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: Don Q “Pina” Pineapple Rum

Pineapple and rum go together like peas and carrots, and as flavored rums go, Don Q’s Pina — made in Puerto Rico with rum aged 12 to 18 months and naturally flavored “with 100% natural pineapple juice” — feels tailor made for your pina colada, or whatever other tropical concoction you have in mind. Quite sweet but not overblown, the pineapple notes come across more like sugared and dried pineapple slices, with a straight granulated sugar confectionery base underneath. The finish is a rush of brown sugar, the lightly aged rum in the mix finally showing its stripes.

Naturally, all of this reserves Pina for duty strictly as a mixer — it’s a one-note rum without much versatility beyond the world of tiki — but at $13 a bottle, that’s not such a bad thing.

60 proof. Aka DonQ.

B / $13 / donq.com

Drinkhacker Asks: Wild Turkey’s Jimmy Russell

Like most discerning drinkers, we here at Drinkhacker have many questions we’d like to ask the people behind our favorite wine, beer, or spirit. Every now and then, we get the opportunity to actually do so. For the first in our series of short interviews, we talked to the “the Buddha of Bourbon” himself and the longest-tenured active Master Distiller in the spirits world, Wild Turkey Master Distiller Jimmy Russell.

We interviewed Jimmy at the Wild Turkey Visitor Center in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky where you’ll often find him (when he’s not traveling the world) sitting on his stool, happy to talk to any of the thousands of visitors that come through Wild Turkey’s doors every year.

Drinkhacker: Thanks for taking the time, Jimmy. We know you’re a pretty busy man for 82 years young. Let’s get right to it. Any fun whiskeys you’ve been working on lately?

Jimmy Russell: In October, I went out to Virginia to help make a special rye whiskey for the 10th anniversary of the reconstruction of George Washington’s Distillery at Mount Vernon. A whole bunch of us form Kentucky and other places got together on it.

I know you prefer bourbon over rye. How’s it taste?

JR: It was pretty good. It’s got a good amount of corn in it like our Russell’s Reserve Rye, so I like it.

So you were in Virginia not that long ago, and you leave for WhiskyFest in New York City tomorrow. You travel a lot. I hope you’re flying First Class or at least getting some Wild Turkey on the plane!

JR: You know the only airline that carries Wild Turkey is Southwest, and they don’t fly out of Lexington. I’m good friends with the founder, Herb Kelleher, and I keep trying to get him to come out here. He’s a great guy. You know, for Herb’s 65th birthday we printed his face on 65 bottles of Wild Turkey bourbon. He got a kick out of it.

If he’s a Wild Turkey fan, you must be a great friend to have. I’m surprised he didn’t build you a personal runway next to the Visitor’s Center! With all that travel, what’s the furthest you’ve flown for an event?

JR: We go all the way to Japan. The Japanese love bourbon. And their whiskey festivals last two days and start at 10 AM!

Sounds like we’re doing it all wrong in the states! You used to do a lot of festivals with Heaven Hill’s Master Distiller, Parker Beam, who passed away earlier this year. I know you two were very close. Any stories or memories you’d like to share about Parker?

JR: Yeah. Parker and I were close. You know he didn’t know he had ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) until he was about 70. And even when he got diagnosed he didn’t want to slow down. He especially loved driving, and he’d get somebody to ride with him and shift gears for him when he couldn’t do it anymore!

Sounds like he was quite a character. And definitely a legend in the bourbon world.

JR: Yeah. It used to be me, and Parker, and Booker Noe, and Elmer T. Lee, and now I’m the only one left.

And it doesn’t look like you’re slowing down any time soon! But the business has really become a family affair for many distilleries. You’ve got your son Eddie sharing Master Distiller responsibilities with you. How about your grandchildren? Are they planning to get into the business?

JR: Oh yeah. My grandson has been getting experience with all the different parts of the distillery. He’ll be with me and Eddie at WhiskyFest in New York, and my granddaughter who works here in the Visitor’s Center will be with us, too.

Well, it sounds like the future of Wild Turkey is in good hands. Now we just need to get 101 on more airline drink menus!

JR: Ha. Yeah, that’d be nice.

wildturkeybourbon.com

Review: 2014 Purple Heart Red Wine Napa Valley

Veterans are naturally the guest of honor with Purple Heart Wines, a collaboration between C. Mondavi & Family and the Purple Heart Foundation. The brand has been around since 2014, and it has donated $40,000 to date to the Purple Heart Foundation, which aids military men, women, and families transitioning back to home.

Noble cause, but how’s the wine (a Bordeaux style blend of about 80% merlot)?

An overwhelming rush of sugar strikes the palate so aggressively that I had to come out of a diabetic coma — however briefly — just to write up my notes on this wine. Notes of Smuckers grape jelly, liquefied with cotton candy dissolved into it, are the dominating flavor characteristics. On the finish: Sugar plum fairies, dancing in my head.

C- / $20 / purpleheartwines.com

Review: Jameson The Blender’s Dog Irish Whiskey

Jameson began its Whiskey Makers Series with last year’s lackluster The Cooper’s Croze (celebrating the impact of wood and the barrel on its whiskey) with this second release in the trilogy: The Blender’s Dog. For those not steeped in whiskey lore, the dog doesn’t represent a furry friend but rather a long copper tube that blenders use to dip into casks of whiskey to retrieve the spirit for sampling. Why is it called the dog? Because it never leaves your side, and it’s a man’s best friend, of course.

The Blender’s Dog honors Jameson’s Head Blender, Billy Leighton, though there’s no real information provided about how this release was blended any differently than standard Jameson (except that both bourbon and sherry barrels are used).

Nevertheless, let’s see if we can’t figure that out.

On the whole this is more expressive than your typical bottle of Jameson, differing in quite a few ways. Let’s start with the nose: Here we find a lot going on. Oily wood, a mix of fresh fruits, some floral hints, and a heavily-toasted grain note running through all of it. It’s engaging but surprising — a bolder approach to Irish than most will be used to.

The palate is effusive with fruit, right from the start. Bursting with citrus (lots of lime), banana, and bubble gum, it starts off sweet and builds on that with notes of orange and persimmon. As the palate develops, the whiskey runs to honey, then red raspberry, before leading to a surprising chocolate note that seemingly comes out of nowhere. The finish has more of a bite than I’d expected, slightly vegetal at times but decidedly Irish.

Good stuff.

86 proof.

A- / $70 / jamesonwhiskey.com

Review: Ragtime Rye

We’ve previously encountered New York Distilling Company with its Mister Katz’s Rock & Rye product, and today we take a step back and look at the company’s straight rye, Ragtime. It’s unclear if Ragtime is used as a component in Mister Katz’s, but we do know it is distilled from New York rye grain and aged in full-sized barrels (not minis) for three years. That makes for a young whiskey, but one with a surprising degree of complexity.

This is a surprisingly fully-formed rye, with a very racy nose full of baking spices, brown sugar, and flecks of bitter roots giving it a curious and pungent aroma. The palate brings all of the above to a mostly cohesive whole, eventually. At first blush, some toasty grain notes and barrel char give it a too-youthful presentation, but with a little air things settle down and the whiskey reveals a strong line of butterscotch at the core, ample vanilla, and plenty of that cinnamon/nutmeg-driven baking spice. The finish sees a reprise of that lightly bitter edge, which gives it some unexpected character. The whiskey doesn’t come together 100% completely, as the balance richochets a bit between sweet and bitter without ever finding an equilibrium, but on the whole I find it quite engaging and definitely worth a look, particularly as a cocktail mixer.

90.4 proof.

B+ / $40 / nydistilling.com

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