Thursday, September 20, 2012

Craft Whiskey Week - Balcones Brimstone

Balcones Distillery, in Waco, Texas, was opened in 2009 by Chip Tate. They make a number of whiskeys (and only whiskey), but their main emphasis has been on corn whiskey made with blue corn. Their corn whiskey is really more of a corn whiskey/bourbon hybrid. It is made with 100% Hopi blue corn but it is aged in charred oak barrels that have only been briefly used. Essentially, they are aging in new charred oak which gives their corn whiskey some strong bourbon characteristics with a corn whiskey mashbill. (For more detail on all the Balcones whiskeys see this excellent post by The Coopered Tot).

In 2011, Balcones introduced a new product, Brimstone. They took some of their corn whiskey and smoked the distillate (not the grain, as the Scots do with peat) using Texas scrub oak. They then aged the whiskey in 55 and 60 gallon barrels for less than two years.

I participated in a Balcones tasting earlier this year (courtesy of the distillery) and generally liked what I they had to offer. The Brimstone, though, was something quite unique.

Balcones Brimstone, 53% abv ($50)

The nose opens with a strong smell of burnt rubber, like when a semi slams on the brakes, followed by some bourbon, so like when a truck full of bourbon slams on the breaks, deep into the nose you acclimate to the smoke and there's an almost sherry like frutiness. The palate is both sweet, in that fruity way, and smoky. There's honey, some burnt orange rind, still a bit of rubber though not nearly as much as on the nose and lots of campfire. It modulates between sweet and smoky with other flavors poking up; there's smoked salmon, sea water, mezcal...the more you drink the more you taste. The finish is like Los Angeles in September, a strong smoky haze from a fire somewhere nearby.

This is a pretty remarkable whiskey, different from anything else on the market. It's really packed with flavor. The smoke in this is huge, but it's nothing like peat. When I first tried Brimstone, I wasn't sure about it, but after a few different tasting sessions, I've really come to enjoy and even crave its flavors.

The craft distillery movement is at its best when it offers something completely different, not just younger or more local, but a completely new flavor profile. That's one of the reasons I'm such a big fan of Charbay's hopped whiskeys; you just can't get that flavor anywhere else. The same is true of Balcones Brimstone. It's a new style of whiskey and one that I'd welcome more of.

Brimstone ranks as one of the few craft whiskeys I've tasted that I would actually pay the asking price for. Alright Balcones, you have my attention.


sam k said...

Sounds intruiging. Any idea how they accomplish the process of "smoking the distillate?"

sku said...

Sam, Chip Tate is very close lipped about the process, but he describes it as a cold smoke type of method.

sevens said...

I sampled this at a tasting a while back and was blown away! Huge smoke and that burnt rubber you mention. The oily viscous texture is really impressive as well. A line was drawn in the sand with this at the tasting - some people loved it and some hated it. I have also had the Single Malt and Rumble from Balcones which are both top notch as well.

Chip Tate said...

Thanks for the thoughtful review, sku. Glad you liked the Brimstone.

Balcones' Head Distiller

Justin Victor said...


Having read about this whiskey I was intrigued. After seeing your review I will definately pick up a bottle when I see it. I am certain its not currently available in OK, but I hope to soon take a whiskey trip to Texas to find some whiskey treasure!

Josh Feldman said...

Excellent review, as always, Sku. I've seen Chip create Brimstone and he starts by pouring a barrel of Blue Corn Whisky into a giant bong and taking a huge pinch of scrub oak and putting it into the bowl. A friend holds the blow torch and he takes a giant suck ... bubble... gurgle... bubble... gurgle... :)

OK - I admit, I have no idea...

Thanks for the link. I'll tell you right now that Balcones has a bunch of spirits that come across as more finely crafted, more mature and well balanced than the vast majority of craft spirits which tend to come as as too young and/or either over wooded, or having raw or undistinguished wood flavors, or too much smoke. Balcones tends to avoid those pitfalls and does something credibly crafted and refined feeling. However no one would ever accuse Brimstone of not being too heavily smoked. It's unique in that respect. I initially found it too much but acquired the taste for it as you did. Plus some oxidation in the bottle helped sweeten and refine my current bottle of Brimstone to the point where it has become almost insanely delicious.

I'm almost a whisky purist and it feels like sacrilege to discuss mixing it but Brimstone's huge and distinctive scrub oak smoke hit makes it a powerful note in a cocktail. It makes a memorable Old Fashioned - with the smoke soaring over the bitters and melding with the sweet in fine BBQ fashion.

However the most powerful Brimstone knock out happened at the end of a judging session at the International Chocolate Awards last week. I was doing an impromptu chocolate-whisky pairing session with Clay Gordon after the judging was over and we were walking up the ladder of intense flavors. We hit Octomore 2.1 which I thought would end it. But we finished on Brimstone which came off as even bigger (even though it has less abv% and less phenol load - maybe). The Brimstone made a killer chocolate pairing with a particularly big Valrhona. Clay loved it and I was shocked at how well Brimstone stood up to (and owned) some of the big Islays (there was a Laphroaig in there too) in the context of chocolate pairing.