07 February 2023
Founded in 2008 and gaining distribution in Europe by 2010, Balcones was the distillery that introduced the UK to the potential of Texas as a whiskey producing region. It felt like a maverick departure from most of the other American whiskey brands. Not only were Balcones’ spirits not produced in Kentucky, they weren’t even bourbon! Or whiskey! (they omit the ‘e’ at Balcones.) Put all that together and what they’re basically saying is, “we’re not interested in what you’re making and where you’re making it. We’re making our own thing, and we’re making it here.”
So the early roster of products was made up of a rye, a malt and two corn based spirits, plus a smoked whisky, most of them displaying “TEXAS” front and centre on the label, with the lone star emblem on the bottom label.
My first taste of the Balcones stable of products was in 2011, at The Whisky Show in London. The team from Balcones were hard to miss. Amongst the sweaty clusters of tweed-jacketed whisky geeks, they stood out like 10-gallon hat in an elevator. Nobody more so than the Balcones founder, Chip Tate. Here was a man who looks exactly how you would imagine a man with the name “Chip Tate” would look: white t-shirt, black beard, and a set of braces holding together a barbecue belly. His physical appearance was every bit as disruptive to pretentiousness that far too often plagues the whisky fraternity, as his whiskies were to the sanctioned archetypes.
That disruptive mentality didn’t end there however. On September 14th, 2014, the Balcones board suspended Chip Tate from his position as President and filed a restraining order against him after it was alleged that he threatened to burn down the distillery and shoot one of the investors. Tate denied the accusations made against him and and claimed the the board were trying to steal the company away from him. A few months later, Tate agreed to be bought out of his shares and signed a noncompete agreement that prevented him from making whiskey until March 2016. Chip Tate was a whiskey celebrity by this point, the embodiment of the American craft whiskey movement, and the whiskey world watched with keen interest as all this played out. Tate has since gone on to setup Tate & Co., his second Waco whiskey venture.
Meanwhile, Balcones got big. In 2016, the distillery relocated to an 65,000 square foot former “Fireproof” self-storage building that dates back to the 1920’s. This distillery is 25 times bigger than the previous location. Although “relocated” is perhaps a misleading term, since the new site is spread over four floors and the upgrade was reported to cost $12 million dollars. They built a brand new distillery. And it’s a far cry from the original welding shop operation located six blocks away, where space was so tight that the copper still had the dual purpose function of distillation and mashing.
What’s most interesting about this transition from micro distillery to… midi distillery (we’re not yet at the size of the Kentucky juggernauts) is the consideration of the product itself. How do you go about upscaling all of your equipment by at least an order of magnitude while maintaining the same flavour profile?
The cereals at Balcones are milled in one of two ways deepening on their type. Malt gets the roller mill treatment, corn and rye gets the hammer mill. The mills are unusual, and so is the “chain and disk” grain transportation system, because both are sourced from a brewery equipment supplier. A lot of our team have coming from the craft brewing industry, and the technical terms used here are a sort of a mish-mash of American brewing, American distilling, and Scottish distilling.
The distillery runs ten different mash bills, comprising of various corn mashes, various malted barley mashes (including peated, unpeated and Texas grown malt) as well as bourbon (high rye and wheated) and rye (Elbon Rye from Northwest Texas accompanied by crystal, chocolate and roasted rye).
The two mash cookers and seven fermenters are all 25,000 litres capacity. The fermenters are outside of the main building but are connected to a temperature sensor that pumps coolant when necessary (pretty much all the time). Fermentation takes seven days, which is long by any whisky distillery standard. This extended ferment has the effect of lowering the pH of the beer, creating new aldehydes and esters that will provide character in the whiskies
Distillation is done on copper pot stills manufactured by Forsyth’s in Scotland.
Back in the old distillery, where space was tight, the 250 gallon still was backed in to a corner, and with no room for the condenser, the line arm of the still had to tun through a wall and in to another section of the building. This long, upward slanting line arm was a trait of the still, removing sulphurous compounds in the spirit through extended copper contact and creating prejudice against heavier volatile aromatics.
So when it came to upscaling the distillery, it was essential that the new spirits stills had a line arm that was much longer and wider than the original, so that it remained in proportion with the bigger still base. When Forsyth’s did the calculations, they quickly realised that the line arms on these stills would need to be at least 50 metres long and the condensers would need to be located in the next block. This was considered to be a little impractical, so Forsyth’s came up with the idea of coiling the line arm on top of the still, which gave the line arm the length they were after.
The condensers cool over two stages, first changing the state of matter of the spirit from gas to liquid, then reducing temperature from 110°F to 60°F which is the temperature that the hydrometers are calibrated to.
Balcones Single Malt is produced is as true to the Scottish style as is possible in Texas. The malt is sourced from Simpsons in Berwick-upon-Tweed, a 70 year old lauter mash tun is used (sourced from the Speyburn distillery), and of course the stills were made in Scotland too. Most of the barrels used to make it are new American oak casks, but some re-fill casks are used too.
In spite of their enormous facility, most of Balcones maturation takes place in another location on the outskirts of Waco. The distillery looses around 15% a year to the Angel’s share, meaning that by the time they come to bottle some of their older, 4+ year expressions, the barrel is only half full/empty.
Everything here is 53 gallon casks made from American, Hungarian or French oak, using custom toast and char levels. That presents quite a few variables, especially when you throw wine casks in to the mix.
But when you factor in the ten mash bills the distillery operates and multiply by perhaps twenty cask variants, you’re left with a couple of hundred potential whiskey recipes. With that in mind, the fact that Balcones are “only” bottling 20+ expressions feels almost restrained.
Baby Blue was their first release, and is perhaps the most quintessentially Texan of their products. Made from a variety of blue corn, it has herbal and savoury characteristics to balance sweet, corn flavours. Corn whiskey is made in much the same way as bourbon, only the mash must contain a minimum of 80% corn and the spirit must be matured in barrels other than newly charred American oak (to distinguish it from bourbon). Ex-bourbon barrels are typically used but you sometimes see corn whiskies matured in un-charred American oak.