Handle The Proof: Texas Whisky

Chip Tate and Stephen Germer for some reason decided the time was right for a craft Texas whiskey to hit the market. So they formed Balcones Distillery and set up along I-35, just south of Waco, amongst fields of heather and weathered peat bogs soaked by clear mountain springs...no, that doesn't sound right.

But they were right--a craft whiskey movement is brewing, with distilleries in Oregon, New York and several places in between turning out classic rye, soft corn whiskeys and American versions of scotch.

Balcones has two products on the market now--a blue corn whisky (they use the Scottish spelling) called Baby Blue and a curious not-quite-rum known as Rumble--with a single malt line on the way. The company was founded with a "why the hell not" attitude and a course of study in Scotland, but they've gone through the trouble of pounding out pot stills by hand and doing all the other things slightly insane and thoroughly committed craftsmen do.

Which is to say Germer was making the rounds introducing the brand and stopped by our office with a sample. So here's a look at what they've managed to accomplish in a few short years.

Baby Blue is a corn spirit distilled from blue corn purchased from a Hopi Indian coop in New Mexico and bottled at around 92 proof. On the nose it shows striking natural aromas, with a grassy afterburn, some floral hints, just a touch of sharpness and a strong medicinal character. It resembles the rough homebrew "brandies" I've tried in Europe.

Given this introduction, the flavor comes as a surprise. It is smooth, with an earthy backbone and pronounced smack of sweet corn, followed by a steady, oaken sting and some malty notes. Of course, that's from a bottle labeled "Batch 5." From "Batch 7" you encounter a harder sensation of scorched oak and less whisky bite.

The impression is of an immature bourbon, though one compellingly easy to sip and capable of greater complexity than you'd expect from a young spirit. Between the two batches, it seems as if the still master is searching for the right profile.

He may find it--though the vagaries of Texas heat does affect the speed and quality of aging, as do the smaller barrels Balcones insists on using. For now, the blue corn aspect doesn't hurt, especially when it comes to marketing. And there's nothing wrong with bringing a more refined "corn liquor" to the shelves.

Their Rumble is distilled from figs, Texas honey and sugar. You could compare it to rum, but there's a different edge to it--more of a burnished quality. Fruit and honey appear prominently on the nose and the palate, though without the sweetness of rum and much less of a burn...which is odd, considering the they bottle at close to 50 percent alcohol.

It seems to be more "dialed in" than the Baby Blue, more complete--although it's not a spirit you want to make a night of.

On the whole, these are in the "of interest" category, bottles worth checking out to see if they suit your taste--for they are quite different than your everyday whisky, bourbon and rum options.

The single malt may be out in a year. Hopefully they don't stop perfecting the Baby Blue as they ready their version of Scotland for market.