Corn Whiskey Done Right – Balcones vs. Preconceptions (Part 1)

For a long time, corn whiskey has been one of the least interesting forms of whiskey to me, being closest to the new makes and usually used to crudely approximate some sort of notion of moonshine. I don’t know that there’s much out there that’s quite as lame as an officially approved fake bootleg of something. Corn whiskey long was in this mental ghetto for me.

The most premium corn whiskey I’d had, if you could call it that, was Mellow Corn. Perhaps you’ve seen it staring out from the pages of one of those “n Whiskies You Need To Drink” books. It’s got an almost unnatural yellow hue to it, as if to scream, “I’M MADE OF CORN AND DON’T YOU FORGET IT!”

SERIOUSLY! I AM YELLOW!!

Don’t be misled – Mellow Corn is not a bad whiskey, it’s squarely in my “not to my taste” window, but almost pushing into the level of things I’d like to have on hand. It’s got a very light nose, hints of corn, a general strong and sweet presence – like what you’d get from white dog, but not quite as sugary and raw. There’s some white pepper on the nose and some wood, which gains strength and has a vaguely floral component.

The mouthfeel is thin and lightly woody; it becomes more thick after a moment. It’s lightly sweet, vaguely caramel-toned, but dominated by heavy sugar with a sprinkle of white pepper. The finish again has some wood and black cherry. The palate shows some white pepper and some heat, and is slightly vegetal, which is unsurprising.

Like I said: it’s not bad and it has more nuance than one might expect, but it’s still young and unrefined.

And I was content to leave corn whiskey in that spot for the longest time, until this summer I had an opportunity to sample a huge range of Balcones whiskey, courtesy of the distillery. This included the new make, Baby Blue, True Blue, Brimstone, and the TX Single Malt, in addition to some non-whiskey offerings – Rumble and Rumble Cask Reserve. I remember receiving all the whiskey and seeing a whole lot of very light whiskey. I was fairly unimpressed and thought I was in for yet another run of overpriced, underaged, substance-free craft whiskeys.

I’ve gotten away from reading whisky backstories anymore. I feel like they can taint a pure tasting experience or lead to preconceived notions. If I hadn’t read all the information about Glenmorangie Signet, would I have picked up on the darker chocolate and espresso type notes? I’m not sure that I would. Sometimes the stories are impossible to avoid (Jefferson’s Ocean Aged) due to the hype surrounding them, but I enjoy approaching every bottle with little information.

Sometimes, as with many craft whiskeys, it can be hard to understand exactly what’s going on – odd finishes, unusual matter used for smoking/peating the whiskey, etc. Reading about it after having had an initial impression can help bring things into focus for subsequent tastes if there’s confusion.

In this case, the extent of the story I knew ahead of time was “corn whiskey”.

A mental ghetto.

The first whiskey I had was the new make – presented as “Blue Dog”. This is not available as a product on the market currently, but I think it’s an interesting precursor to the rest of the line. I’m obviously not a huge lover of white whiskey, but it can tell us something about the whiskey before it ages.

The nose, unsurprisingly, was a strong new whiskey smell – vegetal sweetness, turbinado sugar, and corn husks. The palate, also unsurprisingly was sweet, with the vegetal sourness resembling damp corn husks on a hot day. The sweetness was strong, but not overpowering. Plenty of heat, but not out of line for a new whiskey.

The finish was warm but dried, with corn, a surprising flash of cinnamon, with a slight doughy/yeasty character that has a floral character – probably their yeast showing thorugh. There’s a nice texture and it resolves to a light, doughy, corn taste.

Honestly, as far as unaged whiskey goes, it’s one of the better ones I’ve had. I think of all the unaged whiskeys I’ve ever had, my favorite still is the High West Oat whiskey, but that’s also at a lower proof and the dilution likely helps smooth the edges. This has a much more dimensional character even new than most I’ve had, and the sweetness is more nuanced as well.

It’s a promising start, to be sure.

The next I tried is available – Baby Blue. Baby Blue, like the unaged “Blue Dog”, is made from blue corn which Balcones claims adds some nutty notes to the whiskey. The whiskey is then aged in “lightly charred” barrels.

The nose on Baby Blue is still young – it’s got more of a sweet corn presence to it, less edgy sugars, faint hints of wood and a little spice, and some slight vegetal tones. After a bit it opens up and shows a little more wood influence.

The palate was a surprise – more wood influence than I expected, with some gentle oak and a touch of cinnamon. There’s some sweet corn on the palate and faint vegetal notes – only slightly sour. There’s plenty of heat on the palate, which carries through to the finish. There’s corn upfront, cinnamon, an almost subliminal dose of cherry. Gentle oak and slight doughiness round out the finish.

I wasn’t expecting much from the nose, but the palate really takes off in an unexpected and pleasant direction. It’s young, but it’s already developing some more depth of flavor. This one exceeded my expectations.

The Baby Blue is also available in a cask strength version, True Blue. The nose on it showed corn sweetness with a touch of caramel and vanilla. It was a little sharp and almost had pine-like notes to it, as well as a low-grade malt-like character to it. It had wood, but not too much, and I noticed a bit of coconut – closer to coconut oil than fresh coconut.

The palate, as expected, starts warm and gains heat. Tons and tons of black pepper dominate initially with some chili oil. It’s a little woody and has a slight barbecue note to it. Sweetness provides a foundation with corn and caramel. Again, I detected a malty character and a touch of A1 steak sauce. (I don’t touch the stuff but I can’t forget the taste).

The finish is hot, black pepper and wood, with chili oil on the lips. It fades quickly and turns to slightly bitter wood.

Being a cask strength whiskey, it’s worth attempting some dilutions. I didn’t find the watering down to be very helpful in most cases; the nose started to seem like a subpar Irish whiskey – musty and piney. The body becomes more sweet with caramel and wood; fine enough but not as enjoyably nuanced. Finally, the finish does improve, but it’s a bit musty.

For me, I found True Blue to be a bit overproofed. It’s an interesting whiskey, but I think it needs time to settle in and let a dominant note emerge – to me it was like a young hyper-peated whiskey that hasn’t quite figured out what it wants to be.

Even with these three, I found some surprises. There was a lot more nuance to the flavor of these than most young whiskeys. I can only assume that cask management is great, and I know they’re starting with a high-quality distillate. The notes that come through on the unaged whiskey, especially in the finish, I think speak to a promising yeast selection as well, avoiding the harsher and almost grainy flavors left by some other yeasts.

Though my impressions had already started to change early in the tasting, there was plenty to go, and everything ahead is even more interesting. I’ll pick up the story of Brimstone, “1″ TX Single Malt, and some other interesting spirits in the next update.

At a glance:

Mellow Corn 50% ABV
Nose: 
Light; corn present as is a general strong sweet presence (similar to but not quite as raw as the more sugary punch of white dog), a light undercurrent of white pepper and some wood which gains strength, vaguely floral. 
Palate: 
Thin mouthfeel, light wood; mouthfeel becomes a little more thick after a moment. Light sweetness, vaguely caramel but heavily sugary. Light white pepper. 
Finish: 
More wood and a touch of black cherry. A little white pepper on the palate and some heat as it goes down. Slightly vegetal.
Comment: 
Not bad; clearly young. More nuance than you might expect.
Rating:
 C+ 

Balcones “Blue Dog” Unaged Newmake 62.3% ABV 
Unavailable Commercially
Nose:  Newmake. The usual vegetal sweetness you’d expect. Corn, light hint of turbinado sugar; corn husk.
Palate:  Sweet as expected; with the damp corn husk on a hot summer day vegetal sourness. Sweetness is strong but not overpowering. A fair bit of heat but not out of line for new make.
Finish:  Warm but dying down, corn, a touch of cinnamon actually, a bit of slightly doughy/yeasty character for a second which is lightly floral. Leaves a nice texture in the mouth after a minute – a lightly doughy corn taste.
Comment:  As far as white whiskeys go, this is one of the better ones I’ve had (I think I still prefer the High West oat one slightly). It’s a little more dimensional than other distillates and the sweetness has some nuance to it. 
Rating:
C 

Balcones Baby Blue 46% ABV
Nose: 
Fairly young still – sweet corn; a less edgy sugary presence; faint hints of wood and a little spice; a little vegetal note. Opens to have a little more wood.
Palate:  Surprisingly has more wood influence than the nose suggests. Gentle oak presence and a touch of cinnamon; still a sweet corn note on the palate and a faint vegetal note. Just slightly sour. Plenty of heat still. 
Finish: 
Heat initially with some corn upfront, then some cinnamon and maybe just a touch of cherry for a fleeting second. A little gentle oak, and it has a slight doughiness that can also be found on the new make. 
Comment: 
The nose leads in one direction, but the palate is different (and better). It’s definitely young, but it’s got some developing flavor. Much better than I expected. 
Rating:
C+ 

Balcones True Blue 62.9%
Nose: 
Corn sweetness on the nose with a touch of caramel and vanilla. Somewhat sharp and with an almost pine-like note to it. Also a low-grade almost malty character. Wood there but not strong. A bit of coconut? Closer to coconut oil than fresh coconut.  Water makes it smell like a subpar Irish whiskey – musty, with the pine note coming forward and going in the direction of Pine-Sol.
Palate:  Warm initially and gaining heat – tons and tons of black pepper, a little bit of chili oil. A little woody and with a slight barbecue note to it, but lightly so. Sweetness is a foundation here with a bit of corn and a bit of caramel. There’s a slight maltiness to the palate that I get at well. A touch of A1. Water doesn’t do much favor to this. Generally sweet, lightly malty, some caramel and wood with the chili oil peeking up at the back.
Finish:  Hot on exit. Wood with black pepper, chili oil on the lips. Fades quickly and turns to slightly bitter wood. Water helps a bit here but it’s still a bit musty (like the nose was with water).
Comment: Interesting but over proofed. I diluted and it seemed to fall apart. If this were another whisky I’d say it needed more time to kind of settle in and let a dominant note; it reminds me of some of the hyper-peated young whiskies that haven’t quite settled in.
Rating: C+

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