Bar Beat

Balcones Whiskey Tasting at Reserve 101

“Start with good ingredients, distill carefully, pick good barrels, and make sure it tastes good in the barrel.” A simple but effective statement of philosophy from Balcones’ head distiller, Jared Himstedt. At Reserve 101 (1201 Caroline) this week, Himstedt and Balcones brand ambassador Winston Edwards were on hand to discuss Balcones’ current lineup, in what has become a regular event at Reserve 101, a private whiskey tasting to benefit the Lucky Dog rescue shelter.

Balcones had six whiskeys to sample at the tasting, including two exclusive options which can currently only be found at Reserve 101. Four of them are made with 100 percent blue corn, which makes Balcones’ lineup particularly unique; I don’t know of any other blue corn whiskey available here in Houston, and research suggests one only other distillery in America is making it at all, in Missouri.

The tasting started with Balcones’ most readily available whiskey, the Baby Blue. I’ve been a fan of the Baby Blue ever since I tasted it at last year’s Houston Whiskey Festival; since then, the label has gotten a re-design, and whether by a change in the recipe or in the aging conditions, the flavor profile is slightly different than the one I remember. This batch is sweeter up front and less strong on the roasted finish than I expected, and may be better balanced as a result. The nose was sweet and buttery, with salty hints (as I mentioned before, similar to tequila) that complemented the buttery flavor really well. Some faint hints of honey and citrus were also present in each sip. It’s still bottled at 46 percent.

The Rumble is unique because it technically isn’t whiskey, instead having been distilled from sugar, honey, and figs. Balcones says it compares it more to a rum or cognac; I’m not as familiar with those, but I can say that the Rumble has a very soft mouthfeel at first, heavy on the vanilla (similar the Herman Marshall bourbon I reviewed), that gives way to the candied-fruit flavors one might expect from the mash bill. The Rumble does finish with a bite, but this can be mitigated by letting it open up for a few minutes after pouring. It’s bottled at 47 percent, and in a fun bit of trivia, grew out of a recipe initially intended for a Bananas Foster sauce.

The Single Malt is what Balcones themselves will admit put them on the map, after winning Cask Strength’s Best in Glass award in 2012, beating out a number of prestigious and famous single malts and blends from Scotland. It’s not smoked in any way, peat or otherwise, but still manages to provide the kind of chewy texture the best peated Scotches have, except even silkier and smoother than those. The flavor profile is rich, with dark fruit, burnt sugar, and other sweet roasted notes. It’s truly impressive both in how rich and long-lasting the flavors and textures are. Even bottled at 53 percent, it doesn’t need to be cut with water; whatever burn is on the finish is worth it. It’s a delight.

The first of the two exclusive offerings was the True Blue Cask Strength. Another blue corn whiskey, True Blue is a rare enough find— Balcones wasn’t able to hold onto and age more of it because they were already struggling to keep up with demand from Baby Blue— but even rarer still is this version, bottled at barrel proof, 61.2 percent. The True Blue is aged longer than the Baby Blue, and it shows: the flavor profile is much more barrel-influenced, with more rich flavors and more dessert flavors as a result. A little water can help cut the proof without reducing the flavor too much; given time to open up, the whiskey reveals cinnamon, caramel, and especially toffee among those rich flavors.

The Blue Corn Bourbon was the other exclusive offering, and as far as I could determine, it is currently only available at Reserve 101. This too was bottled at cask strength, coming in at 64.5 percent. Despite the high proof, the mouthfeel was remarkably soft and smooth, with a buttery texture and caramel flavors to go with the vanilla nose. The finish still had a lot of burn, naturally, but also some of the roasted hints produced by the clue corn. The drinkability and softness of the whiskey at that proof was a remarkable achievement. I recommend trying it while you can.

Finally, we finished with the last of the blue corn whiskeys, the Brimstone, this one most notable for the grain being smoked over oak before distilling. The first time I tried Brimstone, at the Whiskey Festival, the smoke was overwhelming; this batch was much more manageable, and much more befitting the “barbecue whiskey” description. The smoke was still a prominent presence in the flavor profile, but it didn’t overpower everything else; the finish contained some of the sweet hints reminiscent of the Baby Blue.

All of these will be available at Reserve 101 until they run out (which could be sooner rather than later for some of the rare selections). Balcones still flies off the shelves, but with the company moving to a much larger distillery facility soon, Balcones should soon be producing enough whiskey for you to have a chance to get a bottle for yourself.
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Nath Pizzolatto