While Dr Pepper and Baylor are Waco’s old-school claims to fame, Balcones Distilling has put the central Texas city on the map as home to one of the most celebrated craft whisky makers in the Lone Star State and beyond. With a downtown distillery that produces whisky varieties that keep on winning awards, Balcones is reaping fans and accolades that show no sign of abating anytime soon.
Texas is riding an international wave of fascination with whisky, including American single-malt whisky, in part because Texas’s extreme temperature fluctuations create flavor and color intensity in the barrel-aging process that isn’t possible in more temperate climates. Balcones’s rise also reflects its diligent, creative approach to fermentation, distilling, and blending, as well as a dedication to keeping the process in Texas, versus bottling product from elsewhere—something others do.
“It’s important to note that what we’re doing with American single malt is not a recreation or redesigning of what single malt is,” says Tommy Mote, the distillery manager at Balcones. “We’re actually trying to create something that’s consistent with the international understanding of a Scottish single malt, or an Irish single malt, but taking that and making an American single malt.”
Balcones is a founding member of the American Single Malt Whiskey Commission, a unified group of American-based whisky producers dedicated to defining and defending the growing category as it makes its debut on an international stage. A true trailblazer in the industry, Balcones is paving the way for the future of American single malt as it continues to gain recognition and popularity across the country and the globe.
“It’s a pretty exciting time,” says Jared Himstedt, head distiller and a founder of Balcones. “You can go a whole lifetime without seeing a new category of whisky [like American single malt] come to be, let alone get to be a part of it. That’s just not something that happens very often. It’s a pretty unique and pretty cool experience that we get to be a part of that.”
Competing against whiskies made elsewhere in the United States, as well as Canada, Europe, India, Japan, Taiwan and, yes, Ireland and Scotland, Balcones’s spirits often come out on top—a trend started when its “firstborn,” Baby Blue Corn Whisky, won a double-gold designation in San Francisco not long after it became the first Texas whisky to be sold from a store shelf.
“When we started putting whisky in barrels, we really didn’t know what was going to happen,” Himstedt says. “We try to do our best at it and put in the hours to chip away at the nuances of what we’re doing.”
The distillery is named after the Balcones fault line, the visible demarcation that runs north to south through Texas and dramatically delineates Waco’s topography with soaring limestone cliffs and a marked difference in ecosystems. Using a geographic name follows the tradition of Scotch and Irish single-malt distillers, whose names often refer to a place. “It was easy to go the geographical route because we were single malt fans,” Himstedt says.
“Texas single malt whisky is absolutely the inspiration and drive behind why we started distilling in the first place.”
The name also aptly reflects the seismic shift in Texas whisky production. When Balcones made its brash debut in 2009, only one other maker had Texas whisky in barrels. Today, nineteen distillers form the Texas Whisky Association, which Himstedt serves as the first President. These distillers make up and support the associated Texas Whisky Trail. Members are committed to making sure people know that their entire whisky making processes, from grain handling to aging in barrels, happen in-state.
“One of the most important things for me personally, in my journey of getting to understand American whisky, is traveling to the facility where these things are actually created,” Mote says. “You get a little bit more perspective and understanding about the city or the flavors that are going on in that regionalized area.”
With the Texas Whisky Trail, no matter what region of Texas you’re in, you can look and see different distillers that might be in that area, he adds. “As a producer, we rarely think of the tourism aspect of whisky, but it’s actually been something we’re encouraged to look into more because people are interested in hearing about why we do what we do.”
Balcones’s tasting room is housed in the 65,000-square-foot distillery, the former Texas Fireproof Storage building in downtown Waco, and draws the curious from near and far for events such as Live Jazz at the Distillery, tasting parties, Waco Women in Whisky get-togethers, and tours. Balcones also hits the road at whisky events and other promotions, such as the Unplugged and Distilled tour in the United Kingdom with Waco singer-songwriter Jarrod Dickenson.
Balcones offers twenty or more whisky varieties annually, including special runs and with seven always in the mix: Baby Blue Corn Whisky, Texas Single Malt Whisky, Texas Pot Still Bourbon, Texas Rye 100 Proof, True Blue 100 Proof Straight Corn Whisky, Brimstone Texas Scrub Oak Smoked Whisky, and Rumble, a spirit made with wildflower honey, turbinado sugar, and fig.
Baby Blue Corn Whisky, distilled from roasted blue corn from West Texas and named for the George Strait song “Baby Blue,” has an award rack that includes gold medals from the American Distilling Institute and the 2017 Wizards of Whisky competition.
Balcones Single Malt Whisky Classic Edition, is the distiller’s flagship whisky. Like its Baby Blue brother, Balcones Single Malt has winning ways, beginning with its jaw-dropping first place selection at the 2012 Best in Glass competition in London, where it was blind taste-tested against some of the world’s most renowned scotches. The distillers take pride in the influence that Texas terroir has on all their whiskies but especially the single malt, with the local climate, microflora, and soil playing a role in the spirit’s flavor.
Annual releases include multiple varieties of Texas bourbon (blue corn, wheated, high-rye), Texas rum, and a variety of special releases of Texas Single Malt among others. Balcones also offers single barrel selections of many of their expressions.
“We always have some sort of experiment going on,” Himstedt says. “We spend a lot of time and energy trying different things out, with the size of the barrels, the entry proof [the AVB the spirit goes in the barrel at], different fermentation techniques to increase or decrease acid, and all kinds of working hypotheses.”
He adds, “With our whisky, it’s well-made, and you can pay attention to it if you want. Or you can just be hanging out, and the next thing you know, the conversation’s been good, and the bottle’s half-gone. It feels a little arrogant if the only role the whisky can play is center stage.”
For more information about Balcones Distilling, visit BalconesDistilling.com.
Videos shot by Riley Engemoen. Edited by Jo Huang-Zollner.