clear note of dry tobacco leaves and a hint of dried chili peppers mingle on the palate. There’s a wisp of orange underneath the smokiness and the most fleeting whisper of fresh mint.
Value Per Dollar %: Again, the uniqueness of this juice and the extra steps in the process make this very affordable at the $50 mark. 150%
Check out the whole tasting below: