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Sunday 1 April 2012

Craft Distillers Part 2 - Balcones

Continuing on from where we left off with the wonderful Hudson craft whiskey, our next virtual visit takes us to Texas and the equally wonderful Balcones. We were fortunate enough to meet up with Balcones founder and chief wizard, Chip Tate at this year's Whisky Live London. Chip was in fine form and in possession of some highly unusual new bottlings, as well as perhaps the most impressive beard in the western hemisphere.

The story of Balcones comes as close to the meaning of 'artisinal distillery' as you can possibly get. Chip begin his distilling exploits back in 2008, after deciding to develop his passion for brewing a step further. But not content with simply learning the craft, Chip decided to hand build all manner of the actual distilling equipment used at Balcones.

Chip is in possession of an unrivalled enthusiasm, especially when it comes to trying out new recipes and innovations. One of the distillery's first major break throughs was working with atole, or blue corn, a cereal, notoriously difficult to produce a decent mash with, due to its density. This 'thick porridge' as Chip calls it is also superbly flavoursome and the recent batches of Balcones Baby Blue corn whisky have redefined the category for many, who found the style of whisky too one dimensional (which, I must confess includes us)

Balcones Baby Blue – Blue Corn Whisky – 46%

Nose: Sweet nutty notes, milk chocolate covered peanuts, burnt caramel and a hint of coffee beans.

Palate: Rich in the mouth, with very sweet - then spicy liquorice notes, milky coffee and salted caramel.

Finish: Lingering sweetness with a touch of poached pear on the death.

Overall: Still unmistakably a corn whisk(e)y, but oozing character, flavour and - emotion. If you have tried corn whisk(e)y before and not really 'got it', give this a whirl and be prepare to have your opinion changed.

Chip was also over to showcase two other particularly unusual whiskies, one of which rather controversially is probably not even a whisky at all, but will give most new craft whiskies a proper run for their money.

Rumble, has been developed by Chip from a localised recipe of Texas wildflower honey, turbinado sugar and mission figs - so you could probably say it is nearer a distilled mead/rum and an Arak than an actual whisky! But pour yourself a glass and wait to be stunned - the complexity of fruit notes, sweet vanilla tones and oak is hard to fathom.

Balcones - Rumble - Cask Reserve bottling - 59%

Nose: A melange of dried fruits: apricot, dates, prunes and rum soaked raisins, mix effortlessly with fresh vanilla pods, muscovado sugar, and some floral, honeyed notes.

Palate: Powerful and dominant to begin with. Needs some water to calm down the fire. Then the fun begins. Almost sherried Speyside in its first approach to the palate- woody spice, masses of dried fruit and then a layer of delicious sweet vanilla. Put this side-by-side with a bunch of aged sherry cask whiskies and it will undoubtedly hold its own... and more. Superb.

Finish: Lingering spice (clove and cinnamon) and more dried fruit.

Overall: A total revelation. Hopefully this will be coming to the UK soon and the rest of Europe. If you happen to be reading this in the US... lucky bastards.

The final dram Chip poured for us is perhaps his most innovative. As smoky whiskies go, the US isn't that well known for producing anything to trouble the likes of Islay and Brimstone certainly doesn't go after that crown. What it does do is redefine how we perhaps think about how to make a whisky smoky. Trade secrets aside, Brimstone is actually a whisky smoked not from the malting stage, but actually in the final stages of its life, using a process of infusion and a pile of Texas scrub oak. The result is unlike any smoky whisky we've ever tried that's for sure - brooding, powerful and unashamedly nuts!

Balcones - Brimstone - 53%

Nose: From the first uncorking of the bottle, your room, clothes, hair and probably eyeballs will be enveloped by smoke - not just any ordinary smoke, but the sort that you find at a barbecue. Braised hickory steaks, charcoal smoke, charred barrels and pepper corns dry frying in a hot pan. Alongside, some sweet corn whisky notes, vanilla and a hint of oaky spice.

Palate: The smoke continues and dominates the whole of the mouth. Don't think medicinal peat smoke, think freshly sawn pine logs, thrown into a roaring fire. Big, bold and terrifyingly SMOKY! The corn notes bring up the rear, but give enough mouthfeel and sweetness to take this away from being one dimensional.

Finish: Have a guess...

Overall: Probably the smokiest spirit in the world. Bang.

Like Tuthilltown and Corsair, Balcones represents the beating heart of the US craft distilling movement and with over 300 working micro distilleries in America and Canada, the future of innovative distillation is in capable (if slightly wacky) hands indeed.