Sunday, September 1, 2013

The Illuminating and Unsung Batch Evolution of Balcones Texas Single Malt

Creative wood finishes affect color. Ex-bourbon, left, is copper.  Q.Robur, center, is red. And Q. Alba, right, is golden amber.
Balcones Texas Single Malt Whisky has been racking up awards and accolades left and right since its introduction in July of 2011.  A partial list includes:
  • Double Gold (best single malt & best whisk(e)y) at the 2011 New York World Wine & Spirits, 
  • Double Gold again at the 2012 San Francisco World Wine & Spirits, 
  • Chairman's Trophy at the 2012 Ultimate Beverage Challenge, 
  • Best in Category at the 2012 American Distilling Institute Awards, and 
  • Silver at the Wizards of Whisky Awards in London.  
But the one that really impressed me; the one that counted WAY more to me than all those namby-pamby industry awards was the award given by actual top flight whisky bloggers Neil Ridley and Joel Harrison of one of my favorite whisky blogs:  In 2012, in their 6th annual "Best In Glass" awards, they put Texas Single Malt up against the finalists of their broad survey - a group including some of the best from top names like Macallan, Johnny Walker, Glenmorangie, Cutty Sark, Nikka, Kilchoman, and Teelings - as judged by a panel of 11 of the top blenders, journalists, and major buyers; all people who really know their stuff.  The Texas Single Malt beat them all.  They conclude:  "A mighty whisky..."  The accolades don't stop with the awards either.  The blogosphere has reached unusual consensus.  Texas Single Malt has been widely lauded in numerous whisky blogs around the world - in posts dating from 2011 to the current day. It has a creamy vanilla sweetness that leads into a rich malty caramel quality and a powerful charred oaky hit at the tail that positions this malt somewhere between a bourbon's new charred oak flavor and a Scottish malt's delicate sweetness.  The robust flavors, helped by generous proof, and rich charred oak help communicate the American - and Western - provenance.  The rich caramel malt flavors and vanilla sweetness put you squarely in malt territory.  It's, frankly, delicious.  
Six different expressions of Balcones Texas Single Malt reviewed.
(warning - major whisky geekery ahead...)
However, there has been absolute silence concerning the issue of batch variation in this landmark craft distilling product - of which there has been a substantial degree.  This is particularly surprising considering that Texas Single Malt hasn't been experiencing conventional batch variation so much as a dramatic and deliberate batch EVOLUTION - with significant changes in bottling proof and wood management.  Here's what I'm talking about.  The following table lists different batches by batch number, % alcohol by volume, and the type of wood used in the initial small barrel and subsequent large barrel maturation.  

Batch % abv      Wood-5 gal barrels   Wood-60 gal. barrels
SM11-2 51.0% abv Yard aged white oak  Yard aged white oak
SM12-4 50.5% abv Yard aged white oak  Yard aged white oak
SM12-6 52.0% abv Yard aged white oak  Ex-bourbon
SM12-7 53.0% abv Yard aged white oak  Yard aged white oak
Cask 2417  Yard aged white oak  E. European (Q.Robur)
SM12-8 53.0% abv Yard aged white oak  E. European
SM13-3 53.0% abv Yard aged white oak  Yard aged white oak)

Let me explain in greater detail.  Texas Single Malt is initially aged in 20 Liter (roughly 5 gallon) bespoke barrels made of Balcones' Master Distiller Chip Tate's carefully prepared yard aged white oak seasoned for 2-3 years in Missouri where it can freeze over the winter.  After a period of initial maturation, the small barrels are dumped into larger 200 liter (53 gallon) or 225 liter (60 gallon) barrels for batch marrying and final maturation.  These second or "finishing" barrels are made of various different woods.  The majority of batches use the same Quercus Alba - custom yard aged American white oak as the small barrels.  However some batches used custom yard aged Eastern European oak, Quercus Robur - which added spice and gave the whiskies a red color.  At least one other batch used 53 gallon ex-bourbon barrels from Wild Turkey for the finishing / marrying maturation period.  Furthermore the proof climbed from 50.5% abv (101 proof) to the current 53% (106 proof).  The tale of the shifting proof can be seen in the printing on the case boxes - such as this one spotted in the loading area of Park Avenue Liquors in NYC:  What's that down at the bottom?  Take a closer look:  
Yes - apparently batch 12-3 was 105.8 proof and batch 12-7 had increased that to 106 proof.  Chip confirms that the 92 proof on the printing was never made - just an idea that fell by the wayside when palate testing dictated a stronger proof.

This diversity of proofs and wood management represents a searching for optimization in the expression.  Let me be clear: all of these versions of Texas Single Malt are quite similar to each other.  There is a real unity to the various batches in this expression, despite this tinkering with various parameters which may be why this topic has escaped mention until now.  Furthermore, the period of experimentation is now over.  The results are in and Chip and company have decided on a final and permanent configuration - as represented by a change in the labeling since batch SM12-9 as you will see below.  Despite the great similarity of these batches, however, the wood finishes add a detectable aromatic overtone to the distillate.  The experimentation in finishes is real and apparent to the palate and nose, particularly once you know what to look for.  What follows is a set of tasting notes and a concluding argument about what this represents in the wider context of American Craft Distilling.

1) Batch 12-4: 50.5% abv. All yard aged American oak:
Batch 12-4 labels: 'yard-aged American oak.' 50.5% abv hand written
Color: Light amber with coppery glints.
Nose: honeyed citrus, vanilla florals, burned spun sugar, charred oak.
Caramelized powdered sugar, big creamy sweet vanilla, and a ton of tangy citrus explode on the palate's opening.  The mid palate blooms with rich malt, tons of bourbon-like charred oak with plenty of sandalwood filigree, and a melding of the sugars and citrus tang.  The turn to the finish is gentle with fading muted malts, and an easy toffee fade. The finish itself is gentle and even easier.  It drops you off softly and leaves you with a kiss of caramel in your mouth. 
I found this particular array of flavors extremely seductive and after I tasted the subsequent varieties I decided this was my favorite and I put away a couple.  They didn't last.  Recently I cracked the last one for a VIP visitor:  Michael Kravitz, blogger of Diving For Pearls who wrote about it in his post describing our meeting.  

2) Batch 12-6 52% abv. Yard aged oak with an Ex bourbon barrel finish:

Batch 12-6 ups the proof to 52% and adds Ex bourbon barrel to the finish.
Color: Medium amber with golden glints:
The nose is noticeably drier with an earthy loamy musty quality - almost of young leather.  There are old papers and musty funk in the nose - in the place of the more exhuberant sugary sweet cream and char of the 12-4's nose.
The palate is drier too, with more oak spice in the expansion and more spicy burn in the finish.  It's a very relative the thing.  The opening is still richly sweet with plenty of vanilla sugars.  But the citrus is muted under the leathery loamy musty quality and the oak notes - already prominent - are amped up further.   This is my least favorite batch.  The barrels used formerly held Wild Turkey bourbon.

3) Batch 12-7 53% abv. - all yard aged American white oak.

Color: Light golden amber.
Nose: Gentle vanilla cream with floral esters. A regal and Scotch-like gentle citrus tang melds with the floral vanilla and musk and oak. The confluence of floral sweet, jammy citrus and oak perfume.

The palate entry is intensely sweet with powdered confectioner's sugar with an effusive explosion of vanilla and camellia floral notes. The mid palate expansion has a glow of spirit heat with white pepper and the emergence of gentle oak tannin. Butter toffee Maillard reaction caramel notes join with the fading sugars and emerging oak spice on the turn to the finish. The finish is malty sweet with tannin squeak and herbal bitter. Just lovely. It's a clear malt whisky with the intense powder sweet entry so characteristic of Balcones and a big big flavor amplitude with aggressive wood spice and citrus notes that read a bit of bourbon. Very much like the 12-4 - but takes it a bit further with higher proof and a leaner, sharper, and more elegant (if a tad less lush) presentation.


Balcones Brand Ambassador Winston Churchill Edwards explained to me that from 12-7 onwards, the proof was standardized at 53% abv.

4) Experimental cask 2417, proof not stated, Quercus Robur Eastern European oak maturation.  Aged in an Eastern European oak wood with a unique flavor profile, Quercus Robur, for 6 months and for about 8 months to a year in American White Oak.  This was one of the experimental casks that Chip brought to New York in Spring and Summer of 2012 and I had the opportunity to try and to take a sample.   It shows the evolution in Chip's thinking - that led to the Quercus Robur finished Texas Single Malt batch 12-8 that follows.   Color: rich reddish amber

Nose: Vanilla pods, sandalwood, solvent, a wisp of meaty parma ham, some soft apricot/citrus cognac-like citrus. A very refined and complex nose that tends towards a floral version of a bourbon presentation rather than a classic malt nose.

Quercus Rober European oak adds reddish color
Palate: Rich confectioner's sugar sweet on entry with floral vanilla and vanilla butter cream icing trending into a rich apricot citrus fruit compote at the end of the entry. The mid-palate arrives with a potent expansion bringing a major palate shift to filigreed oak sandalwood perfume and cinnamon-like heat from oak spiciness. The finish is lingering with the slow burn of the Quercus Robur's heat, oak tannin, and a bit of herbal bitter like hops. Big and sweet, with enormous flavor amplitude, but a refined and complex flavor mix with some major shifts and complexities as it moves across the palate. It's wasn't finished at time time I took the sample I'm re-tasting tonight, but already it's one of the finest American craft spirits I've ever tasted.


5) Batch 12-8 53% abv - with an Eastern European Oak (Q. Robur) finish:

Color: rich reddish amber, a near twin to the cask 2417 - perhaps a tad less red and more amber.

Nose: richer and broader than the 2417, but the rancio pointed cognac-like citrus aspect that is the distinct aroma signature of Q. Robur's addition is clearly in evidence.

The palate has the vanilla florals, toffee caramel, and rich charred oak of "regular" Texas Single Malt - but now there is a thread of the citrus rancio flavor like a fine cognac and the fierce cinnamon clove heat  of the exotic oak.  It's a rich flavor experience - very very good and quite different from the white oak Texas Single Malt varieties primarily because of the spicy heat.  It's the "Spice Tree" variety.  FYI - Oliver Klimek of Dramming recently reviewed this batch and writes a rich and evocative set of tasting notes that really outclasses mine:

"Nose: Dark caramel, resiny pine wood, fried banana, candied lemon, vanilla, cloves and nutmeg, hints of eucalyptus.Palate: Nutty fudge, burnt sugar, chestnut honey, just hints of lemon zest and banana, a rich mix of wood spices .
Finish: Medium long, spicy and slightly sweet.
Overall: Quite an unusual flavour profile here with strong emphasis on wood (in a good way)"

But then, despite his description of the Finish as "Medium long, spicy and slightly sweet" concludes, somewhat confusingly " It’s a very nice whisky overall, apart from the slightly shortish finish." and gives it an 84.

[On twitter the morning after this posted Oliver Klimek explained  "Medium long" is shortish compared to long which I consider standard. I expect a long finish, it's important for me. So "medium long" is too short to be really enjoyable."  This explains it to my satisfaction.  The finish on all the Texas Single Malts is gentle - which I enjoy, personally.  I'm certainly not going to quibble with Klimek's score.  I wager 84 is the among the highest that toughie has ever given for an American craft whisky...]

I found this elegantly cognac-like and richly spicy variety of Texas Single Malt elegant, delicious, and seductive.  It's a very different dram that the sunny, open, lush and juicy 12-4 - and really gives it run for its money in my opinion.


6) Batch 13-3 53% abv - all yard aged American oak.  

This new batch is represents the end of the evolution with the new label that no longer has a space for notes on the wood management and the printed (no longer hand written) 53% abv. statement on the front label.  This is a testament to the finality with which 53% is now the proof of Texas Single Malt and Yard Aged White Oak is the wood of choice for both phases of maturation.  Henceforth only the batch number and date will be recorded.

[The morning after this posted Dustin Slater @redbeartx tweeted pics of his bottled of batch SM12-10 bottled 12-13-12 which has the updated labels with no space for the wood finish on the rear label and the 53% printed, not written, on the front label.  So batch SM12-10 (and possibly 12-9) NOT 13-3, is actually the batch that "represents the end of the evolution".  Thanks, Dustin.]

[Winston Churchill Edwards, Balcones BA @BalconesWinston, further added:  "The proof was standardized at 12-8. In print at 12-9."]

The notes on 13-3 are nearly identical to those for 12-7.  Tasting them side to side there is hardly anything to distinguish them by.  The nose has added a bit of waxy estery quality - just a hint.  The sugars of the opening are intensified over 12-4 - probably by the additional 5 proof - yielding a leaner more lithe and elegant presentation.  There are aspects of high end rum weaving in among the rich malt and bourbon flavors in the form of turbinado sugars with the maillard reaction browning of oxidizing cane.  Creamy vanilla, toffee, citrus, baking spices, rich oak - we're hitting all the flavor elements that made batch 12-4 a stand out but with added intensity, elegance, and drive.  Batch 13-3, like 12-7 before it, take the flavor signature of Texas Single malt to a new level.  Again.  Big and brown, Batch 13-3 takes it a tad further in the finish.  The browned sugars and butter start trending into an almost cocoa flavor among the burnt spun sugars.

Ultimately though - so what?  So, Chip monkeyed around with the Texas Single Malt a bit in 2012 and nobody noticed.  Why am I making a fuss here?  I discussed this issue with the Balcones Brand Ambassador Winston Churchill Edwards, who acted distinctly like he'd rather I didn't bother writing this story.  He was more interested in emphasizing the common elements - the unity - of the brand.

The American Craft whisky movement is alternately reviled and celebrated. When it's being reviled the usual complaints go something like this:  "Craft distillers are rank beginners who don't know what they are doing. You don't just go up against the centuries of hard won experience of traditional distillers and suddenly do it better".  When it's being celebrated there is talk of creativity and thinking outside the box.  In the critical press and blogosphere there is plenty of acknowledgement that a lot of craft whiskies frankly just don't taste that amazing - even if they are conceptually interesting or are exploring important new ground.

Balcones Texas Malt is an exception.  Not only is it delicious, but this process of tinkering is a testament to Chip pushing to improve a product that is already very good.  It shows a level of perfectionism and craftsmanship that belies the negative stereotypes of American Craft Distilling.  This really isn't much of a surprise.  Good whisky is seldom an accident.  Hard work are care are required. The kind of thought, care and relentless experimentation that made Texas Malt good to begin with has driven Chip to make it even better now.  The fact that Batch 13-3, the one that ushers in permanent labels, tastes the best is more evidence that Chip Tate has deliberately crafted this improvement on purpose.

Chuck Cowdery's column in the Whiskey Advocate's Fall 2013 issue (page 33) ends with a paragraph that reads:

"All this is not to say that there are no American-made single malts.  There are several, like the ones from Balcones (Texas), McCarthy's (Oregon), and Wasmund's (Virginia). [and I would add Stranahan's (Colorado) and Tuthilltown Hudson (New York)].  They're all aged but nobody wants to talk about how long.  They're rarely compared to scotch, which may be the point.  These distillers show it is possible to make a successful malt whiskey within the American regulatory framework."

Balcones Texas Single Malt is a NAS product. Chip doesn't say how old it is, but given the time line of the distillery it must be well younger than 4 years and may be younger than 2.

But that misses the point here.  Texas Single Malt is uniquely American.  It has a flavor signature like no other malt whisky - and it's a darned good one.  It's one that has won me over, personally (not that I've stopped drinking and exploring the world of Scotch malt whiskies - not by a long shot.  But it has become one of my regular drams for sure).  And it's a flavor signature that has won over a whole ton of whisky award people, critics, buyers, and bloggers too.  This isn't just a matter of "localvore" market making or novelty.  It's a testament to the effort that Chip Tate has put in honing his single malt - effort that is visible in the evolution through the batches of 2011-2012. That's why I find this series of batches so fascinating and that's why I've taken you on this long road.  Texas Single Malt is a standout malt - and it has been relentlessly honed and crafted.  In my opinion that fact alone redeems the American craft whisky movement.

If you have information about other batches not mentioned in this post - please comment in with batch numbers, abv % (unless it's 12-7 or after, in which case it's known to be standardized at 53%), and the woods listed on the label.  I'm aware that I'm presenting a partial list.  Thanks so much.  FYI - I have also previously tasted batch SM11-7 and wrote some brief tasting notes in my post about Whisky Live 2012.  I don't have the proof - but it was clearly a white oak version in the low 50s.

Provenance statement:  (Samples of cask 1217 and batch 12-7 poured for me by Chip Tate of Balcones during a private interview.  All other samples taken from full bottles I purchased from local stores.) 


  1. It's good to hear they've settled down on a formula - selling an expensive imported whiskey when you're never entirely sure how it's going to vary from bottle to bottle is quite difficult. While you may not have heard anything about Balcones batch variation, it's definitely been a topic of discussion...

    1. Well, it's over and the expression has upped its game even higher than the versions that won all the acclaim. Last I heard, it pairs well with fish fingers, cheese, Marmite, and beer. I figure you'd be all over it. But you're in a special place in the Whisky world... (in that you can get everything Adnams makes - both brewed and distilled)...

  2. I'm all for dissecting small batch and single cask expressions. If you don't talk about them individually, then brand tasting notes are useless unless you happen to buy the exact same batch or cask that was featured in a review. Nice post, Josh.

    Question:Do you think that releasing whisky this way increases sales due to flavor chasing geeks, or decreases sales due to people that just want to find their favorite and stick with it, or in the end, has no effect at all?

    1. It's a very interesting question. Clearly they sold more to ME. I have 4 open bottles of Texas Single Malt at the moment because I had to taste all the batches. Given that it's all been good, and trending towards really really god I think it hasn't cost them any customers. Given the level of acclaim and the fact that production is so tiny compared to demand the question is moot in this case. In a less acclaimed and popular product the question might be more relevant. The next big question is whether the flavors change when (if) Balcones starts making it in the new distillery that Chip & Co. are building now.

  3. I learned relatively recently that Caskstrength is an industry blog. That is to say, Caskstrength do promotion/marketing for various brands and companies. However, they don't list their clients on their site. And so I approach all their endorsements with skepticism.

    1. That's a fascinating bit of information, Preacher. I'll look into that further and keep that in mind...

    2. Hey, Opinions. I didn't realize they were officially a marketing business. I'd already viewed their endorsements with skepticism since EVERYTHING they tried was AWESOME all the time. If it is true their posts are in fact brand promotion, then a little disclosure wouldn't hurt (ethically).

  4. If only this article were a little more thorough I could have really enjoyed it. Just kidding, YOU'RE BACK! And diving into it with gusto.

    I love this level of attention into a single brand, totally cool to see how the different treatments and resulting tastes grow over time and become a standard for the brand. That's the thing with Balcones, I feel like we're right in the middle of the creation of something truly tremendous and it's so much fun to watch it grow!

    1. It's only to get more interesting too as they add a second bigger distillery and take everything to the next level.

  5. Thanks for the link! And excellent timing, too. I was going to email you today to find out which batch we had tried. It was excellent. It's the only American Crafty that I've really enjoyed, and sometimes daydream about.

    The shops in LA appear to have the 13-3 (and I think 13-4?) batches right now.

    1. You smooth talker... But you only had to read your own blog post. You clearly note the batch number on Diving For Pearls. Yes, it's the perfect malt for that moment when you can't decide whether you feel like drinking Bourbon or Scotch - as it walks a fine line between those two flavors. It's totally lacking the "industrial. Glue, band-aids, iodine, and rubber cement" you find so appealing in young Springbank, however...

    2. Oh my gosh, maybe I should read my own blog posts. O_o

      Yeah, its only similarity to young Springbank is the hearty boldness in its character. That's what draws me to the barrel strength straight ryes too. Actually all three of those whiskies would be great in the winter......if we had actual winters in Southern California.

  6. Excellent post! I'm beginning to already feel that American craft whiskey is going to reach a crossroads, and the true craftsman will be the only ones left standing. Good to know that Balcones is one of those, and one I should put on my "need to buy" list. Before I plunk down $30 or even $40-50+ on a bottle I want to know it's got true craft behind it, and this is getting increasingly difficult to tell. I hate feeling duped by NDPs rebranding to capitalize on the craft market. Fabulous info. on the batch variation as well. Welcome back! Hope all is well.

    1. Well, Balcones Texas Single Malt will set you back more than $30 or even $40-$50. It's generally $55-$65 around here (when you can find it). But I don't have too many qualms about it. It has an intensity and an appeal that competes at that price level in my opinion. That said, I totally agree with you about the craft whiskey movement. There are a ton of NDP "non-distiller product" (Chuck Cowdery's term - for those wondering what the acronym means) frauds and plenty of rough and unready juice offerings. It's a disaster from the consumer's perspective. Given the money involved and the expansion of The American Distilling Institute I suspect that the phase of rank amateurism may be waning. But the pace of new distillery start ups is only accelerating. I suspect the field will continue getting even wilder and woolier past saturation.

      But Chip's thing is different. He's like a whisky savant. He's either a rare genius at the craft or the stars have magically aligned for him - but his success in making good whisky right out of the gate is astounding... and not just the malt - but almost all of his expressions. The only one I don't buy on site is Baby Blue. But all the rest, even yellow label Rumble - are extraordinary treats.

      Thanks for the well wishes.

  7. SM12-5 52.9% abv Yard aged American oak Ex-bourbon Date 7/27/12

    Just showed up in my local store with an after tax price of $100.

    Any thoughts?


    1. Fascinating - another batch I've never tried and hadn't previously heard of. $100 is quite steep for Texas Single Malt - but it's popular and scarce so it wouldn't surprise me if it moved at that price. But that's the highest retail price I've yet heard of. Ever. The other ex-bourbon cask one I tried was my least favorite. But this is a different batch. Still the odds seem against it, from my perspective. Thanks for reporting that interesting tidbit in. I'd love to try it and to know. But I'm not sure I'd buy it - given that I have an adequate supply of the white oak aged stuff on hand...

  8. We walked into Balcones Distillery mid week July 2012, Chip was in the middle of a bottling run and stopped what he was doing to give my wife and I a private tour and tasting. I'm not a scotch drinker, too much peat, more of a single barrel bourbon guy really. Fell in love with the Texas Single Malt at first sip and have never looked back. Currently on the call list of my local liquor store when they get some in and have five or six bottles in the whiskey library right now, along with some Pappy and other high end stuff. I like the fact that he is truly crafting the end product through science and taste. He's a deeper thinker than most and really puts more effort than I believe others in the industry are willing to and it shows with the awards he has won. I also have some of the Fifth Anniversary Bourbon they released this year and it's incredible as well. Thanks for all the tasting notes, I have one of the bottles you reviewed that I've yet to open. Can only drink so much before it all runs together.

  9. In my opinion... For Batch 15-3... the stuff just isn't that good... here is my full review:

    Please follow me on twitter @newbourbondrink

    1. Thanks for the comment and review of the new stuff. An important difference between the 2015 and later batches and those that went before is that Chip Tate was rousted out of his own company by the investors he had brought on to help finance the distillery's expansion. I wrote a little about it here:

      Clay Risen, whiskey author and New York Times journalist wrote the definitive piece on the affair:

      So, the final question is whether Balcones Texas Single Malt has slipped in quality with Chip's absence or whether you and I simply have different palates. I think a sample swap is in order. I'll reach out via e-mail.