Photo courtesy of Balcones Distilling
We’ve all watched the following scene in a western: a cowboy enters a saloon, the swinging doors close behind him and he sidles up to the bar and downs a shot of “coffee varnish” or “tarantula juice” or "tonsil paint” – or whatever other unappetizing name the screenwriter chose to describe the equally unappetizing whiskey of the time.
The dusty drinking dens of Texas (or at least of Hollywood’s Texas) made way for relatively pristine bars long ago, but you can bet that, until recently, any whiskey distilled in the state did indeed taste like coffee varnish because until 1997, distilling in Texas was illegal.
But it still took another decade until anyone produced a commercial whiskey. So how is it then, that a single-malt whisky named the best not just in the U.S., but in the world, comes from a small distillery in the heart of the Lone Star State?
Balcones Distilling, the first company in the state to produce whiskey, makes about a dozen varieties of the spirit, most of which are variations of their Baby Blue (made with blue corn), Rumble (crafted with all Texas ingredients) and single malt.
Balcones recently won our USA TODAY 10Best award for Best Craft Whiskey Distillery – the latest of a long line of awards including world’s best single-malt whisky at the 2012 Best in Glass competition, where it beat out venerable scotch whiskies on their own turf.
We talked with Winston Edwards, brand manager of Balcones Distilling, about Texas whiskey, the history of the distillery and where it's going in the future.
10Best: Making whisky in Texas is a relatively new thing. What’s it like being at the forefront of that?
Winston Edwards: Texas whiskey is a brand new thing, but it also sounds like one of the most natural things ever. Whiskey and Texas just go together. I think you have like 10 to 15 actually legit craft distilleries. It’s definitely becoming a force to be reckoned with.
It seems like making whisky in Texas would be difficult, considering the crazy temperatures you guys have to deal with.
It is definitely a different paradigm to make whiskey here than it is in Kentucky. We have a wildly different climate, which actually works to our advantage quite well because we’ll have days where it’s super nice outside, 80 degrees or something, and literally the very next day it will snow.
So you’ll get these huge drops and temperature rises that more or less force the barrels to breathe, so the extracting part of aging the whisky – where the actual wood is being seeped into the spirit – that part happens at 10 times the rate at our distillery as it does in Scotland.
Because of that we also lose a lot more to the angel’s share (evaporation). In Scotland they lose like 1 or 2% a year due to evaporation. In Kentucky it’s like 5-10%. Our annual loss is closer to 18-20%.
So do those swings create any unique challenges, apart from losing a large amount of whisky to the angel’s share?
Typically our whiskies are under three years old, and when we start approaching heavier aging, that longer maturation, that whisky just gets so far extracted that it’s not actually great anymore. We’re actually kinda working against the Texas climate in respect to that, because we’re actually trying to make our whiskies taste like what they were made from, not just the barrel they were aged in.
So you actually don’t want to age them too long, especially in our climate, because that will cover up the flavor of the raw ingredient. The blue corn we use is vastly more expensive than the yellow and white corns that go into every other American whisky, so it would be a shame to cover all that up.
What kind of flavors are you looking for?
We’ve always focused on having a sense of place, so part of that means looking at not just the flavors of Texas, but the palates in Texas. Corn as a grain is pretty prominent in Texas cuisine. You think of tortillas, or masa or cornbread. But we didn’t want to just more or less replicate what other people had done with corn whisky. [Blue corn] is so rich. it’s so nutty. It has a really high oil content that lends itself perfectly to whisky.
And then you’ve got Rumble, which is more or less all Texas ingredients: turbinado sugar, Mission figs, Texas wildflower honey.
What’s the difference between your single malt and one from Scotland?
The single malt is definitely geared more toward the Texan palate. It’s big. It’s bold. It’s sweet. It’s high proof. There’s no smoke element to it like you get in single-malt scotch whiskies. Ours is totally un-smoked and it’s got more barrel influence on it.
Bourbons are always aged in new barrels; scotch whiskies are pretty much always aged in used barrels. So by using new barrels on a single-malt whisky, it kind of breaks the mold for what would be considered traditional. So you’ve got that nice delicacy and that fruitiness and that maltiness that you find in a lot of single-malt scotch whisky, but then you’ve also got that kind of sweet, punchy, oak character that you get in most American whiskeys.
Can you talk a bit about how the distillery got started?
Things started in 2008. [Co-founders] Chip Tate and Jared Himstedt were good friends in a local homebrewing club, so they were already familiar with working with malt, and the story goes, it was probably them being a little bit naive and probably a little bit cocky about it, but they were more or less like, "Hey, we know the first step of making single-malt whisky really well. We could probably figure out the rest."
So they bought this little building underneath the bridge in downtown Waco. It’s basically a 2,400-square-foot welding shop, and they spent the greater part of a year converting it into a tiny little craft distillery. The first product came out in 2009.
What does the future hold?
We finally raised the capital to move into a new building, which we just finished earlier this year. We went from the little welding shop over the bridge to a 65,000 square-foot building in downtown Waco just a couple blocks away. We’re looking forward to having our grand opening in November.
There is a visitor center opening. We’ll be able to do regular tours. We’ll have a gift shop with retail bottle sales there – things like single barrels or very limited special releases will get released out of the tasting room. That way it gets into the hands of the people who want it most.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.