Tasting the Range: Balcones

Balcones Baby Blue True Blue Texas Whisky Whiskey Bottles

Last week, I went drinking on a school night. (And by school night I mean a night before work, obvs.) When I make choices like these, I usually face regret the next day and vow never to do it again. And yet, rarely do I choose to go out and drink through the entire line of one of America’s finest craft distilleries.

When that happens, there are NO regrets.

I trekked all the way to Hell Gate Social in my old hood, Astoria, for a tasting of Balcones whiskies led by Chip Tate, the bearded genius who founded the Waco, Texas distillery. His presentation ranked among the best I’ve ever gotten from an actual distiller, overpowering not by volume but by sheer gentle magnetism the noise of the backyard BBQ going on around us. He put the small crowd at ease immediately by chatting like we were all old friends and displaying the kind of understated hospitality that the best Southerners are known for.

Chip Tate Balcones Texas craft whisky whiskey distillery

Chip holds forth on his whisky

Plus, the whiskies were out-of-control AWESOME. I’d had some Balcones before, but never the opportunity to taste them all in one sitting, from the Texas Single Malt to the Brimstone with some special treats besides. Chip says he tries “to obey the flavor rules and not just do something weird to do something weird,” a refreshing position at a time when many craft distillers resort to gimmicks to distinguish themselves. Chip seeks to create a flavor profile that is unique and uniquely Texan, and boy, does he ever succeed. It was easy to connect the dots between the pours, and yet each expression stood on its own. Even if Balcones made only one of these spirits, the name would command same the respect and admiration as its full line of seven expressions.

Balcones Texas craft whisky whiskey glass

Examining my whisky

Chip’s “brand of whisky science” is that you have to start with quality to get quality. So he uses ingredients, like Hopi blue corn, and processes, like rigorous wood management and even building his own stills (he sported burn marks from recent welding), that he has tested and vetted and found to result in an excellent product. I think almost every distiller would claim the same philosophy, but when Chip says it, he can genuinely back it up. He’s turned down investors who wanted to increase production but on terms Chip didn’t agree with. Luckily, some investors came along who see the wisdom of letting the man behind the magic do things his way, and Balcones is building a new facility in Waco’s downtown that will increase production without sacrificing quality (hence the newly-welded stills).

Balcones Texas whisky whiskey craft

Josh is excited about the many bottles of Balcones

The evening passed too quickly, with excellent company and superb spirits. I can’t write about everything we tried, but I can hint that Balcones is releasing something pretty special in a few months’ time. Aw, heck, they’re all special, but this one will really catch people’s attention. I’d be mad that it’s not yet available, but Chip made us promise we wouldn’t be angry at him for pouring us things we can’t get.

Here are a few brief notes from the lineup. The atmosphere wasn’t conducive to my style of drawn out, thoughtful tasting, but I look forward to revisiting each of these drams again to discover new pleasures.

Balcones Texas Single Malt (53% ABV)
Sweet nose of caramel and brown sugar, with a hint of mocha. Sweet (cherry, jelly sweets, bubblegum), nutty and oaky palate with well-balanced spice (cinnamon, nutmeg).

Balcones Rumble (47%)
Note: this is not a whisky. It’s made with figs, honey and sugar. The nose is sugary and floral, the palate all molasses, honey, candied violets, and layered spice. In Chip’s words, it “came from years of sauce-making.” And indeed, it tastes like something I’d gladly spoon over my roast pork tenderloin.

Balcones Baby Blue (46%)
Nose of vanilla, mint, and toasted marshmallows. Palate of leather, sugar, tropical fruits, vanilla, and a slight smokiness. Chip called this the “reposado tequila of the corn whisky world”.

Balcones True Blue (50%)
A vegetal and smoky nose—like grilled steak over dark greens. The palate holds incredible mint and spice flavors, reminding me of certain Indian chutneys. It is so sweet, dark, vegetal, meaty, and benefits well from a few drops of water.

Balcones True Blue Cask Strength (58.3%)
The nose is pure maple syrup with a hint of tobacco; the palate also has maple, vanilla, lemon, and wood notes. A gut-punchingly good dram.

Balcones Fifth Anniversary Bourbon (64.2%)
This thing is so rich you could pour it on pancakes (but please don’t). I tasted it for the first time at WhiskyLive last spring, and you can hear my reaction here. Needless to say, this is one of the bottles you’ll have a hard time finding in stores and I am exceptionally pleased to have had it twice.

Balcones Brimstone (53%)
Chip says this whisky creates a psychosocial reaction in most folks, bringing back old memories, usually of something very primal from early childhood. It certainly reminds me of camping trips when I was a kid—it’s pure steak cooked over a mesquite fire, with sweet vanilla, mango, brown sugar, coriander penetrating the dense meatiness. This whisky might remind scotch drinkers of peated expressions, but unlike with Scotch malt whisky, where the barley is dried over fire for that smoky flavor, Brimstone—the spirit itself—is smoked through some secret, mystical hoodoo. Josh, the Coopered Tot, compares it to “bubbling through like bong water”. I’m going to just leave that there.

Balcones Brimstone Resurrection (59.2%)
The whisky that was “snatched from the jaws of hell” (i.e. corn burnt to a crisp, chiseled out of the bottom of a still and re-processed into something drinkable, then bottled after three years—see what they did there?) blew me out of the water. If I had to choose a favorite from the evening, I think this would be it. The nose is more subtle than the Brimstone—much less meat, much more fruit. The palate is one big WOW of honey, butterscotch, cardamom, and Fun Dip (yup, Fun Dip) riding beneath the smoky goodness. I could see myself drinking this for a week straight and still coming up with new revelations (wordplay!) with each sip. Too bad it’s another of those hard-to-find bottlings, created to celebrate Balcones’s fifth anniversary.

The only regret I woke up with was that the evening didn’t last longer. I think Chip and I could have had some interesting theological conversations to rival the complexity of his whiskies. Maybe next time. Have no doubt, I’ll disregard any school night for Balcones.

Find more whisky in Astoria at the Astoria Whiskey Society.

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Whisky Live 2013: In which my inner fangirl emerges

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When I lived in Scotland, I knew how spoiled for choice I was when it came to Scotch whisky. Besides the wide array of exceptional (and affordable) drams that even the smallest bars offered, it seemed like every other week there was a tasting, festival, or other event centered around the water of life. I realized that coming back to New York would mean adjusting my expectations of variety and opportunity.

Even so, New York City is probably the best place in the country to be a whisky drinker. We have oodles of great whisky bars, from the high-end down to the cheap and cheerful, and—thanks to the largest port on the East Coast and a slew of excellent importers and distributors—pretty much any whisky available anywhere in the US is available here, too. On top of that, several national whisky festivals make stops here: WhiskyFest, the Single Malt & Scotch Whisky Extravaganza, and WhiskyLive.

Walking into Pier Sixty at Chelsea Piers on Wednesday transported me back to happy memories of the Glasgow Whisky Festival, the Whisky Stramash, and the Whisky Fringe. Booth upon booth of delicious drams stretched before me, freely offering pours of old and new favorites. There was a healthy mix of Scottish, Irish, and American whiskies, as well as international whiskies from Japan, Australia, India, and Sweden.

The highlight of the evening, though, was the the people. I enjoyed running into friends from the NYC whisky community like Allison Patel, whose Brenne booth was mobbed the entire evening by ardent new fans, and Josh Feldman, pouring for Gordon & MacPhail and charming the whole room with his usual bonhomie. And I was elated to meet IRL Angelo (G-LO) and Max from It’s Just the Booze Dancing. Best of all, though, I got to meet two of my industry heroes. (Am I allowed to be that cheesy? This is my blog—heck yes!)

Max and G-LO

Max and G-LO

G-LO texted me while I was still on my way to say I’d been invited to join a Virtual Tasting panel by Mark Gillespie, whisky writer and the man behind the magic at WhiskyCast. If you aren’t familiar, WhiskyCast is a weekly podcast + app + website/community about—duh—whisky, and Mark is the genius/personality that makes it all go. His weekly episodes, which feature news from the whisky world and interviews with industry folks, are an audible treat that I usually save up for my Sunday morning walk to church (whisky being as reverent an experience for me as worship, dontchaknow).

I tell you what, when I read that text, I had a small panic attack on the M14 bus. I knew Mark was going to be at the event and had hoped to meet him there, even just to briefly shake his hand and tell him what a fan I am. Now I was not only meeting the man, but drinking with him—and the potential for any number of embarrassments reared its head. What if I hated the whisky? What if I couldn’t articulate what I tasted? What if I just sounded dumb (a genuine concern for me since the first time I heard my voice recorded)?

There was no reason to worry. Mark is as friendly and generous in person as he sounds like on the podcast. And the tasting was just like any other, plus microphones, so I felt relaxed and at ease throughout. Together with G-LO and Max, some friends of Mark’s, and Ian Chang, Master Distiller at Kavalan, we sampled four beautiful whiskies: the aforementioned Brenne, an Invergordon single grain from That Boutique-y Whisky Company, Balcones Fifth Anniversary Texas Straight Bourbon, and Redbreast 12 yo Cask Strength. What a delight! It was like being back in Edinburgh, except this time I could blether about my thoughts to a much wider audience than just my husband. (Anyone who knows me can tell you that speaking my mind makes for a very gleeful Susannah indeed.)

With Mark Gillespie!

With Mark Gillespie!

Mark also shared a taste of Cleveland Whiskey which he reviewed a couple weeks ago on WhiskyCast. Dear God. The only thing I can compare it to is if you mixed paint thinner with dried blood in a rusty bucket. Nothing more need be said, amirite?

The thrill of taking part in an actual WhiskyCast (sort of) infused my evening with a happy glow. And the excitement wasn’t over! The other whisky luminary I’d hoped to meet was Davin de Kergommeaux, writer of Canadian Whisky and author of the book of the same name. Next month, I’ll be taking part in a series of mystery tastings based around Davin’s book and I’ve been getting a head start on reading and boy, am I learning A LOT. I know next to nothing about Canadian whisky and what I do know is, apparently, incorrect. This book reveals the truth behind common myths about Canadian whisky plus copious other information: the history of distilling in Canada, how Canadian stills work, flavor profiles found in Canadian whiskies, and more facts about grains and yeast than I ever thought I wanted to know. It’s awesome. I’m actually pulling out post-its on the subway to mark which passages I want to re-read and where I have questions.

At the end of the evening, I still hadn’t managed to track down Davin, but I knew he was there: a tell-tale stack of his books indicated that he’d come by before the night was over to pick them up. I waited around a bit and then spotted Peter Silver, who pointed Davin out just a few steps away. I bubbled over and introduced myself and shook hands and probably acted pretty foolish…But it was just the perfect end to the evening. Davin is so nice. I mean, nearly every whisky person is nice but he is absolutely the nicest because he’s Canadian. He signed my book and didn’t mind a bit how much I gushed. In all the excitement, I forgot to take a picture with him, so you’ll just have to take my word for it that I was  grinning like a kid on Christmas.

I pretty much floated home, that’s how great an evening it was. Because of the time I spent doing the Virtual Tasting, I didn’t sample nearly as many whiskies as I’d have liked—but the trade-off was definitely worth it. There will be more whisky events this year (another is coming up in just a few days) but even if I don’t make it to the rest, Whisky Live 2013 has left me quite content for now.

An Evening of Scotch & Chocolate

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What’s better than a whisky tasting? A whisky tasting with chocolate.

The last time I attended a whisky event at the Morgan Library, it was hosted by Gordon & MacPhail and featured five of their independent bottlings plus a Benromach. Last Friday, Josh Feldman (aka writer of the Coopered Tot and personality extraordinaire) presented six unique whiskies coupled with stunning chocolates by Pacari. In a warm, inviting atmosphere, attendees softened chocolate between their fingers while learning from Francisco Vivar of Pacari about the origins and characteristics of each variety and from Josh about the whisky pairings. We nosed and sipped and tasted in various combinations (whisky first, then chocolate; now chocolate first and then whisky; now together!) to determine the impact on flavors resulting from each order. Surprisingly, it does matter which goes into your mouth first. Even simply placing the chocolate on your tongue, allowing it to melt a bit and then nosing the whisky can radically alter the evident dominant flavors.

Pacari is a company that seems relatively unknown to the average US consumer but has captured the spotlight of the chocolate world. Based in Ecuador (Pacari translates as “nature” in local language Quechua), they make 100% organic chocolate and adhere to “fair and equitable standards” of production while aiming to preserve traditional methods of cacao farming. The importance of this becomes clear when tasting Pacari’s different varieties of chocolate, several of whose unique flavors showcase the diversity of the local terroir. And all this isn’t just talk; Pacari really puts its money where your mouth is. The company is the first chocolate producer in the world to earn the Demeter Biodynamic Certification and, what’s more, Francisco’s sincerity and authenticity—he uttered not a word of industry jargon or marketing language—spoke volumes about Pacari’s confidence in their products. Indeed, with or without whisky, this chocolate shines.

Clay, Allison, and I replacing evil with whisky

Clay, Allison, and I replacing evil with whisky

Joining me in flavor exploration were pastry chef/food writer Rebekah Pizanaauthor and chocolate expert Clay Gordon, and Allison Patel, Whisky Woman and producer of Brenne Single Malt. We formed a cozy little pack of nerds, exchanging notes and learning from each other throughout the evening. As I know next to nothing about chocolate (except that I enjoy it!), it was truly a privilege to taste alongside someone as knowledgeable as Clay and learn from his insights. It was also a treat to hang out with Allison—and even more so when Josh pulled out a bottle of Brenne to share with the room! For the unlucky (aka non-New Yorkers) who don’t yet have access to it, Brenne is a delicious, different kind of single malt produced in Cognac, France. It always surprises first-timers—even whisky connoisseurs—in a pleasant way and as other guests mobbed Allison to heap effusive praise on her whisky, the night culminated in a truly magical moment. Big ups to Josh for his perfect timing!

The night held other surprises too, not all of which I can reveal just yet. (Check back in a couple of months for something exciting that perfectly marries the realms of chocolate and spirits.) Clay generously shared some unique products with me—the beautiful 100% cacao Il Criollo by Domori, a bit of the ridiculously-addictive (and tragically not available for purchase) dried cacao fruit, and strangely awesome dark chocolate-covered, jalapeño-dusted corn nuts from Fruition Chocolate. (Yeah, corn nuts, I know—you have to try it to believe it.)

Dried cacao fruit might not look appetizing, but is worlds ahead of your run-of-the-mill fruit leather.

Dried cacao fruit might not look appetizing, but it’s worlds ahead of your run-of-the-mill fruit leather.

Just as at the Gordon & MacPhail tasting, a comment from the evening perfectly reinforced the philosophy behind this blog, and behind my explorations of food and spirits in general. In the midst of the writers’ geekery over the pairings and our attempts to verbalize the tastes and feelings swirling around our palates and minds, Clay sagely intoned,

“You can take the whisky seriously. You can take the chocolate seriously. But you can’t take yourself seriously.”

How right he is. No matter what tone of “authority” I might take on this blog (and I do hope there’s not much of one), I earnestly believe that eating and drinking should be primarily about enjoyment. Tasting notes and philosophical rhapsodizing help me sort out the mechanics of food and drink, provide an outlet for my natural interest, and enable me to organize my emotional connections to the act of cooking, eating, and sharing. But I don’t have to deeply contemplate a dessert or compose an ode to a dram to enjoy it, fully and truly. In the end, what matters is the pleasure received from tasting what’s good, and that’s it.

All that being said, now I’m going to share my tasting notes. Ha!

Glenmorangie Nectar d’Or 12yo with Pacari Piura 70% Regional
The Piura chocolate is made from Peruvian white cacao beans and is an unprocessed as possible. By itself it had a strong fruitiness—notes of berry, cherry and green apple. Paired with the Glenmorangie (which displayed typical sherried notes of golden raisins on the nose and spiciness on the palate), the two produced a honeyed butterscotch flavor with the fruitiness coming out as peaches, and a hint of underlying white pepper.

Compass Box Hedonism with Pacari Lemongrass
My favorite combination of the evening, best taking the whisky first. Hedonism is an all-grain blend with a sweet nose of marshmallows and gorse flowers and a tropical palate full of coconut. Josh described it as a “500 thread count silk pillowcase” and it is, indeed, indulgent. With the chocolate, the citrus notes of the whisky came out in full force beside the lemongrass along with a crisp freshness—to me, spearmint—which lingered on the finish. As the whisky breathed (and as we tasted other chocolates), the gorse scent (some smelled it more as jasmine) became stronger and more developed and lingered sweetly.

GlenDronach “The Revival” 15 yo with Pacari 65% Manabi Regional
Another sherried malt, the Revival gave off strong plum and raspberry notes on the nose and a palate of dried fruit, orange peel and a hint of hot paprika on the tip of the tongue. With the chocolate, strong gingerbread notes emerged which deepened both elements.

Aberlour A’bunadh Batch 42 with Pacari 65% Manabi Regional
It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of Aberlour and especially their A’bunadh series. Paired with this chocolate, the dram that displays some of the richest sherry notes I’ve tasted takes on an earthiness entirely new to me. The familiar cooked fruits now seemed roasted rather than stewed—bolder and more complex. This was one of the most interesting combinations of the night, as the chocolate and the whisky completely changed each other.

Ardbeg Uigeadail with Pacari Salt & Nibs
The pink salt in this chocolate comes from Cuzco, where people dig ponds, fill them with water, and let the water evaporate, leaving this salt behind. Ardbeg, an Islay whisky, also incorporates parts of the earth where it’s made, displaying characteristic peatiness. Together, these two elements created a total explosion of salt and peat: dissonant at first, but which soon mellowed to a sweet, honeyed harmonization. A very fun combination, especially since this was one of the few chocolates we were encouraged to chew (the “nibs” being little bits of the cacao bean).

Balcones Brimstone with Pacari Fig
By this point, I was so caught up in the general atmosphere of excitement (this was right after Josh produced the Brenne and the whole room went wild), I neglected to take very comprehensive notes. As you might have guessed, the chocolate contained chewy little niblets of fig. Its sweet fruitiness married nicely with Brimstone’s uniquely smoky profile, achieved via Texas scrub oak (whatever that is—tastes sort of, but not really, like mesquite). It was like drinking a barbecue sandwich topped with fig preserves—and therefore awesome. The Brimstone also paired fabulously with the aforementioned corn nuts, leaving me in a state of near-delirium and joy.

PS—Read Allison’s beautiful take on the evening here