The Grackle

Observations, Reflections and Miscellany from the Wacoan

From Scotland to Waco, with Love.

Distillery Tours Offer Peek Behind the Scenes

4 weeks ago

By Emily Ober

Balcones. You’ve probably seen the name around town by now. You’ve likely seen the “Original Texas Whiskey” on the shelves or passed by the big red building on 11th street, or even noticed a bottle in our Wish List section of the magazine. There’s more to this award-winning, internationally recognized distillery that calls Waco its home.

Opened in 2008, Balcones didn’t make its home in the old Texas Fireproof Storage Company until 2011. As Texas’ second oldest distillery, it’s still quite young but brings a lot of history in to help craft its exceptional whiskeys and bourbons.

For those curious about the process of how grains turn into our favorite drinks, Balcones offers a tour of their distillery Thursday through Saturday.

This hour-long venture takes visitors through the process in their “grain to glass distillery.” This is my second time on the tour, and I was eager to return because you just feel the passion and excitement that the distillers have for their craft. Our guide, Aryn, emphasized several times the ‘experiments’ that they enjoy as they seek to create unique whiskeys with flavor notes that you will only find from the little distillery from Waco.

Throughout the tour, you’ll learn much about the Scottish traditions that Balcones has implemented in their distillery. First would be the name. Following the Scottish tradition of naming your whiskey after the water source, Balcones did the same. The distillery started by sourcing water from the springs of the Balcones fault line that runs from Dallas to San Antonio. Recently, with demand far exceeding the small spring, they’ve turned to reverse osmosis Waco water. Though the water source has changed, the name remains. It perhaps sounds slightly more appealing than Waco Whiskey.

As the tour continues, you learn all the things that make Balcones so unique. From the Heirloom Barley grown in Scotland — which Balcones is one of the few major distilleries still using — to uniquely roasted Hopi blue corn, it’s the grain that begins the process that sets the flavor notes.

“After harvest, our blue corn is roasted to our specification in West Texas before it is delivered to our distillery in Waco. If you look closely, you can see nearly-popped kernels from the roasting process. Next, the corn will move from our grain silos into the Mill Room.” – Photo courtesy Balcones Distillery Facebook page.

Because Balcones seeks to do everything, they have twice the machines to process the barley and the corn. Some of these machines come all the way from Scotland, including the giant copper mash tun. The giant water tanks also hail from Scotland and even boast their shipping label proudly on their side. They also have seven fermenters but are planning to add five more as their operation continues to grow. As you make your way to the end of the tour, your shown yet another unique feature of the distillery. Rather than the standard swan neck intermediate spirit receiver for the copper stills, Balcones has a custom-built coil that was made in Scotland.

A key component to the distillation of Balcones’ Bourbons are the custom copper pot stills made by Forsyths in Scotland.
Photo by Mark Waldrop / Sidekick agency

And finally, you get to the bottling. Balcones is found all over the world, including across the nation, the EU, UK, Australia and even Japan. Bottling 20,000 bottles a week, this distillery is always busy serving up some of the best whiskeys.

At the end of your tour, you get to taste the drinks you’ve been salivating over as you explore the distillery. With the small tasting glass that is yours to keep, you can sample the four staples of the distillery.

  • Baby Blue Corn Whiskey – Texas’ first legal whiskey since prohibition. Exclusively finished in used barrels. Melted butter, caramel corn, fresh bread, brown sugar, sweet tea
  • Pot Still Bourbon – Finished in new, charred barrels. Coating & oily with apples toasted oak, honey and leather
  • Texas “1” Single Malt – Finished primarily in new barrels. Peaches and apples, honey, silky, body, toasted bread, fresh butter, marmalade
  • Texas Rum – Best in class for under five-year rum. White rum best pot distillation in the world. Rock candy, hoisin, grilled pineapple, cacao nibs

Following the tasting, you return to the bar where you can purchase one of these fine drinks for yourself. When you buy a bottle at the bar, it’s stamped with the date of purchase, making it a great souvenir to remember your day at the distillery. And with flights on the menu, you can be sure to try several and find the best bottle to bring home with you.

Balcones always seeks to try something new. That’s what makes this distillery so special. They aren’t afraid to change things up and have fun with their craft. Their latest release is the new Wine Finished Blue Corn Bourbon. Finished in Washington Cabernet and California Grenache wine casks. This new bourbon is a softer approach the traditional Blue Corn Bourbon that’s a staple to the Balcones lineup. With notes of oiled leather sofa and candied pecans and the taste of black cherry ice cream and strawberry jam on a scone, this new finish is a true testament to the creativity that comes from our local distillery.

And in the last two years, Balcones has added beer to their repertoire. You’ll only find this exclusive brew here in town, as it’s kegged only. They serve it in-house and at local bars and restaurants. You might spot a Balcones tap at a local bookshop down the street.

The Diageo family recently bought Balcones, bring them into the large family of distributors, so we’re excited to see the distillery continue to grow.

Find out more by visiting their website, balconesdistilling.com.

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