Review: Balcones “1,” Baby Blue, and Brimstone (2017)

It’s been roughly three years since Chip Tate left Balcones, the Texas distillery that he founded, but Balcones Distilling continues to pump out whiskey after whiskey from its Waco operation with Jared Himstedt at the helm.

We’ve been covering the distillery off and on for eight years now, and if anything can be said about Balcones, based on my notes, it’s that the distillery’s products are wildly inconsistent. That’s not necessarily a bad thing — there’s magic in distilleries that have erratic quality, with genius occasionally struct along the way. (See also: Stranahan’s.)

But as for 2017, what’s the post-Tate situation for Balcones? We looked at three whiskies representing most of the core expressions from Balcones (not including Rumble) to find out.

Balcones “1” Texas Single Malt Whisky Classic Edition – Single malt, aged at least 16 months in oak. A deep amber in color, the whisky looks well-aged but drinks with the signposts of significant youth. The nose is pungent with fresh lumber, though this is cut with loads of cloves, rum raisin, and aged sherry notes. There’s a cereal undercurrent, soft but present, a reminder that this is a single malt at heart. On the palate, wood again dominates, alongside up-front notes of fresh tar/asphalt, gunpowder, and wet earth. It’s actually quite off-putting until some sweet relief arrives to save the day, with notes of baking spice, more raisin/prune notes, and a torched sugar crust (think flamed creme brulee) arrive to save the day. The back and forth between fire and sugar can be interesting, though after a full dram my palate is completely worn out by the sheer volume of work. 106 proof. Reviewed: Batch SM17-4, 6/7/17. B- / $60 [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Balcones Baby Blue Corn Whisky – Made from roasted blue corn and aged at least 6 months in oak. The nose is immediately funky, mixing notes of petrol, decaying vegetation, and saccharine sweetness. It’s not a promising start, but the palate is less offensive, lighter on the draw than the rather overbearing nose would have you believe. That said, wood is the dominant character, with notes of tobacco smoke and burnt popcorn strong secondary notes. The finish is slightly sweet, though that doesn’t go far to ease the sting of what’s come before. 92 proof. Reviewed: Batch 8817-2, 6/14/17. C / $40  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Balcones Brimstone Texas Scrub Oak Smoked Whisky – Made from the same corn as Baby Blue but “smoked with sun-baked Texas scrub oak using our own secret process” and “aged at least one day in oak.” Though that all implies something heavily smoky, the nose is surprisingly restrained, with modest smoke notes complementing notes of dried fruit and apple cider. It’s engagingly complex, but the palate is something quite different. An initial rush of sweetness quickly gives way to an utter smoke bomb — think a campfire full of smoldering cedar trees — with a pungent, ashy finish. A far different experience than a sultry Islay, Brimstone ends up brash and in your face, like a blast of cigar smoke blown in your direction. An extremely divisive whisky, your enjoyment of it is entirely dependent on your position in regards to licking ashtrays. 106 proof. Reviewed: Batch BRM 17-2, 5/18/17. C / $60  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

balconesdistilling.com

Review: Redemption Wheated Bourbon

Redemption is known for its production of (MGP-sourced) rye and high-rye bourbon so much so that its tagline is “Join the rye revival.” As such, this new release is a real step out of the comfort zone. As the name implies, Redemption Wheated Bourbon ditches rye altogether for wheat — and Redemption really went whole hog with this, bringing in a new mashbill from MGP that is composed of a whopping 45% winter wheat, 51% corn, and 4% malted barley.

That’s a huge wheat profile for any spirit but especially ambitious for the leaders of the “rye revival.” Aging is completed in four years, entirely in new oak barrels.

We gave Redemption Wheated a try, and while the idea is decidedly intriguing, the execution unfortunately falls flat.

On the nose, the whiskey immediately comes across as bafflingly oak heavy, with some heavy-duty solvent notes that are off-putting at best. Things clear up with some air time, the solvent character becoming closer to overripe fruit, with a side of wood smoke. On the palate, dusty wood initially dominates, but as the finish begins to develop, so does that sticky fruit character. Again, the ripeness is heavy, giving the body a gummy quality and the finish an overblown sweetness that feels candy-coated. The whole affair isn’t undrinkable, but there’s something off that spoils the balance of the whiskey and comes across as undercooked.

96 proof.

C / $46 / redemptionwhiskey.com

Review: Wines of Outlot, 2017 Releases

Outlot is a new brand from Accolade Wines, best known for Geyser Peak and novelty brands like XYZin. A trio of initial releases, sourced from the Sonoma area, are now hitting the market. We tried them all. Thoughts follow.

2015 Outlot Chardonnay Sonoma County – Whoa, someone turned up the “oak” dial and forgot to shut it off. This is powerful with raw oak barrel notes, so intense that they push straight through the wood and into (very) brown butter, coconut, and nutty nougat. The finish is straight up licking a tree. If you dislike Chardonnay, well, you’ll hate this one. C / $20

2016 Outlot Sauvignon Blanc Sonoma County – A straightforward lemon and grapefruit bomb, with some ammonia touches evident throughout. Refreshing, with a subtle creaminess evident, particularly as the wine warms up. The finish is a touch green, but otherwise perfectly up to code for the style. B+ / $17

2014 Outlot Cabernet Sauvignon Alexander Valley – Straightforward cab, a bit gummy at first, but it settles into a groove of gentle drinkability, heavy with fruit but touched just so with balsamic which gives it a bit of a sour edge. The overall impact is akin to your typical “house wine” structure, priced perhaps to move. B / $24

outlotwines.com

Review: 2016 Ecco Domani Pinot Grigio

Ah, that classic of the Chinese restaurant wine list gets an upgrade with its 2016 vintage, courtesy of Christian Siriano, who designed the flowery label for this vintage. That’s probably the most interesting thing about this wine, which is decidedly muddy for pinot grigio, with only modest notes of marshmallows, lilac, and out-of-place savory sage and thyme showing through.

C / $8 / eccodomani.com

Review: Wines of Maiden + Liberty, 2017 Releases

Maiden + Liberty can be found on Long Island, New York, where it makes “French-American” blends — inspired by the owners’ heritage (He’s from New York, she’s from France, coming this fall!). “What would a wine that combines American dynamism with French elegance taste like?” ask the winemakers? What does that mean? Well, Maiden + Liberty makes wines blended from French and American grapes, as well as some bottlings of U.S.-only grown varietals and some strictly imported from France. We’ll lay out what’s what in the detailed reviews below, but meanwhile, let’s find out what a wine that combines American dynamism with French elegance tastes like.

NV Maiden + Liberty French-American White Blend Batch 001 – A blend of Chardonnay and Viognier from the U.S. plus Macabeu and Vermentino from France. Results: Not at all bad. A slightly creamy wine, it has an herbal, somewhat vegetal body that is complemented by notes of brown butter, canned peaches, and baking spice. Fresh and approachable, but versatile enough to pair with food or sip solo. B+ / $20

2016 Maiden + Liberty Chardonnay North Fork of Long Island Batch 002 – A more French style of Chardonnay than we’re used to seeing on our shores, the oak dialed back, with more citrus and green apple notes coming to the fore. The finish sees a modest vanilla character, but it’s not off-putting or overly oaky; rather it gives the wine a light baking spice character that complements the fruit nicely. B+ / $15

2016 Maiden + Liberty French Rose Languedoc Batch 001 – This is a straight French import from the Languedoc, which is curious, but unfortunately a little flat: The wine is rather doughy, with yeasty overtones. This dulls the fruit, flattens the wine, and doesn’t leave much of an impression on the finish. C / $15

NV Maiden + Liberty French-American Red Blend Batch 001 – A gooey mix of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon with Syrah and Grenache, this concoction doesn’t really come together, coming off as overly sweet, with a bizarre mix of cinnamon and blueberry notes taking center stage. The finish is heavy with vanilla and milk chocolate and a hint of licorice candy, none of which overwhelmingly appeals. C+ / $22

maidenandliberty.com

Review: Tequila Exotico – Blanco and Reposado

Tequila Exotico (part of the budding Luxco empire) is a new, 100% agave tequila made from Highlands agave. With Day of the Dead styling on its otherwise understated bottles, the tequila is available in only blanco and reposado expressions. (No anejo has been produced so far.)

We tasted both. Thoughts follow. Both are 80 proof — and available for perhaps less than any other 100% agave tequila I’ve ever encountered.

Tequila Exotico Blanco – Feels immediately rustic and rather rough. The nose is hot with more of a raw agave character, with lots of black pepper mixed in with aromas of well-cooked vegetables. On the palate, some sweetness is but little relief against an onslaught of fire, smoldering mesquite, and vegetal notes of carrot, green pepper, and dried grasses. The finish is as pungent as the body that precedes it, making this suited best for mixing rather than sipping straight. C / $14

Tequila Exotico Reposado – Rested for six months in ex-bourbon barrels. As expected, the barrel aging rounds things out quite a bit, smoothing those harsh, rustic edges with a lacy vanilla-caramel character, though the intense black pepper, cayenne, and roasted agave notes are still present and accounted for, just dialed back all around. The finish sees some hints of chocolate and nutmeg, almost coming across like a Mexican chocolate, which is the most interesting part of the spirit. All told, this is much more easygoing and enjoyable tequila than the blanco, though it still lands well into “frontier” in style. B / $14

exoticotequila.com

Tasting Greek Wines: 2015 Roya and 2013 Markovitis Xinomavro

Turns out there’s more to Greek wine than assyrtiko. But is any of it worth drinking?

Let’s find out…

2015 Roya – 100% muscat. This is a much drier expression of muscat, which lets some of the more perfumed and floral notes come forward — jasmine, lemongrass, and some grassy notes — leading to a finish that is surprisingly dry for the ordinarily ultra-sweet muscat. That said, it’s not all that interesting as a table wine, and it pairs in rather lackluster fashion with food. C+ / $10

2013 Markovitis Xinomavro – A red from the Naoussa region in northern Greece, this unique wine offers a nose of raspberry and rhubarb, sweet and fragrant. The palate unfortunately doesn’t quite measure up to the nose, leading to a bone dry palate that is missing almost any semblance of fruit. The dusty, slightly sour finish reminds more of a dry sherry than anything else, which is decidedly bizarre for a red wine. C / $27

-->