Distillery Focus

Good neighbours make great whisky

Whiskey making in one of the largest states in the Union
By Davin de Kergommeaux
Jared Himstedt noses his whiskey
Jared Himstedt noses his whiskey
The phone rattles in my pocket. A text. Our rental car is ready and Winston is waiting at baggage carousel E31. Laura Foster, a UK-based reviewer for this magazine, Colin Hampden-White and Emily Harris are still a couple of hours out, and wildly turbulent air over the Rockies means Fred Minnick won’t join us in Dallas for a while yet either.

Winston and I wait in the bar at Mi Dia restaurant downing cocktails made with Rey Campero Mezcal. David Phelps, an Oklahoma sculptor with a B.A. in ceramics has a pretty, plaster-cast bronze called Pastoral Dreamer reclining in Mi Dia’s yard. It reminds me of another Okie sculptor, Don Bonham, who in the 1960s cast women’s bodies in fibreglass and turned them into phantasmal motorcycles. Phelps’ make money; Bonham’s made Playboy. Dallas, it turns out is a gallery of innocuous public art.

Their flight lands and we collect the British delegation. Winston drops us in Plano and heads back for a still straggling Fred. If poured cement cells and plywood furniture at NYLO Plano hotel shout “industrial,” then steam-table breakfast screams “prison,” and I register 5 stars on Trip Advisor, as 600 others have done before me. This hotel is a Bonham, not a Phelps. It’s authentic.

Winston Edwards is brand ambassador for Balcones Distillery and a lifelong Texan. He skips the clichés. We soon learn his whisky does too. First though, he wants us to meet his chums.

Friends first, whisky second
Morning sees us about 20 minutes from the Oklahoma border in Sherman, Texas. That’s area code 903 on your smartphone. Brittany LaFollett has invited us to 903 Brewers where she is brand ambassador. Brittany joined us last night at Whiskey Cake over fried green tomatoes, mesquite arrosto misto (fire-roasted vegetables) and the restaurant’s namesake dessert. She laughs easily, sometimes at her own stories, and she pours a decent pint. Sasquatch is 903’s claim to fame. It’s a rich imperial milk stout. “Some barrel brokers will sell you bad barrels,” brew master, Jeremy Roberts laments, “so it’s good to have friends.” He smiles, and lays two hands on the 5-gallon Balcones barrel where our Sasquatch matured.

A knot of jerry-rigged copper
pipes connects two hand built copper pot stills to an equally crude tangle of tubes leading into two handmade condensers. It seems a miracle no one was killed, making whisky in conditions unfit even for a Scottish bootlegger’s bothy.

Locals, of course, bought the whisky eagerly, and soon so did connoisseurs nation wide. It wasn’t long before investors came sniffing around. They may have liked what they heard about the whisky and how it tasted, but they hated the rat’s nest where it was made. Their initial $4.5 million came with strings – the distillery would forsake the 17th street hovel for new quarters six blocks northeast on 11th.

New digs, same whisky
Although it bears no physical resemblance to the original, the new distillery was designed to produce the same spirit that made Balcones so desirable in the first place. Scaling up was not an easy task though. Engineers at Forsyths decided that the only way to replicate the effect of the lyne arm from those stubby 225-gallon original stills was to pass the spirit vapour through a four-turn copper coil before directing it into the copper condenser.

“The newer bottlings are just that much tastier than earlier ones,” someone remarks, and Himstedt points out that he is still working with whisky from the old distillery. “We’re getting better at blending it.” Blending was something Himstedt didn’t really think about in the early days.

He’d heard that his whisky would mature more quickly in small barrels. What he didn’t realise, was how much work it would be to dump those barrels when they were ready. Ten five-gallon barrels produce about as much whisky as one 53-gallon standard Bourbon barrel but require ten times the effort. Since each barrel is slightly different, choosing which ones to blend together for a batch is ten times as much work. “The whisky was going to change anyway, we have all new stills and all new condensers,” Himstedt says, explaining that Balcones has abandoned small barrels in favour of standard ones.

Balcones fans, worried that an influx of cash might lead to compromises, can relax. That signature Balcones quality has not suffered one iota at the new $14 million distillery. Just the contrary, Himstedt has hit his stride and that should delight whisky lovers.

Balcones symmetries
Himstedt first came to Waco to study ceramics at Baylor University. Being more than a simple pastoral dreamer, he was drawn to social work and began volunteering with an urban ministry for the homeless. “We’d hold church under a bridge,” he recalls. “The person sitting next to you might be a prostitute or a drug addict.” This is typical Himstedt small talk and it surprises no one. We’ve learned that neighbourliness characterises the Balcones’ ethos.

Tasting Notes
Balcones True Blue 100 50% ABV
Sweet creamy toffees, then tropical fruits, hints of boiled corncobs and pulling, well-seasoned old wood. Initially mild spices develop into a warming peppery glow.

Balcones Baby Blue 46% ABV
Sweet buttery toffees and blackstrap molasses, dundery farm smells with hints of horse barn. Briskly tannic and minty hot. Barrel notes develop into sweet pipe tobacco.

Balcones Texas Blue Corn Bourbon 64.9% ABV
Sharp, fresh, lush and full. Peppery boiled sweet corn, oak caramels, restrained vanilla and hints of milk chocolate. Mild but tightly structured barrel notes.
The new Balcones Distillery
The new Balcones Distillery