Whiskeys from Balcones, arguably Texas’s best-known distillery, have been stacking up here at Drinkhacker HQ. Today we’re killing a trilogy of bottles, including two new releases and the second edition of another well-liked expression.
Balcones Pilgrimage – Texas single malt made from Golden Promise barley, aged in used casks and finished in Sauternes casks. No age statement. The is conceptually a beast: One of the toughest and burliest whiskey styles, finished in one of the lightest and most ephemeral wine casks. The finished product challenges expectations. The nose is an appropriate mix of sweet and smoke, though notes of fresh mesquite and campfire charcoal dominate over a light honey and lemon character — becoming beefier as it develops in the glass. The palate is racy and hot at full strength, kicking off with that classic barrel-forward, well-charred character before finally hinting at fruit: green grapes, lemon curd, and some grapefruit — ultimately veering a little bitter, actually. The finish has some Eastern spice notes, but otherwise it’s tough and somewhat green — lots of pepper in the mix here — even with water, which accentuates the whiskey’s frontier styling. A lingering touch of honeycomb is the clearest nod to the Sauternes cask, but it’s pretty clear that there’s only so much impact a sweet wine cask can have on a monster base spirit — especially at cask strength. 117 proof. B / $80
Balcones Luckenbach – Named after a fairly famous ghost town in the texas Hill Country, noted for its spacious country dance hall. This is the latest in Balcones’ “Texas Originals Series,” which is crafted from ingredients found exclusively in the Lone Star State: Texas-grown and malted barley, aged at least 36 months in new oak barrels and finished in Texas dessert wine casks. Wildly exotic, this whiskey is unlike anything else I’ve had from Balcones — or anyone else, really. The nose is a melange of oak, plump raisins, and incense — and lots of potpourri. The palate promptly takes all of that and shoves it down your throat. Dried floral notes are intense, almost soapy, as the whiskey develops, throwing out notes of honeysuckle, dill, spiced nuts, and raspberry syrup, all swirled around in perfumed bathwater. None of that may make any sense unless you’ve had a Texas dessert wine — but I’m from Houston, so, you’re welcome. Pass on this one. 108.2 proof. Reviewed: Batch #LUCK21-1. C+ / $60
Balcones Texas Bock (2021) – This is the second edition of Balcones’ experiment with Texas’s iconic Shiner Bock, distilled into beer. We reviewed edition #1 last year, quite lovingly. “Similar to its predecessor, the new special release utilizes the Spoetzl Brewery’s mash bill and proprietary lager yeast strain for Shiner beer; however, the newest version has been aged for an additional year (3 total) in American oak barrels to create a unique and complex flavor profile.” An extra year in barrel has done nothing but good things for this whiskey. The nose remains burly and powerful, beefy and pungent with notes of pepper, saddle leather, and some of that dark chocolate evident in the initial batch. The palate again has the distinct notes of a rustic, dark beer, filtered through herbal greenery, though there’s more sweetness evident, giving it a lengthy caramel character, laced with milk chocolate, running to the finish line. The tougher bacon and pepper notes of the 2020 bottling give way here to a gentler — yet still grassy and hoppy — finish, culminating in a sweeter, lightly candied conclusion. Tasting them side by side, my initial grade may have been on the high side, but the current one is fully justified. 100 proof. Reviewed: Batch #BOCK21-1. A- / $45