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

A Visit to Copper Fox Distillery

While only an hour and a half outside of Washington, D.C., Copper Fox Distillery in Sperryville, Virginia seems worlds away from any city. Many new distilleries today are taking up shop in suburban business parks or urban warehouse spaces, which makes this location, in an old 1930s apple warehouse and cider mill at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains, all the more unique. Rick Wasmund, the founder of Copper Fox, likes to point out that his distillery is still in the apple juice business, using applewood (along with cherrywood and, more recently, peachwood) to smoke the malted barley that goes into their whisky.

You’ll notice that’s whisky with a “y” only. Virginia is most definitely not in Scotland, but Rick learned the art of whisky-making on Islay studying under the legendary Jim McEwan at Bowmore Distillery. Copper Fox was also the first distillery in North America to install a malt floor and kiln since Prohibition, so if any American distiller has earned the right to drop the “e,” it’s probably Rick. It was his desire to understand the potential for fruitwood-smoked malt (vs. more traditional peat) that took Rick to Scotland. After returning stateside in 2000, Rick searched for the perfect location, recruited investors, and opened Copper Fox in 2005 (with only his mother and another partner) and set to work perfecting the malting process that has made him famous in the craft distilling and brewing community.

Our tour began in the malt house, where Copper Fox uses traditional floor maltings to germinate their grain, all of which is sourced from farms across Virginia. Next was a peak inside the malt kiln, an unassuming space behind a large chalkboard door that bears a list of nearly three dozen breweries from around the country brewing with Copper Fox malt. Inside, an old pot-bellied stove and Weber charcoal grill are used to dry and flavor batches of malted barley resting on the perforated floor above. Copper Fox uses a unique system of pot stills: one large pot still, a secondhand Vendome, feeds a smaller custom-designed all copper pot still with a curiously wide and squat reflux chamber. The tour ends with a look inside the barrelhouse, where all of Copper Fox’s whisky is aged in used cooperage, typically for under two years, with toasted fruitwood added — although how much and how often remain trade secrets. In keeping with the refreshingly quirky aesthetic of the distillery, a large painting of two cherubs hangs high on a wall in the barrelhouse, a nod to the angel’s share of spirit lost to evaporation.

After my informative and entertaining tour, I had my pick of drinking options and settings. In addition to their traditional tasting bar, Copper Fox just recently opened an on-site cocktail bar that has a riverside patio with great mountain views. While many distilleries have started offering cocktails, Copper Fox is raising the bar with homemade shrubs and even a line of custom bitters that will soon be for sale.

I saddled up to the tasting bar and sampled Copper Fox’s core range, as well as a couple of limited edition offerings only available at the distillery gift shop. Thoughts follow.

Wasmund’s Single Malt Whisky – The flagship 100% malt product. This single malt really showcases the applewood and cherrywood smoke. It’s cereal-forward and earthy, typical of a younger single malt, but plentiful fruit notes round the edges nicely and give it a surprising balance. 96 proof.

Wasmund’s Single Malt Whisky (“Green Top”) – This is a distillery exclusive release of the standard single malt extra aged in an apple brandy barrel. The brandy really compliments the applewood smoke in the malt and sweetens the overall experience with spearmint and honey notes. 96 proof.

Copper Fox Rye Whisky – While the mashbill is a robust two-thirds rye, the one-third malted barley still contributes a lot to the flavor. There are great pepper and cinnamon notes on the palate, but the lingering fruit quality and subtle smokiness make this a truly unique rye. 90 proof.

Copper Fox Port Finished Rye Whisky (“Blue Top”) – Another bottling only available at the distillery, “Blue Top” takes the standard Copper Fox Rye and ages it in used port style wine casks from a local Virginia winery. The wine-finish amplifies the fruit component in the rye, ripening the cherry notes and producing a wonderfully syrupy mouthfeel. 90 proof.

Vir Gin – The only product in the current line-up that is not a whisky, this is nevertheless a single malt gin made from 100% malted barley with a special emphasis on anise hyssop. Other botanicals used in production include Mediterranean juniper and citrus, as well as seasonal offerings from the distillery’s garden, making each batch unique. My sample was full of licorice on the nose and palate with a rich, malty body and peppery finish. 90 proof.

copperfox.biz

Tasting Report: WhiskyFest San Francisco 2017

San Francisco’s WhiskyFest seemed as popular as ever this year, kicked off with the stampede to the Pappy Van Winkle booth that always marks the start of the show.

As always, there was plenty to enjoy at this year’s event — both new expressions and classic old friends ready for tasting. Here’s a full rundown on everything I tried.

Tasting Report: WhiskyFest San Francisco 2017

Scotch

Alexander Murray & Co. The Monumental Blend 18 Years Old / B+ / a touch hot for a blend
Alexander Murray & Co. Braes of Glenlivet Distillery 1994 21 Years Old / B+ / bold, spicy, with lots of oak
Alexander Murray & Co. Strathmill Distillery 1992 24 Years Old / B+ / lots of nougat, more granary note than expected; citrus on the back end
Alexander Murray & Co. Bunnahabhain Distillery 1990 26 Years Old / B+ / earthy and unusual, big wet mineral notes
Alexander Murray & Co. Linkwood Distillery 1997 19 Years Old Cask Strength / B / a bit simple
Alexander Murray & Co. Glenlossie Distillery 1997 19 Years Old Cask Strength / B / old bread notes dominate
Alexander Murray & Co. Bunnahabhain Distillery 1988 28 Years Old Cask Strength / B+ / overpowering sherry, but ample fruit
Bruichladdich Black Art 5 / B / sugar cookie dough, lots of vegetation
Laphroaig 25 Years Old / A+ / drinking absolutely gorgeously today, smoke and sweetness in perfect proportions
Tomatin 1986 / A- / bold cereal and malt notes, challah bread; cherry on the back
The Macallan Classic Cut / A- / the first cask strength Macallan in the U.S. in four years; bold and punchy; honeyed
Compass Box Phenomenology / A- / a mystery blend of five whiskeys; Compass Box will reveal their identity at the end of the year; this is a soft, lightly grainy whiskey with ample honey notes
Compass Box No Name / A- / this one is 75% Ardbeg, but the peat is light and quite floral; a really fun one
Highland Park Fire Edition / B / heavy grain and punchy alcohol today, not my favorite tonight
Highland Park Ice Edition / A / a massive step up, gently minty and cereal-infused; soothing
BenRiach 25 Years Old / A- / lemon is heavy on this light bodied 25
Shackleton Blended Malt (2017) / B+ / the third edition of the Shackleton is unrelated to the bottlings that Richard Paterson pulled together; this is a much cheaper blend in simpler packaging; for what it’s worth, it’s soft and simple inside, too, without much complexity but easy to enjoy
Glenlivet 21 Years Old / A / fully firing, lush with fruit and toast notes
Auchentoshan 1988 Wine Cask Finish / B / 25 years old; 17 of those years in Bordeaux casks; bold and spicy, but the finish is off
Bowmore 25 Years Old / B / lots of potpourri and perfume here, overly floral on the finish

Bourbon

Elijah Craig 23 Years Old / A- / drinking well, lots of wood and baking spice folded together
Stagg Jr. / B / over-wooded, with licorice and cloves; really blown out (don’t know the release number)
W.L. Weller 12 Years Old / A / a classic wheater, with ample butterscotch and toffee; really worthy of its praise
Calumet Farm Single Barrel / B+ / a big undercooked for a single barrel, somewhat thin
Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection Cherry Wood Smoked Barley 2017 / B+ / corn and barley only; very gentle with the smoke, understated but with a true, fruity complexity; full review in the works
Four Roses Small Batch Limited Edition “Al Young” / A / gorgeous, a vanilla powerhouse; a favorite of the night

Other Whiskey

John & Allisa’s 2 Month Aged Tennessee Whiskey / NR / this is a preview from the as-yet-unnamed Tennessee distillery that Sazerac got when it purchased the assets of Popcorn Sutton; it’s always fun to taste near new-make, but today it’s all corn, all the time; try us again in 4-6 years
Westland Distillery Peat Week 2017 / B+ / soft for a “peat bomb,” with minty notes on the back end and some stewed prunes
WhistlePig Boss Hog IV: The Black Prince / B / way overoaked, antiseptic at times; full review of this is coming soon
Bushmills 21 Years Old Single Malt / A- / very heavy maltiness, big body, lots of heather and a lovely depth

Cognac

Hennessy Cognac Master Blender’s Selection No. 2 / A- / 18 months in virgin oak, then 10-20 years in used casks; a wood-forward, domineering blend with tons of dried fruit to fill the palate

Review: Swift Single Malt Texas Whiskey Sauternes Finish

In case you missed our earlier review, Texas’s Swift Single Malt Whiskey is a gem in a world of lackluster single malts made in the U.S. Now the distillery is out with a new expression: single malt finished in Sauternes casks instead of the Oloroso sherry casks used for the mainline release.

The distillery gives us a little more info to run with:

We start with a 2-row barley that is grown and malted in Scotland, mostly the Speyside region. This is the same barley as our original single malt (Oloroso Finish).

We double distill on our copper pot stills.  We now have two stripping stills, our original one and a new one we had made to our specifications after spending time in Japan.  The Japanese whisky makers alter the shapes of their stills to extract more flavor, so we decided to do the same.  I believe the new shaped still gives more of a floral note than our original still does.

After the double distillation, we begin the aging process in Four Roses Bourbon Barrels. Here the whiskey remains for 1.5 years (or so), then all of the whiskey is transferred to a Sauternes cask, which comes from Chateau d’Arch in Bordeaux, France.  We traveled to Sauternes a few years ago and picked out the barrels to best match our flavor profile.  We wanted a Sauternes wine that would have balanced citrus notes and mild sweetness.

The whiskey ages 1 year in the Sauternes cask before it is bottled. Overall the Sauternes Finish is 2.5 years old.

The standard (Oloroso) bottling of Swift is well-crafted, but quite young, with a distinctly woody edge to the nose and the palate. That’s all but gone in the Sauternes Finish, the wood replaced by a surfeit of fruit — green apple (a big surprise), quince, watermelon, and some floral notes of honeysuckle and orange blossoms, which take the whiskey in yet another direction. The palate is quite sweet, almost so much so that it can initially come across with a rum note. Those Sauternes barrels have had quite an impact here, although finally the grainy underbelly starts to shine through, alongside notes of golden raisins, eastern spices, and, to a lesser degree, barrel-driven notes that seem closer to cedar than oak. On the finish — there’s the barest hint of dark brown sugar and milk chocolate, with a sprinkling of graham cracker crumbs on top. Very dessert-like.

This is a whisky that I like a lot, but here the Sauternes finish does seem to some extent to be covering up something rather than enhancing it. In this case, there’s plenty of young spirit that needs to be carefully massaged. As with the standard bottling, another year or so in the barrel would likely do wonders to help temper the beast inside. For now, though, we’ve got a unique offering that shows that some of the best single malt coming out of America can be found, in all places, in Texas.

88 proof.

B+ / $57 / swiftdistillery.com

Review: Westland Garryana Native Oak Series 2017 Edition 2|1

Westland’s single malt “Garry Oak” series continues with this second edition, a follow up to the inaugural 2016 release. I won’t rehash what a Garryana oak is, but will instead focus on how this release differs from the first. The main thing: No peat.

Like its predecessor, Edition 2|1 features Garry Oak as the lead note in a broader composition that brings together a variety of distillates and cask types. The most noteworthy change from last year to this is the absence of a peated component. This is an intentional inquiry. Garry Oak contains a relatively high amount of natural phenols, and so we felt compelled to see how its particular brand of smoke expresses itself when it doesn’t share the stage with the peaty kind. If Garryana 1|1 was a grand gesture; this edition portrays an expression of subtle depth.

Garryana 2|1 is also bottled at a somewhat lower proof (50% abv)… and is on shelves with a somewhat higher price. As with the first release, there’s no age statement.

Let’s move on to the tasting…

The nose is a touch odd — a bit sweaty, with notes of roasted vegetables, fresh-cut lumber, and dusky cloves. The palate however has more in common with a typical American single malt. Grain-forward, but not overly so, the wood influence is powerful, giving the body ample tannin plus notes of burnt sugar and roasted hazelnuts — the latter a common thread from the first edition of the whiskey. The finish sees the emergence of additional spicier elements — nutmeg and cinnamon, dried red berries, and a lightly sweet, milk chocolate note. The wood grips at the back of the throat as the finish fades, providing a curiously saccharine note to the conclusion.

It’s a strange whiskey — and one that’s quite different than its predecessor.

100 proof. 2600 bottles produced.

B / $150 / westlandgarryana.com

Review: Rua American Single Malt Whiskey

Great Wagon Road Distilling can be found in Charlotte, North Carolina, where this small operation can be found making vodka, poitin, and malt whiskey under the care of Ollie Mulligan, a native Irishman. Today we look at Rua — Gaelic for “red” — the company’s American single malt made from 100% malted barley. The whiskey carries no age statement, but it’s a fairly young one that is apparently aged in considerably smaller barrels.

The nose of Rua has all the hallmarks of a youthful American single malt, scorched by the impact of plenty of new oak, but it shows that some liveliness lies beneath, in the form of cinnamon, apple cider, and some ginger aromas.

On the palate, again the new wood tends to dominate, but some secondary notes of tobacco, cloves, baking spice, and a lacing of sweeter vanilla elevate the experience above that of most American single malts. The light butterscotch notes on the finish are playful in a whiskey that can initially come across as brooding — at least enough to merit giving it a cautious recommendation.

Reviewed: Release 10, Batch 18. 80 proof.

B / $53 / gwrdistilling.com

Review: Westland Winter Release 2016

Seattle-based Westland Distillery makes only American single malt whiskey, but they have produced a range of variations on this theme to date including Sherry Wood and Peated, as well as more creative offerings like Garryana, part of the Native Oak series in which they age their single malt in oak sourced from the Pacific Northwest. In the winter of 2016 they added another addition to their range with the inaugural Winter Release. Westland has a rather romantic way of describing this whiskey, so I’ll let them do the explaining:

This inaugural release of Westland Winter celebrates the stark contrasts of the season. At once brisk and cozy, austere and comforting, it hovers over the threshold of the season’s two theaters, the hinterland and the hearth. Nine casks were married for this release. Smoke is the one constant, its waft on the wind carrying us in and out of each scene. The ex-bourbon casks shape the whiskey into a fully realized portrait of winter, but this release’s ascendant feature is a single ex-Oloroso hogshead of peated spirit. This sherry cask, with its immense richness and assertive peatiness, reminds us that this time of year togetherness is warming and indulgence is forgiven.

That’s a lot to pack into a bottle, but I can easily see what they are getting at. On the nose, Winter Release shows a subtle smokiness, but it’s sweet, almost like pipe tobacco or a dying campfire. There’s ginger there, too, golden raisin, and a little candy apple. The palate is oily and honeyed with cinnamon and dark fruit notes that become chocolate covered on a lingering and slightly spicy finish. I get the “winter in a glass” thing, but more importantly, this is a dram I would pick over a lot of other more traditional single malts out there. Here’s looking forward to next winter!

100 proof.

A- / $100 / westlanddistillery.com

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