Local Flavor: Visiting the Balcones Distillery in Waco, Texas
My journey to taste a bit of local flavor brought me to a distillery serving up rum about halfway between Dallas and Austin in Waco, Texas. Waco is a small idyllic town that has several claims to fame including the invention of Dr. Pepper and being home to Chip and Joanna Gaines’ Magnolia empire (from HGTV’s Fixer Upper) and of course, the Balcones Distillery.
The distillery is located near the center of town, close enough to see the now famous silos jutting up into the skyline. Balcones stands out as a huge brick building amongst the smaller local shops and restaurants. Inside the brick walls is housed an impressive distillery and a small cozy tasting room, bar and gift shop. Barrels decorate nearly every corner of the space showing it is a place that holds many wonders in spirits.
The tour of the distillery costs $20 and comes with a tasting of some of the whiskeys and rum. The tour takes you around the various parts of the distillery, from the grain and molasses storage to the mashing room, to the fermentation tanks, to the stills and finally to the blending room. The still room is quite remarkable with its undulating copper cylinders reaching up the heavens. You also receive a ridiculously cute miniature Glencairn glass for the tasting and get to take it home to keep.
The tasting room, which is the old blending room at the end of the tour displayed Balcones whiskys and had many releases including a collaboration with ZZ Top called Tres Hombres Texas Whisky. Rumor has it that more future releases will partner with the band. Balcones also produces a Texas Rum Special Release yearly
Balcones, in the Scottish tradition, named themselves after the water sources used for their whisky, the Balcones Fault. This fault also provided the inspiration for their unique logo which represents the shifting tectonic plates.
Around the time of Balcones’ inception, there was a race in Texas to produce the first whisky since the U.S. Prohibition. Founded in 2005, the Garrison Brothers Distillery was able to beat out Balcones, which was established in 2008, as the first legal distillery in Texas. However, Balcones was able to get their whisky out the door first, making their product the first to be sold.
In 2011, Balcones moved into its current location, in what used to be a fire protection warehouse. Before fire retardant materials were widely used in homes, these warehouses functioned as safe storage for people’s belongings. The old vault door for the fur coat storage now functions as the owner’s office door. The tour guide commented that they are basically out of space in their several facilities spread across Waco, so further expansion is expected.
I tasted everything they had to offer on the tour and continued the experience after at the bar inside the distillery. The tour included a small taste of the Balcones Texas Rum, but I furthered my tasting experience in the bar with two additional rums, the Texas Rum White and the Prohibida Texas Rum Finished in Ex-Peat Casks.
The most widely available rum is the Balcones Texas Rum which can change from year to year. I happily tried everything they had to offer including two of their newer rums, the Texas Rum White and the Prohibida Texas Rum Finished in Ex-Peat Casks, all three rums are pot distilled.
I started with the Texas Rum White and while I was warned not to drink the white rum by itself, in the name of being thorough, I had to give it a try. The nose had scents of coconut cream pie. On the palate were tastes of over-ripe fruit and pineapple. It finished acidic, just enough to make your mouth water. Overall, I would agree it was not great on its own, but it was excellent in a classic daiquiri that the bartender whipped up. The flavors of the rum came through and complimented the lime and sweetness of the simple syrup quite well.
Next, I tried the Texas Rum. This rum smelled of caramel, raisin and dark chocolate. It tasted of char with a saltiness and similar to notes of soy sauce and quite savory. The finish was grilled white peaches with a quick tannic note. Maybe a bit too savory for my taste but quite unique and worth a try.
Finally, I had the Prohibida which gave off aromas of pineapple and tropical fruit like mango with bright, fresh notes. I got flavors of what could be described as a distant bonfire and earthy, dark chocolate. The rum finished quickly with tastes of palo santo and a slight lingering of bonfire but left the mouth neutral. Overall, I found this rum enjoyable.
During the tour, there was an emphasis on the importance of ingredients used for Balcones Distilling’s whiskys, what they refer to as “from grain to glass.” For the whisky releases, there is a lot of thought behind the use of blue corn grown in New Mexico and the first Texas-grown malted barley which are choices made to get the most out of the raw materials.
However, there was a stark contrast to the attention being given to the rum. The rum’s base was described as domestic molasses and blackstrap molasses with the large drums reading Domino. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with using this type of molasses and it is common in many distilleries when sugarcane is not locally available. That being said, it would be nice to see Balcones’ whisky philosophy being applied to the rum as well.
Balcones Distilling is a spectacular place. The tour was informative, the staff were extremely nice and visiting the distillery offered a unique experience, which is why I love going to the source of local flavor.
This is the first in what I hope becomes a series about local distilleries across America and elsewhere. Keep a look out!