Maturation of Spirit

By Emily Ober

Balcones Distillery celebrates 15 years

Pictured: Photo by Avery Ballmann

“We knew we had the idea of maybe what could happen.”

It’s that moment of holding your breath, wondering if all the hard work is going to pay off. If this thing you’ve put so much time, effort and money into will be worth it.

Six years ago, the Balcones Distillery team started on an ambitious project that would be their most expensive bottle to hit the shelves, Cataleja single malt whisky.

It began with barley: Old World barley.

“The barley that we use specifically — and that we’ve kind of always been known for — is Golden Promise,” said Alex Elrod, National Single Barrel & Brand Education Manager for Balcones. “Up until the ‘80s or ‘90s, all of the big Scotch producers in Scotland would have been using Golden Promise. It was the preeminent, most beloved child of the barley world, but it wasn’t producing enough alcohol. It produces good flavor, but not a lot of alcohol. Scientists and labs came up with better strains. At the end of the day, producers are looking to maximize alcohol efficiency, and Golden Promise kind of fell to the wayside.”

While Balcones does integrate Texas malting barley, it wasn’t around when Balcones distilled its first whisky in 2008. Today, Texas barley is combined with Golden Promise in their Lineage single malt whisky, but for Cataleja, this specific focus on the Old World way of whiskey called for Golden Promise barley and its “crazy rich history” that brings specific headers to the flavor.

Next came the casks, and what better way to finish an Old World barley than in an Old World cask? After maturing for three years in barrels that once held Kentucky bourbon, the whiskey was transferred into decommissioned 500 liter sherry solera puncheons.

“These are Pedro Ximenez (sherry) puncheons — PX is what you call it for short,” Elrod said. “These casks in the world of wine are very normal, but for whisky, having a new version versus a used one that you’re doing your primary aging in, is extremely abnormal.”

Hand selected and shipped all the way from bodegas across Jerez de la Frontera, Spain, these puncheons that held wine for between 50 and 100 years now infuse distinct flavor into the wood that sits in Balcones’ upper floors.

“When you look at this solera, this will only ever hold the Old World barley because it held Old World wine,” Elrod said.

After a little over a year of finishing, the whisky is transferred to smaller neutral casks to let the intense sherry flavor soften for another two years.

“That first round absorbed a lot of wine, so this is us trying to be involved without overdoing it from the human stimulation side of things and listening to the whisky,” Elrod explained. “It is very much a strategic process, which is really difficult, with a fine margin of error, but it is allowing for the whisky to tell us what we should be doing as far as tasting.”

After maturing for the minimum four years for the NAS — No Age Statement — label, Cataleja is bottled and stamped with the signature gold wax seal reserved only for special releases.

“We wanted it to be bombastic and intense and chewy, and I think we’ve hit the nail on the head,” Elrod said. “It’s overwhelming, it’s intense — 59% [alcohol], so it’s big.”

And nearly three months later, Cataleja is making a name in the whiskey world. For good reason. This blend is bold, big and distinctive — much like the distillery found right here in Waco.

Head distiller Jared Himstedt has been with Balcones since its founding in 2008. Born from a passion to create something original and authentic in a tiny distillery under the bridge at 17th Street, Balcones is the original Texas whiskey. After diving into the budding market of American single malts and producing the first Texas whiskey to hit the market — Baby Blue — the rest is history.

Fifteen years later, Balcones’ year-round staples are found on shelves across six different states, including Lineage single malt whisky, Texas 1 single malt whisky, Brimstone smoked whisky, Texas Rye, the original Baby Blue blue corn whisky and Rumble cask reserve, which will soon quietly leave the shelves, as it’s phased out. There have been other special releases over the years — the sweet single malt Hechiceros, the rich Brujeria, the bittersweet chocolatey French Oak, as well as annual releases that hit the shelves once a year, including Mirador, True Blue and Peated Texas single malt.

And for Balcones, it’s spelled whisky as another nod to the Old World.

“There’s nothing that legally defines whether you pick one way or another,” Elrod explained. “Historically, single malt producers from Scotland called it that to differentiate themselves from the Irish, which is spelled with an E. And then American producers adopted the idea of spelling it with an E. Very early, we just wanted to make single malt. We’re more enamored by the idea. Texas barley didn’t exist. There wasn’t any precedent for looking at New World opportunities. We were founded with a little bit more Old World ideas. That’s why the name comes from, instead of a person, it’s a place. Instead of with an E, it’s without an E. So it’s kind of like a tip of the cap to the Old World spelling. To be a little more disruptive.”

Balcones’ spirit of creativity, its desire to craft something new and interesting that blends the old style of distilling whiskey with new innovations, has propelled the distillery to distinction in the whiskey world. It has won more than 400 awards, including Whiskey of the Year and American Single Malt Distillery of the Year in 2023.

Balcones was recently bought by Diageo, a multinational alcoholic beverage marketing company, which has allowed the distillery to focus its efforts.

“When you’re so close to the process, you sometimes lose sight of the bigger picture. Diageo came, and we’re realizing the whole idea of opening this distillery was to make single malt. And we did, and we have, always,” Elrod said. “Part of it is we’ve always produced so many things — which is not a bad thing — but for us it’s pretty taxing, and so it’s this idea that we’ve wanted to self-edit.”

The American Single Malt Whiskey Commission was established in 2016, making American single malts a distinct category in the whiskey world. American single malt is a whiskey made of 100% malted barley, distilled within one distillery in the United States. And it’s in this category that Balcones is making its name.

“In the whiskey book, bourbon has a huge chapter — we’re not even a footnote,” Elrod said. “American single malt is still being written, and we’re one of the founding fathers. We’re doing the penmanship on that story. That sounds more interesting than fighting against the giants.”

This is the year when Balcones reached its own maturation.

“The reason we’re only recently starting to talk about this idea of ‘Old World’ in a very specific way is starting with this 15th anniversary year and then moving forward is a little bit of a soft recentering of single malts as the focus of everything we’re doing,” Elrod explained. “It’s what the distillery was founded on. But then, also looking ahead to the future.”

While this change may mean bittersweet farewells to some beloved blends, it also opens up opportunities for ventures that push the envelope of whiskey distilling.

One of which is a tweak of the current Texas Rye, which is shifting to a Bottled in Bond rye, meaning it’s now matured over four years rather than two.

“(Bottled in Bond) is having a resurgence and popularity — kind of like this cool throwback idea,” Elrod said. “It’s just tweaking it — it’s not brand new, necessarily. It’s just part of that maturation of us as people too.”

Balcones has also made the daring move of raising the percentage of Texas rye from 81% to a whopping 91%, with the remaining 9% being German rye.

“In the market there’s (not a lot of) 100% rye,” Elrod said. “Most of the time, it will be maybe 80% rye and then 20% corn, or maybe a little bit of barley or a little bit of wheat, but it’s mostly corn and rye. This is 100% rye, and it’s made in copper pot stills, which is extremely rare, so it’s a really neat release. It’s going to come into our year-round portfolio. This is kind of like that evolution in our core whiskies.”

Balcones is already looking ahead and planning its next special release for some time in April, but they’ll still sip and savor the Cataleja release.

“UPROXX just named Cataleja their favorite American single malt of the year,” Elrod said.

Though it’s been a decade-and-a-half of hard work and innovation, this is only the beginning for Balcones.

“It’s kind of full circle on the idea of maturing whisky — but us as people, us as artists versus just us as whisky makers. We’re reaching a maturity at 15 years old, getting our learner’s permit,” Elrod said. “It can be this complex story, but at the end of the day, we also ask, ‘Does it taste good?’”