Corn Whiskey Done Right – Balcones vs Preconceptions (Part 2)

Previously, I discussed the young corn whiskeys that Balcones have released and how they surprised me with their depth. By this point in my tasting (again, samples provided courtesy Balcones as part of a larger tasting), I was looking at the darker colored spirits. Now I was getting interested.

The next whiskey up was the “1″ Texas Single Malt, an ex-bourbon finished whiskey. In the past I’ve said I thought single malt was an exceedingly difficult for small distilleries to get right. Single malts seem to just need a long time in wood to settle down and develop a coherent profile. The nose on this one was unsurprisingly sweet, with orange zest and a bit of caramel. White pepper and a little wood provided some dimension. There was a nice maltiness with some light floral notes and a pleasing light touch of honeysuckle. Some cinnamon and a classic malt note of buttercream vanilla also came through.

The palate was malty, but slightly bitter with an upfront wood influence. It had a moderately full mouthfeel. The whisky had a lightly floral, almost bubblegum note to it. Heat started to gradually build with some cinnamon which stood as a contrast to the light honey also on the palate.

The finish was reasonably long and warm, with a rich honey note and malt. It dried slightly but had moments of bitterness. It’s got a nice malt foundation, though seems a touch estery and unfocused, but I think it could be really interesting with more time in wood. It’s right on the verge of being a massively drinkable whiskey.

At this point, I was looking at the Brimstone sample. Brimstone has gone on to be one of this year’s most acclaimed whiskeys, but fortunately I had this one without a lot of heat building up around it yet. All I knew was that this was smoked with Texas scrub oak – an interesting change from the usual peat or mesquite.

The nose was slightly rubbery at first, which settled to reveal a slightly campfire-like smoke that has a more distinctly woody smell than more organic peat smoke. It was lightly malty with a touch of orange. There was a sweet side as well – chocolate and a bit of raisin.

The palate was oily and malty at first, with a rubbery kick at the front end. The smoke is relatively subdued otherwise. It reveals a taste of buttermilk biscuits with honey, a little orange liqueur at the top end, with some dark chocolate and raisins alongside cherry.

The finish was nicely smoky and seasoned, with a great barbecue sauce aftertaste (more sweet barbecue sauce, not a vinegar-based sauce). There were hints of apple skin, reasonable but not overpowering wood presence, and the light honey from the palate. Again, a malty and biscuity base sat under everything.

The result? The best corn whiskey I’ve ever had. Tons of dimension. It’s a good, worthwhile whiskey even outside the “corn whiskey” ghetto I described in my first post. This is simply a good whiskey – that sweet barbecue sauce against honeyed sweetness is a kind of balance that only a handful of really stellar Islay malts (usually over $250) can pull off and Brimstone does it with aplomb. It’s not an everyday choice for me, but it’s a worthy bar resident.

Brimstone absolutely lives up to the hype it’s gotten this year. Since it’s smoky it’s not going to be for everyone, but if that’s your thing, you owe it to yourself to check this out.

The craft distillery movement has a bright, shining star and Brimstone is it for now.

Two other fun spirits I got to try didn’t meet the definition of whiskey, but whiskey lovers might enjoy them: Rumble and Rumble Cask Reserve. These are not whiskeys by the legal definitions, but as a whiskey drinker it’s quite likely you’d find something enjoyable in these. Instead of a usual mashbill of corn, barley, wheat and/or rye, this is made from figs, honey, and turbinado sugar.

The nose on Rumble was young, and initially vegetal, lightly sour. The sweetness common to this younger spirit nose almost went in the direction of fresh masa. There was light earthiness and some cinnamon.

I thought the mouthfeel was nice and lightly oily, with a gentle sweetness. There were hints of toffee, very, very light vanilla, and an overall nice, syrupy quality. Wood was minimal aside from providing some gentle spice and dimension. A little light cinnamon added; a little light green note slightly detracted.

The finish started a little warm, but not out of control. It was a little sweet but a generally quick finish. It dried and got woody and bitter, but not overly objectionable.

I thought it was good – it’s a different new make sweetness, less bracing. It’s interesting, enjoyable, and worth a taste should you find it.

The other sample I had was a cask strength version of Rumble, Rumble Cask Reserve.

The nose on Rumble Reserve was strong, but with a definite honey sweetness note. A light earthiness that I detected on the Rumble was present here, but unique to Reserve was a light, dry hoppy quality.

The palate was warm and rich – wood was abundant and the whiskey had plenty of heat. A gentle sweetness was underneath it; black pepper and cinnamon provided heat. It was slightly musty but agreeably so – kind of like an old study. The finish dried and left woody notes, a little flash of hops again, and some sweetness.

The Rumble Cask reminded me of the original release of Charbay’s hopped whiskey. It’s unusual, not for everyone, but very enjoyable.

The two Balcones whiskeys – Brimstone in particular – are great stuff. Brimstone has been hyped this year but certainly not overhyped. It’s not for everyone but if smoke is your thing, it’s worth checking out.

I’ve written a lot about my hopes for craft distillers this year as well as my wish that there would be less of a focus on shortcuts and more of a focus on quality. It’s hard, it’s expensive, it demands attention to your craft, and generally it doesn’t allow a producer to hide behind a cute story. I recognize from all my endeavors that this asks a lot before putting yourself out there. However, it’s a lot more satisfying to have put in the blood, sweat and tears and  approach from a position of confidence than knowing everything is in a house of cards.

This is all a hell of a lot better than I ever imagined corn whiskey could be.

At a glance:

Balcones “1″ Texas Single Malt – Ex-Bourbon finish 53% ABV
Sweet; orange zest and a light bit of caramel. White pepper, a little bit of wood. Malty, with some light floral notes, a touch of honeysuckle. A bit of cinnamon and some buttercream vanilla. 
Malty but slightly bitter with a wood influence upfront. Moderate mouthfeel; lightly floral, an almost bubblegum note to it. Heat starts to build after a minute with light cinnamon. Lightly honeyed. 
Warm; again rich with a honey note and some malt; drying slightly and a little bitter at points. Moderate length.
The malt foundation to this is nice. I think the esters are a little unfocused but this could be interesting with more time in the wood. This is right on the verge of a massively drinkable whisky.

Balcones Brimstone (Batch BRM 12-2) 53% ABV
Slightly rubbery at first smell; a slightly campfire-like smoke that has a more distinctly woody smell than the organic peat smoke. Light malt, a touch of orange. There’s a sweet side to this; a little chocolate and maybe a raisin note. 
Oily and malty at first; a little rubbery kick at the front end of the smoke. Smoke is relatively subdued otherwise; giving a lightly honeyed note, buttermilk biscuits, again, a little orange (liqueur) at the top end, very faint. A slight hint of dark chocolate as well. Raisins, a touch of cherry. 
Nicely smokey, very seasoned and tastes like a nice barbecue sauce aftertaste (sweet sauce, not a vinegar mop). Slight hints of apple skin, a reasonable amount of wood but not overpowering; the lightly honeyed note shows up here as well. Malty and biscuity again as well as a baseline. 
This is the best corn whiskey I’ve ever had. Tons of dimension to this.  I don’t know that I’d reach for this constantly but I might be persuaded to keep some around. 

Balcones Rumble (Batch R11-11)
Not Whiskey
Nose:  Young, vegetal initially. Lightly sour. Sweetness that almost goes in a fresh masa direction. Lightly earthy, some cinnamon.
Palate:  Nice mouthfeel – slightly oily. Gentle sweetness – some light toffee hints; some very very light vanilla; nice and syrupy. Wood presence on this is minimal but gives some gentle spicing and dimension. A little light cinnamon. A faintly green note.
Finish:  Warm but not bad. A little sweetness; generally a quick finish. Dries a bit and gets slightly woody and bitter, but not at all objectionable.
Comment: Not at all bad. Something is different about this one compared to the others (post-tasting note: made from sugar, honey & figs. Huh.) and it’s got a little less bracing new make sweetness to it. Interesting and enjoyable enough.
Rating: B-

Rumble Cask Reserve (Barrel 1597)
Not Whiskey
  Strong initially. Somewhat sweet on the nose, definitely getting a honey note. Lightly earthy; almost has flashes of a dry hoppy quality.
Palate:  Warm and rich. Wood in abundance; plenty of heat. Gentle sweetness; some black pepper and cinnamon. Slightly musty but in an agreeable way.
Finish:  Drying but leaves some wood, that hoppy flash, and some sweetness.
Comment:  This reminds me of Charbay’s first release. It’s certainly unusual but it’s pretty enjoyable.
Rating: B

4 thoughts on “Corn Whiskey Done Right – Balcones vs Preconceptions (Part 2)”

  1. Pretty much everything Balcones does is less than 3 years old. Pretty remarkable stuff considering. Part of the story is high heat maturation. Waco is HOT. Part of it is Chip’s barrel management. He is obsessive about the quality of the wood in his barrels, insisting on yard aging for long periods – with freeze exposure. Another part is clearly Chip’s palate aesthetics. I tried his 8 week old rum experiment and it clearly had the Balcones “family” flavor profile.

    I’m really hoping Chip Tate gets the investment needed to ramp production up enough to let him take his experimental ideas to their conclusions (different interesting woods and longer maturation). Chip’s palate is good and his stuff appears like it’s getting better and better if his magic box of experimental samples is any indication (and it certainly appears to be that). I’m totally convinced and consider myself a huge fan.

    1. I’ve had some limited interaction with Chip but i definitely get the impression of a guy who sweats the details and the results really speak for themselves. Brimstone completely floored me and I’m definitely looking forward to future releases.

Leave a Reply