Meet the Distillery That Pioneered Texas-Made Whiskey

Photo: Mikhail Tikhonov (Getty Images)

When many of us think about Texas, we envision many things including the Alamo, barbecue, and Jerry Jones. We don’t usually think about whiskey. While the spirit is made all over the country, it’s Kentucky that usually gets all the credit. But, in recent years the Lone Star State has begun to make a major name for itself in the world of whiskey. That’s why it’s the right time to give the state the attention it deserves.

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Balcones Distilling isn’t just one of the most popular distilleries in Texas, it’s one of the most renowned in the whole country. Located in Waco, the distillery showcases its Texas pride in every expression it makes. It’s also home to the first legally sold Texas-made whiskey since prohibition.

New to the whiskey game

It’s true that it’s taken the whole country a while to catch up after Prohibition. Even with the explosion of smaller producers, we are still not up to pre-Prohibition numbers. When Balcones started making whiskey in Waco in 2009, there wasn’t a single whiskey made in Texas on the shelves. “There was no way to know with certainty what kind of whiskey this place wanted to make,” says Head Distiller Jared Himstedt. “We didn’t know that we’d have to modify the barrels to withstand the Texas temperature swings, that the liquid would extract wood so quickly, and a million other things that we’d have to create and/or modify to make it all work.”

Making whiskey in Texas is challenging because of the climate and the dramatic temperature swings. “If you try to make whiskey here using traditional materials and techniques, you’ll get a wood bomb pretty fast,” says Himstedt.

A special place to make whiskey

The things that make it challenging are also the things that make it special. “Our climate is extreme, which offers opportunities and complexities that are unique to here. The crazy and volatile weather seems like an appropriate fit for the character of the place,” says Himstedt. “The rugged, pioneering personality of the state and its people is reflected in whiskeys that range from traditional to experimental, but that are all full-flavored and unapologetic.”

Texas is so big, and the landscape and agriculture are different across all the regions. “For Balcones specifically, we are located in Waco, which is north central Texas,” says Himstedt. “We are sort of at the intersection of Texas geography. Two tectonic plates collide at the Balcones fault line which gives us a lot of rich topographical variety.”

For Himstedt, the Texas landscape personifies possibility. “The wide-openness implies options and what-ifs, but at the same time it is demanding, which toughens you up and forces you to make decisions and choices that require you to really step up.” The whiskey Balcones makes requires a lot of hard work and human interaction, and it reflects the qualities that people associate with Texans in general.

The impact of the Texan climate

Himstedt tries to take advantage of the Texan climate to make whiskey that comes out balanced and mature. “We dance a fine line with this very rapid and rich wood extraction,” he says. “We go through a lot of tricking of the process to make sure that everything else about the maturation can keep pace with that heavy wood extraction that we just naturally get from the climate.”

The crazy temperature changes, specifically on the maturation side of things, do create some unique dilemmas. “The climate gives us huge potential for body and mouthfeel as far as texture in the mid-palate,” says Himstedt. “We don’t want to control the climate and drastic temperature changes in Texas, but rather alter other parameters during the distillation process like yeast choices, fermentation temperatures, and pH.”

Himstedt has done all these other things to try and allow all the other aspects of maturation to compliment the other things that they can’t really control such as the climate. “People will ask me why Balcones just doesn’t air condition the warehouse where we age our barrels, but if I do that then that would take away the point of distilling whiskey in Texas and a lot of what makes distilling in this state special.”

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The original Texas whiskey

Balcones has only been in operation for 10 years, but they make it their goal to make every batch better than the last. “We’re surrounded by so many talented and hard-working people and it is a privilege to do what we do,” says Himstedt. “Our people and their interaction with the product throughout the process is what makes Balcones special.”

Balcones Baby Blue was the first Texas-made whiskey on the market since Prohibition. “A couple of others started distilling whiskey around the same time, but Baby Blue was the first on the market.”

This year, Balcones released over 20 different expressions. They break it down into the following categories: Core Expressions include Baby Blue, Texas Single Malt, Texas Rye 100, True Blue 100, Rumble, and Brimstone. Annual Releases include Blue Corn Bourbon, True Blue Cask, Rumble Cask Reserve, and Texas Rum. Special Releases (available at the Distillery only) are French Oak, Texas Single Malt Staff Selection, Rye Cask Strength, and many others depending on the year.

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This year they also started rolling out a Texas Single Malt Single Barrel Private Selection program wherein folks can visit the distillery and select their own single barrel. “We’ve been so happy with peoples’ reactions to this and will be expanding this offering moving forward,” says Himstedt.

Balcones is currently available in 20 states and will be opening in Colorado later in the year. “We’re in every major liquor store in those states,” says Himstedt. “And of course, people can buy bottles at our distillery in Waco anytime.”