Meet the Texas Bourbon Giving Kentucky Some Serious Heat

Meet the Texas Bourbon Giving Kentucky Some Serious Heat

Texas is… hot. Which is clearly oversimplifying the obvious. But when it comes to the juice flowing from Balcones’ distillery, that seemingly simple statement implies a whole lot more—and it’s giving the good ol’ boys in Kentucky’s Bourbon country the sweats. All in the name of some friendly competitive spirit, of course.

Based in Waco, Texas, Balcones opened its doors in 2008 in an old welding shop under a bridge. They retrofitted a Whiskey distillery there and started messing around with single malts before ever-so-slightly bending the rules of Bourbon to include blue corn grown in New Mexico.

From there, these fiercely proud Texans have been tinkering with countless different iterations of Whiskey using ingredients found in their proverbial backyard. For that, they count on master distiller Jared Himstedt to help innovate their stock. So we pulled Jared away from his experimenting to chat about Bourbon, grilling (did we mention they’re based in Texas?) and the future of Balcones.

Where does the name “Balcones” come from?

Jared: Well, we started primarily as single malt Scotch lovers, so there are some cultural differences. For some reason, in America, they love to name Whiskey after old guys. But in the U.K., it seems like location and geography is a little more present in the names of brands and there was something that was more appealing about that. Partly because of the personality up here at the distillery, but also knowing that we were gonna be making Whiskey in Texas, which at that time hadn't been done.

We knew that the place, the climate, the personality of the area would end up influencing a lot of how our Whiskey turned out. And it just seemed like more of a grounded, rooted way to name it.

So the Balcones fault line is the most dormant fault line in North America. Supposedly hasn't been active in about 50 million years, but it goes right through Texas. The biggest highway we have in the state is Interstate 35 and it's pretty much built almost directly on top of the fault line.

Here in Waco proper, we have cliffs downtown by the river. One side is a good 80 to 120 feet higher than the other side because of the two plates that meet at the fault line. We have a lot of black stone and a lot of fresh spring water connected to that fault line. That's where the name comes from.

How did you find your way into the Spirits industry?

Jared: It goes back to right after college, getting into homebrewing Beer. I got really into homebrewing and we had a very active homebrew club here in town. We'd get together monthly. Talked a lot, shared a lot, learned a lot from each other and out of that group, there were multiple attempts to actually open a brewery for ourselves here in town. None of those ever took off, but me and one of the other guys from the club did eventually open a Beer bar here in town. It's still open. The large majority of what's there is gonna be Texas draft Beer.

We went through every peated Whisky they had at that bar that night and that started me on a journey of rabidly buying and drinking any Scotch I could find.

But during that period of trying to get breweries open and then also opening a bar, I went through a weird phase where I was bored with Beer. Beer was everywhere. We were making Beer all the time, selling Beer all the time, and for years, people had sworn to me that if I was a big Beer guy, I’d love malt Whiskey. I never quite did until I had a friend who spent some time studying abroad in Oxford, that was drinking some Ardbeg at a Whisky bar before the 10 year was back out. I was just kind of floored.

We went through every peated Whisky they had at that bar that night and that started me on a journey of rabidly buying and drinking any Scotch I could find.

So a few years go by, another buddy from that club came back around and we were having conversations about that. I said, "Yeah, I haven't really been drinking much Beer lately. I've been just voraciously consuming any Scotch I can get my hands on." And he was like, "Oh, me too." And it started conversations that I just thought were talk. We were reading books, talking to people and reading interviews with master distillers in Scotland. We were also buying any book we could find on Whiskey production and appreciation.

It really felt like we were just daydreaming until one day we had a deed for a building in hand and we were filling out paperwork for permits. Next thing I know, we're in there and doing all the work to get the building up to speed. And then we started building some equipment and it seemed like it just kind of happened to us. Just a lot of dreaming and, funnily enough, thinking way more about the process of making Whiskey than the business, per se.

Bourbon from Texas? Why?

Jared: Because there's so much to still be discovered. Especially making Bourbon in Texas. You know, between us and Garrison Brothers down in Hye, we're both right at the 10-year mark and it still feels like we're just scratching the surface. So many things that we don't know about making Whiskey in Texas, what that looks like and what all the options are. Also, all the different parameters we could try to explore would take a lifetime.

1. If you could have one superpower, what would it be?
Everybody always says flying. Last time someone asked me this I said flying and they said, "Oh, that's the one everyone picks. That one's off." So then I responded with my next one, which would be to have a tail. Like a monkey tail, but I don't know if that's really a superpower. It has so much to do with how they can balance. Between squirrels and monkeys, that tail facilitates so much of what they're able to do with their center of gravity. They use it as a balance point, you know.

2. How would you describe Balcones in three words?
Rich, dense and intentional.

3. What is your favorite music and what drink goes with it?
I'm actually a bit one-track minded—I hop from thing to thing, but I stick with one thing at a time. So, I had a huge 50s and 60s reggae phase for a while, and I've had multiple phases where it's years in a row of nothing but hip-hop. Currently, I'm listening to a lot of metal, specifically doom or, funeral doom. Very slow tempo and very heavy. Usually, there are ecological themes or kind of existential themes.

But this band called Bell Witch has an album out from 2017 called "Mirror Reaper" and I’ve had a hard time turning that album off. It's actually one long song. It's a 70-minute song that’s beautifully orchestral while still being heavy and intense. To drink with it, I like a cask-strength single barrel Rye. Has some balls to it. Got some punch. It doesn't apologize for itself, but if you're in the mood for it, you ask for it, you know?

4. What would you eat and drink for your last supper?
I would probably want to have a perfectly grilled rib eye and maybe some grilled okra and grilled peaches to follow it up. But if it's my very last one? I'm probably going to go full circle and do that with an overproof Ardbeg.

5. Assuming Balcones is your favorite, what's your second favorite Bourbon?
I'm probably gonna have to go with Four Roses at the present. These things change all the time, but yeah. Put a gun to my head right now, give me a pour of the single barrel, and not the 100-proof, cask-strength.

How do you compete with Bourbon from Kentucky? How do you differentiate yourself?

Jared: Part of the reason it took us a while to even get around to playing with Bourbon was because we started off with our corn Whiskeys and single malts while almost every other craft distiller in the country leads with a Bourbon. Right? And then if they have a second product, it's gonna be a Rye. So to some degree, we felt like everyone else was playing in that space. Not that we wanted to stay out of it, but we didn't want to focus on it too much.

We've always used the roasted blue corn that we use for all our corn Whiskeys.

But no, I don't remember really worrying about how different it is to do Bourbon here versus Kentucky. A lot of the craft distillers in the U.S. making Bourbon still have ties to Maker's Mark or some other distiller—they consulted with someone who was retired. A lot of them are doing the process as close as they can to some of the Kentucky guys.

We have a couple differences. We've always used the roasted blue corn that we use for all our corn Whiskeys. So that was kind of an obvious, "Well, if we're gonna make Bourbon, we'll use that as the base instead of yellow or white corn."

We have four sizes of pot stills. We don't have column stills. So we knew that making Bourbon in a pot still would be a huge difference as well.

And the climate in Texas gets people to talk about it plenty, especially now that Texas Whiskey is more on the map. We do have a very unique aging and maturation climate. It's pretty extreme highs and lows, a lot of variation, so we knew that the wood profile would be different. Also, we had already been doing single malt for a while, so we had a pretty good idea of what this climate, along with our barrels and stills, do with different grains.

Considering all of that, there's no way this place would make something that would be easily confused with a Kentucky Bourbon.

But there's something to be said for the flavor appreciation we end up developing just by consuming things over a lifetime. It’s always cool when someone who is maybe 50 or 60-years-old says "I'm a Jack Daniels drinker," or, "I'm a Buffalo Trace drinker," and then they switch. I find that really interesting. I always want to talk to them about the process of switching from a Kentucky or Tennessee Whiskey or a Kentucky Bourbon, to drinking Texas-made stuff. What's that like for them? So, yeah.

Talk to us a bit about the flavor profile of your Bourbon.

Jared: The first one we led with years ago was our blue corn Bourbon, Balcones Baby Blue Corn Whiskey, which is 100% blue corn. We were already making 100% blue corn mash bills for our corn Whiskey, so at first, we took the same spirit off the stills and put it into new cooperage.

Once we saw how that was going, we went to work on our Rye Whiskey, Balcones Texas Rye 100 Proof, which we just started selling last year. In doing so, we realized that we had to have malt in house. We have our corn. We were going to be playing around with rye for 100% rye Whiskey. It seemed like kind of a no-brainer to try a few batches of High-Rye Bourbon.

The blue corn, because it’s roasted, has some nuttiness to it, and some of the roast can give you a bitter taste, like hints of baking cocoa. Not a lot of fruit. We played around with a lot of different cooperage here. We always have some French oak floating around in the building, mostly for use with our single malt, but we found that the French oak gives the blue corn Bourbon a lot more spice, a lot more tannic flavor and a little bit less of the vanilla and caramel that American wood gives you. So it has kind of a dry, mineral tannic finish on it.

Our Rye Whiskey actually has some specialty rye in it—specialty in the brewer sense. So there's some caramel rye in there, there's some chocolate rye, there's some roasted rye and those are all just different ways of malting rye, or roasting rye, to get different colors and different flavors out of it. So we used all of that specialty in the High Rye portion so that the 39% of our High Rye Bourbon that is rye has Elbon rye, which is a local heirloom rye from the North Texas/Southern Oklahoma area, and it also has a small portion of Cara rye.

We also went with a different toast and char profile on that one. Part of it is to help differentiate it from the blue corn Bourbon, but with all that specialty darker rye grain in there, we didn't really need as much of that French oak presence. We were getting a lot of cocoa and hints of bitter stuff. There's a little bit of a marzipan, peanut butter thing going on because of the chocolate and the Cara rye. But you still get a lot of the butter from the corn—kind of a popcorn and tortilla chips type taste.

I guess that’s about as Texas of a product as you can get. The barley is grown here, malted here, and then we fermented it, distilled it, and then it went into oak barrels from Texas live oak trees.

But we've been playing around with that. We might up it because some of the batches that had a higher malt content were starting to get a stone fruits taste—peach and dried apricot that I really love. Those are some of my favorite fruit notes to get. Obviously, a lot of people talk about cherry and cough syrup when they talk about Bourbon or, you know, bubblegum and fruit salad. But finding stone fruits in these single malts or in the Bourbon is always a really nice accent. So we've been kind of playing around with different arrangements of the mash bill to see if we can't accentuate some of that going forward.

What food pairs best with it?

Jared: Well, we're in Texas, so beef, barbecuing steaks and things like that are always a solid choice with Whiskey—especially with Bourbon. And as much as we do barbecue here in Texas, I encourage people to avoid a lot of that black pepper and smoke, which can kind of linger. The question you should really ask is: do you want the Bourbon to be accompanying the dish or do you want the food to be accompanying the Whiskey? Even when we do food pairings with restaurants and chefs, that's always the trick, right? Are we gonna try to put a dinner together that highlights the spirits or are we gonna sit down, take the menu, and then make some decisions on what spirits would best pair with the different courses?

You know, something sticky, something bold and big that can stand up to a very rich kind of caramelized fruit.

But it's no surprise to anyone how well anything chocolate-based—whether it's pastries, pie, brownies, or chocolate chip cookies—goes with Bourbon. Those have been pretty classic pairings for Whiskey. But going back to my stone fruit conversation, when I grill, my wife always likes to do pineapple on the grill. So you kind of get it smoked and a little bit charred.

I started doing peaches halved. Just take the pit out, put some butter on there, and do the same thing. You kind of get some of the bitterness from the charred portions, and then you caramelize a lot of that sugar and when I get the peaches off the grill after cooking steaks or barbecuing, my mind immediately wants to go in and see what I have open that's a nice overproof. You know, something sticky, something bold and big that can stand up to a very rich kind of caramelized fruit.

What does the future hold?

Jared: We have a lot of things underway. I told you about the Texas Pot Still Bourbon. We played around a lot last year with one-off malt expressions, some of which has been in the works for a long time.

We have Independent Stave, which is our cooperage. They made three barrels out of Texas live oak for us about four to five years ago, and once again, going back to kind of those what-ifs… you're sitting there and you ask yourself, no one's ever tried it, so why not? Why haven't we given it a shot? We might as well. So we had these barrels made and the first round of Whiskey coming out of those barrels is gonna be released here in a month or two. We have two single barrels.

One's going to be a single malt and the other's going to be the blue corn Bourbon that went into those. So that's coming out this year. We have the first round of Texas-grown barley from about three years ago, I think. Texas is obviously very dry and very hot, so some of the maltsters in the state have been working on trying to find a variety that could resist the heat and drought. It was about three or four summers ago that they finally had a crop that worked, so we bought all we could.

We didn't get all of it but we got most of it. And some of that went into the live oak barrels, as well. So, in my mind, I guess that’s about as Texas of a product as you can get. The barley is grown here, malted here, and then we fermented it, distilled it, and then it went into oak barrels from Texas live oak trees. So that's gonna be pretty fun.

We also found this old agricultural article from the early 1900s that articulated the makeup and location of all this Texas peat that's out in East Texas where it's kind of boggy. So my still hop manager and I are in the middle of trying to track down how much of it is still there.

Finding out who owns this land, doing some testing on it and then conducting some trial batches to see if we can lay down some Texas barley using Texas peat, that’ll be pretty fun.

It was never used for Whiskey. It was used for agriculture, for farming, and they stopped doing that when it was cheaper to get peat brought down from Canada and the Midwest. So we know it's all still there. It hasn't been touched in almost 100 years, but finding out who owns this land, doing some testing on it and then conducting some trial batches to see if we can lay down some Texas barley using Texas peat, that’ll be pretty fun.

The list goes on and on. I mean, I think we had 21 different labels last year—different releases—and this year we have a few more than last year. I personally don't have ADD, but I think we collectively do. The list of things that we want to try and play around with, it doesn't seem to get much smaller. So, yeah. We're having a lot of fun.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

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