Texas is renowned for many historical and wonderful things, from barbecue to music to football and all the way to outer space with NASA. Among this pantheon of Lone Star greats is an unexpected member: single-malt whisky from Balcones Distilling in Waco.
Thanks to creative, careful distilling that produces unique spirits more akin in their complexity to craft brews and wine than commodity liquor, Balcones’s single-malt whisky has earned piles of awards, international recognition, and a devoted following. With the introduction of Lineage, a hot-selling single malt, the distiller is reaching new heights of visibility and accolades.
The distiller makes many other imbibables including rye, corn whisky, bourbon, and rum. However, head distiller and co-founder Jared Himstedt notes, “Single malt whisky is our reason for being. It’s what we started the distillery to make, and for those of us on the creative side of whisky production, it’s where our hearts go.”
Balcones Distilling drew head-snapping attention in 2012 when its single-malt whisky—a spirit that’s called Scotch when it’s made in Scotland—won a blind taste test against a legion of established scotches and whiskeys from Scotland and Ireland.
After aficionados and makers of distilled spirits around the world recovered from the shock, they grew accustomed to the upstart Waco distillery taking an award-winning stand against scotch makers who have been in the business for more than one hundred years. Not bad for a whisky maker that started out in an old welding shop under a Waco bridge in 2008.
Himstedt and his distilling team are honored by the accolades, and they find rewards elsewhere as well.
Whisky making is a complex dance that weaves together a dizzying multitude of variables. Ingredients include barley grown in Texas and Scotland. The production requires specialized materials like copper mash tuns and Forsyth stills with sky-high, helical lyne arms. For aging, and for distinct flavor notes of wood, both new and refilled oak barrels are needed. Finally, the humid, hot embrace of the Texas climate puts the finishing touches on this distinctly Texas spirit.
“We’re always learning a little bit more about how those components all play together,” Himstedt says. “Part of the fun is figuring these things out and knowing they’ve never really been done before. Everything we work with is agricultural and there’s always going to be variation. That’s partly why we have a bottling date on every bottle. We want people to know that there are differences.”
While detailed spreadsheets are kept on every Balcones batch, from source, quantity, and malting characteristics of specific barleys, Himstedt explains, “We’re not trying to engineer or direct too much. Instead, we’re looking for the best ways to let the ingredients and other factors shine.”
Balcones created Lineage specifically to allow the uninitiated a gentle doorway to the world of single-malt, while simultaneously providing experienced single-malt drinkers a sophisticated spirit.
By maintaining the complexity of the single-malt genre while dialing down the ABV and tweaking other factors to make it more approachable — including offering Lineage at a lower price point than many other high-end single-malts — Lineage is perfect for those beginning their single-malt journey.
“The trick was to create an approachable single-malt that also appeals to someone who is more experienced and expects the complexity and nuance our other products are known for,” Himstedt says.
The Balcones team succeeded on all counts. In less than two years of availability to consumers, Lineage has become one of the top selling single-malts in the U.S. Along the way, it has racked up three major awards, and perhaps most notably, became the first U.S. single-malt whisky to land on the renowned magazine Whisky Advocate’s annual top 20 list of the best whiskies from around the globe.
Meanwhile, the U.S. single-malt market overall is gaining steam. Balcones is a founding member of the American Single-Malt Whiskey Commission which has petitioned the U.S. to establish a “Standard of Identity,” with required criteria that a spirit must meet to be called a single malt. The suggested standard is now under consideration and may be passed as soon as 2022. The requirements are strict —a spirit must be made from one hundred percent malted barley at one U.S. distillery — but they still allow for creativity.
“The small producer movement is only ten or fifteen years old in the United States,” Hemstedt says. “We left room for innovation,” such as leaving open whether to utilize column or pot stills. “But it will allow people who enjoy single-malt to know more about what they’re buying and what to expect when they see a label for a U.S. single-malt whisky.”
Special thanks to Odd Duck for photography.