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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‘Cueing Up Summer

the difibulators, a bluegrass band from nyc

Is there anything better than barbecue, bluegrass, and good booze to get you excited about summertime? Maybe ice cream. And cornhole. And great company to share in these marvelous things.

bobwhite lunch and supper counter nyc fried chicken potato salad pimento cheese sandwich

What’s better than fried chicken? Cold fried chicken. (Seriously.)

Last week, I got all that and more at Tasting Table‘s ‘Cue Up Summer party. Yes, it’s already late July. But after an intensely oppressive heat wave, I think we all needed a reason to get excited about summer again. With great food by local purveyors, twangtastic bluegrass from the Difibulators, and unlimited booze, it perfectly renewed my love of the season’s simple pleasures. (And it didn’t hurt that the day itself was unseasonably cool!)

Delaney Barbecue, brisket and ribs.

Serving up brisket and two kinds of ribs, and you still want more.

It all went down in the Elizabeth Street Garden which, under normal circumstances, is lovely enough with its antique statuary and rampant greenery. This evening, marquees strung with fairy lights sheltered tables laden with picnic pleasures—cold fried chicken, potato salad, and pimento cheese sandwiches from Bobwhite Lunch & Supper Counter; brisket, pork AND beef ribs, and fixins from Delaney Barbecue; some guilt-free gazpacho and veggies topped with Tabasco Buffalo Sauce; and amazing desserts—cookies by Mah-ze-Dahr Bakery; Imperial Woodpecker sno-balls; and massive ice cream sandwiches by Melt Bakery.

Melt ice cream sandwich s'most

There’s a marshmallow hiding in that ice cream sandwich.

And what would an outdoor summer party be without bottomless booze? Guests had their choice of Santa Margherita wines, Goose Island beers, and cocktails made with Monkey Shoulder and Hendrick’s Gin. I’m a big fan of both of the latter and stuck to those. The Hendrick’s lemonade suited my unusual preference for having lemon with Hendrick’s (and only with Hendrick’s—with other gins, it’s always lime), and the Summer Jam, mixing Monkey Shoulder with strawberry jam and lemon juice, was everything a July whisky cocktail should be—cool, slightly sweet, and far too easy to drink. Check out the recipe below.

Joshua Feldman, the Coopered Tot and whisky aficionado

Josh fits right in with the mood lighting.

My buddy Josh, of the Coopered Tot and Morgan Library whisky fame, along with some new friends, ensured that the company was as good as the comestibles. Thanks to Nick of Exposure USA for hosting with aplomb and Freddy of William Grant & Sons for sharing his extensive boozey knowledge. Summer might be half-gone already, but I plan to carry on with the outdoor eating, drinking, and merry-making, getting all I can out of the few weeks we have left.

Summer Jam
1 1/4 parts Monkey Shoulder Whisky
1/2 part fresh lemon juice
1 dollop of strawberry jam
Dash of sugar to taste
Splash of seltzer

Add all ingredients except seltzer to a shaker. Shake well. Strain into a glass with ice and top with a splash of seltzer.

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.

The Jewel of the Village: East Ville des Folies

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The last time I attended a spirits-fueled theme event, the focus was murder, mayhem, and a roving cast of characters straight out of Dickens. This past weekend, mayhem and characters (sans murder) abounded in a Prohibition-esque party held at Webster Hall, infamously publicized as a former speakeasy run by Al Capone (well, there’s the murder, I suppose). East Ville des Folies seeks to become an annual event celebrating “rare Whiskeys and Beers from around the world” while immersing its guests in “the culture of the original burlesque hall as it was at the turn of the century”.

The jazz was swinging as scantily-clad ladies sporting feathered headpieces beckoned on the dance floors. I headed for the whiskey first, finding a wide selection from Highland Park, The Famous Grouse, Four Roses, Woodford Reserve, and others. As always at these sorts of the things, the ambience didn’t lend itself to properly tasting each separate dram, but I was at least able to weed out the dreadful from the exceptional. (On the former category, I’ll keep silent; on the latter, I’ll point out Whistlepig Rye as a new favorite and the ever-reliable Balblair—represented here with the 1989, 1991, and 2001 editions—as consistently pleasing.)

Three Roses

Three roses at Four Roses

Having exhausted my companion with spirituous refreshment, I moved on to the beer floors, which were far more crowded. Was it just that more people had arrived by that point, or that the demographics of ticket-buyers skewed towards beer lovers? No idea, but it was pretty rough. I managed to taste a few new-to-me brews such as Leinenkugel’s Vanilla Porter (no joke on the vanilla), Curious Traveler Shandy (I’m not a shandy drinker, and I liked it), the range of Full Sails (excellent, each one) and Moa Breakfast, a New Zealand “blend of premium wheat malt, floral Nelson hops and cherries” that, I’m sorry to say, tasted of Dimetapp. Sadly, the Crabbie’s table was all out by the time I got there; but luckily, Williams Brothers was still pouring Fraoch Heather Ale, one of the tastes I miss most from Scotland.

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Swingin’ jazz set the tone of the affair.

With four floors of tasting tables, music, and more, this event certainly gave bang for the buck. I loved all the bands (and the phonograph DJs), and the entertainment, which included stilt-walkers, a photo booth I never managed to get to, and an aerialist, definitely wowed me. I had great fun exploring the nooks and dark corners of Webster Hall, too, especially with new drinks to try at every turn. Touting the some of the beers and whiskies served as “rare” might have misled some folks, though at $40 a ticket I’m sure no one expected Pappy Van Winkle. The selection, especially some of the beers, was unique, if not so difficult to find that I’d call it “rare”.

In short, East Ville des Folies provided three solid hours of booze-tastic entertainment and—in a truly “rare” turn for New York—was incredibly affordable. The event sold out, which means with any luck it’ll return next year. I’m already looking forward to donning some beads and feathers, springing for the early-access VIP ticket, and finally getting my shot at the photo booth.

An Evening with Gordon & MacPhail

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Although it’s been nearly two months since Hurricane Sandy devastated many parts of New York, the city is still trying to pick itself up.* While clean-up and rebuilding will go on for months, other activities have resumed with the typical get-up-and-get-on-with-it attitude ingrained in most New Yorkers. Although a lot of events were interrupted by the storm, with some even being canceled, the inaugural whisky tasting at The Morgan Library & Museum went on as planned five weeks late. (And fortunately for me, the lovely and incredibly busy Allison Patel of Brenne passed on her ticket when another obligation kept her from going. Merci bien, Allison!)

The evening promised to be special just for the setting itself. If you’ve never visited, the Morgan is a repository of fine art and literature mixed with other rotating exhibitions; an archive of priceless artifacts, documents, and antiquities; and a truly unique architectural amalgam comprising J.P. Morgan’s purpose-built library/study, his son Jack’s family home, and a soaring modern space designed by Renzo Piano tying it all together. In a city chock-full of beautiful buildings, it has taken my breath away more than once. I am mostly serious about my desire to move into the East Room (a room lined floor-to-ceiling with books, with two hidden staircases to access them).

This is a safe. A safe of books.

This is a safe. A safe of books.

The tasting was held in the less fragile  Morgan Dining Room and introduced by none other than the Coopered Tot himself, Josh Feldman, who works at the Morgan. I was meeting Josh for the first time but any nervousness I might have felt was easily dispelled by his hospitality and relaxed personality. Together with Malt Maniac Peter Silver and Kate Massey, the Whiskey Dame, we enjoyed some amazing drams and good conversation with the enthusiastic guidance of Chris Riesbeck from Gordon & MacPhail who led the tasting.

The assortment of drams represented six different distilleries from all over Scotland. I enjoyed them all, and a few really stood out.

Connoisseurs Choice Clynelish 11 yo
Nose: Cherries, currants, sugar and hints of tangy smoke

Palate: An initial peppery whack slips in luscious rich fruit–cherry, apple–and a tinge of cloves.

Finish: Fades gently to a final fruity (melon? grape?) note.

Connoisseurs Choice Jura 12 yo
Nose: Brine and light peat with lots of kale and cucumber and a sharp spicy note.

Palate: Thick and chewy–eggplant and beans. The heavy spice lingers throughout.

Finish: After such an intense initial flavor and mouthfeel, the finish is surprisingly light and quite balanced, with the spice carrying through all the way to the end.

Old Pulteney 21 yo Exceptional.
Nose: Salt and brine–very much the sea in a bottle. Also some hard fruits–apple, pear.

Palate: Strong initial spice with vanilla and cinnamon too. Slightly thick and lovely, retaining the saltiness of the nose.

Finish: A lingering heat.

Benromach 10 yo
Nose: Peat, mint and watercress–very fresh despite the smoke.

Palate: Plenty of smoke, some baked bread, but that fresh note shines.

Finish: Didn’t note.

Imperial Port Finish 15 yo Exceptional.
Nose: Beautiful fruits, a total feast for the nose of grapes, cherries, and plums.

Palate: Full of fig jam and cherries, cherries, cherries. A beautiful, rich, indulgent dram.

Finish: On and on and on with fruit to the end.

Caol Ila 11 yo Cask Strength Exceptional.
Nose: As to be expected, smoke, salt, and brine with some vanilla sugar.

Palate: Packs a wallop but manages to maintain an even keel of sweetness and brine — incredible with a few drops of water.

Finish: Didn’t note, probably because I was too deep in the whisky at this point and enjoying this dram far too much.

Ready to review

Tasting toolkit

In sum, I drammed myself silly and so, it seemed, did everyone else. I also came away with a renewed passion for what I do and why. Chris said something in the course of the evening that resonated quite deeply with me and, frankly, the whole philosophy behind this blog.

“Whisky,” he declared, “should be what tastes right.” You shouldn’t feel that you have to put water in it–or that you don’t. Ignore the people who try to tell you how to drink. Like what you like–there isn’t a right or wrong way to drink whisky (or to drink, or eat, anything!).

To that I say, amen! Life is too short to eat (or drink) poorly.

*If you want to help New Yorkers rebuild after Hurricane Sandy, consider volunteering at NYC Service or donating to Occupy Sandy, Waves for Water, or another charity.