Balcones Distilling: Modern Technology Creating Old-School Flavor
It's going to be hard to focus this post, because Balcones Distilling, in Waco, TX, has a lot going on. Maybe it will be best to start with Zack Pilgrim, one of their masterful distillers.
I've used my brains this time and called ahead. That's how I find myself waiting in a lobby, chatting with Laurel the receptionist (and, as I will learn later, Zack's wife). She tells me she's been working there six months. I should have suspected something right away, because she seems to know a lot of the distillery's innermost workings for having been there a relatively short time.
Zack arrives through a double door to the side, in all his bearded glory. If you look at pictures of other Balcones employees, you will conclude that a beard that normally would qualify a dude for lumberjack status in the real-world, is mere training fluff here. I'd say Zack, on the day I meet him, is somewhere in between.
I'm excited that Zack seems excited to show me around. There are times when I'm being led around a distillery and -I want to be careful how I put this- it feels like my tour guide would rather be doing something else. I get it. Tours are an important PR function, but probably fall low on the scale of priorities for someone without "marketing" or "social media" in their title. Not Zack. Part of the reason for his energy, I'm guessing, are the new (ginormous) fermenters recently installed and being prepped to go on line. He's as proud as a new papa.
I, personally, would be proud of the whole set up at Balcones. It is impressive. There's way more and different types of equipment than I can ever hope to understand. My biggest takeaway is the scale of everything.
It starts outside, in the back alley. There are grain silos the height of the entire building, about five stories. Zack points out the massive ice slurry chillers. They shoot out cold water in pipes tangled throughout the facility. In fact, there are so many pipes running in and out of the building, I quickly lose track, even as Zack carefully explains and traces with his finger. (It's all-the-more to this man's credit that though he's probably run through all of this countless times, he's doesn't rush and I can tell he is actually thinking as he describes).
Inside, we meet a few more of Zack's crew. Everyone leaps up to shake my hand. It's an appreciated welcome on my part. There are catwalks crisscrossing above us. The stills and fermenters are multiple stories high, with tons more of that copper pipe running in all directions.
Two moments during the whirlwind tour stand out the most for me. First, is when we climb to the very top of the stills. This is where Zack is able to pull samples as the distillate pours into different containers, for your heads, tails and hearts.
People (meaning myself) joke about this part of the distiller's job. But just look at Zack's face and how serious he gets. I can sense the responsibility emanating off him, just like the fumes coming out of these beakers. Zack pauses from his sampling and sees that I haven't moved from the top of the ladder. He beckons me over and hands me the glass. This is 150 proof rum straight from the still's continuous spigot:
First, a whiff. It smells very grapey or winey. The taste is pure alcohol. It's hard to pick up on any sweetness and is very smooth going down.
The other thing that impressed me, apart from the spirits I would soon be sampling, was their digitized display of the stills and systems. It's jarring to first have a mental picture of Elijah Craig or some such bearded, bowler-hated fogey twisting valves on a banged up copper still, or stirring a wood fermenting tank by hand -to then witness distilling broken down to its pure computational elements, on a touchscreen. Let's see what it gets us.
I take a whiff from my glass (it's 92 proof). The smell of corn is umistakable. There's a sweetness and grassiness to it, with just a hint of spice. I'm in the tasting room now, with Laurel presiding. She tells me the most commonly detected scent is melted butter. Maybe, but sounds more like wishful thinking to me.
When I take a sip, I get the spiciness I detected in the nose. It may be the initial bite of alcohol, because it fades into a sweetness of citrus and candy. I want more, but I'm a little scared by how many bottles Laurel has lined up on the bar.
One of which is Baby Blue's cousin, True Blue. Same mash and barreling as Baby Blue, but it's bottled at 100 proof. It's significantly more spicy than Baby Blue. The contrast with the sweetness of the corn gives it that added layer of complexity.
There is a bottle with a beautiful color liquid in it, kind of a honey bourbon. The label announces proudly in big letters: 'Rumble.' Ok then, let's do this. It's distilled from fermented honey, fig and turbinado sugar. I guess that puts it somewhere between a brandy and a rum?
I didn't know what turbinado was either. What did people do before Google? It's just a fancy way of saying refined sugar was spun around in a turbine, hence turbine-ado. Get it?
As you can imagine, it tastes very sweet. In addition to fruit and honey, the nose also has some cinnamon or tobacco, or what you could just call 'muskiness.' It might be because the distillate is aged between eight and sixteen months in new oak barrels. It's 94 proof in the bottle but I tried the cask strength version at 128 proof because why not?
Another version of Rumble is aged in used oak barrels for four years (the upper limit of how long Balcones ages anything, because of the extreme heat in these parts). This time, the Rumble has what I call a grapey burn. It would be as if a nice Pinot had a particularly courageous night out with Fireball, then breathed on you first thing in the morning. Or you can go with Balcones' official description of "light fruit cocktail with subtle leather." Either way.
It seems like everyone's grandma is doing a single malt, and Balcones is no different. Adhering to tradition, they get their malted barley from Scotland, "an early-maturing spring barley." It is then aged in either former wine barrels or used oak casks, between sixteen and eighteen months. For what it's worth, Zack told me they stay away from heavy char as a general rule, opting instead for a gentler toast. I think it's because the distillate will penetrate the barrel wood so deeply, due to the heat, that a traditional char would end up yielding too much of a burnt flavor.
The flavor is very much like a Scotch, with the familiar toffee, caramel and rest of the candy shop. I prefer a bit of smoke or peat to my near-Scotches. For that, Balcones and Zack have an answer.
It's called Brimstone. It's basically Baby Blue that's been infused with staves of burnt scrub oak, and aged up to three years in new oak barrels. Now this is what I'm talking about. It's like someone took Franklin Barbecue's sampler plate, passed it through a campfire, then distilled it a couple times. It's 106 proof, but you won't even notice. You will be too busy rubbing the smoke out of your eyes.
I ask Zack if he has a lot of pit masters using this in their rubs. He just laughs. You could put this stuff on a slice of Spam and it will taste like the best pork rib you've ever had.
There's a couple more special bottles I get to try.
Balcones is big on single barrels. They rightfully trust their distillers' palates. So each one gets to create his own special batch and each bottle named after him. The two I sample are technically bourbons, even though they call it a "straight whiskey": distilled from an 80% corn, 19% barley and 1% rye mash, aged for around three years. The difference is the type of oak. Jason's batch, known as "J," is American oak. Zack's, or "Zee,"is European oak. And there's a slight difference in proof: 129 for Zee and 134 for J.
I get more citrus and wood notes from J. And with that slightly higher proof, I really enjoy the lingering burn on the tongue and back of the throat. Zee is more bitter, with just a slight finish of sweetness. Both very drinkable.
I try a high-proof rum (136 proof), aged between two and three and a half years in new oak barrels. The nose has a distinctive sugary burn (not to be confused with burnt sugar), and notes of spice and brown sugar. I'd say the depth that comes from the wood aging makes it a perfect "whiskey drinker's" rum.
Balcones has quite a few more special edition bottles (Single Malt finished in rum barrels, and a Single Malt aged in new French oak, for a couple examples). I either tried them and blacked out, or got the hell out of there while I could still stand, let alone drive.
What I most definitely won't forget is the graciousness of everyone I encountered at Balcones, even if it was just a passing "hello." It also seems to be a crux of what I imagine to be a modest arts community in Waco. Just by sitting in the tasting room, I got to meet a local chef, Salazar, who operates a Michoacan restaurant. For once, my accidental and basic knowledge of food from different Mexican provinces came in handy. Wouldn't you know it - corn is a major ingredient in Michoacan cuisine. Coincidence?
Salazar tells me how he is a transplant from Southern California. Orange County, to be specific, and we chat about the subtle differences between SoCal and Waco. He stops by Balcones frequently for the conversation, but also to sip and get inspired. (Maybe this is why Salazar's restaurant isn't open for dinner. A bit too much inspiration.) Wouldn't you know it, I'm inspired too - to get my hands on a bottle of that True Blue and a vat of melted butter as soon as I'm back in LA.