Balcones Distilling: 10 Years Of Being A Craft Whiskey Leader

Among the echelons of craft whiskey distilleries in the United States, Texas-based Balcones Distilling is known for being a leader of the pack, there is no doubt. Part of this leadership comes from being a decade old, which is something distillery folk are celebrating with a series of whiskey releases this year, the first of which was two rye whiskey bottlings.

Balcones recently brought myself and a few other whiskey writers out to Texas to see the kick off of their 10 year anniversary. We get a tour of their new distillery in an old building in Waco, Texas, where they are located. We saw new aging warehouses which showcase the aggressive expansion plans they look to have. And we got the chance to chat first hand with their lead distiller Jared Himstedt. Note this interview is edited for clarity and brevity.

Balcones lead distiller Jared Himstedt (image via The Whiskey Wash)

The Whiskey Wash: So we are here with Jared Himstedt, the head distiller at Balcones, on the 10th anniversary of the distillery, and the release of your first ever rye whiskey. Tell us a little bit about your background and that of Balcones.

Jared Himstedt: I was chasing beer brewing and all that. Thought that’s where I was headed, and just kinda had a crash course. Fell in love way too fast, too hot and heavy with whiskey. It was scotch at the time, mostly peated and Islay. Couldn’t get enough. We were sitting around, a whole bunch of people that were, all of a sudden, enamored with single malt, and having conversations that I didn’t think, at the time, didn’t seem like they were super serious. We already knew how to ferment, sure, whatever. We should go look at buildings. Yeah, whatever. Then one day we woke up and it wasn’t a joke and it was actually like, “Wow, we’re gonna go buy a building and we’re gonna do this.”

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TWW: And what year is this?

Himstedt: 2008. I was still at a bar that me and my buddy had opened. Be at the distillery at eight, until like 3:30 am. We’re hammering on stuff, we’re knocking walls out, we’re running cable, you know. Soldering, plumbing, things like that. Redoing the roof. Kind of doing two jobs at one point.

We got our first direct-fire stills in. Our mash tun needed some modification before we could get it installed, but by then we’d already laid down a few other things that we didn’t need a mash tun for. The whole plan was to make single malt. Took us a good year and a half to get back on that after we opened.

The rye relates to that only in that sense that I think every kind of product development decision was [at times] was just what ifs and like, “We’ve never played with an ingredient.” Is there gonna be some technical issue? Doing a little research. How is molasses gonna be different when they put the rum? What are the specific things about trying to do a rye fermentation? That are gonna be unique and things we need to be aware of.

Inside a new Balcones aging warehouse (image copyright The Whiskey Wash)

So we just started buying everything we could. You know, a pound here and there. We were just literally like, “Boil some water and smell ’em, taste ’em.” And kinda guesstimating and going through all these things, kinda narrowing down. And then did some control recipes with nothing but raw. And no specialty anything just so we had that as a baseline to compare it to. And then try different proportions and seeing how that relates to this. And next time try less of this.

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We’re still not totally done. We decided to stick with the M1 yeast after experimentation, which is our main house scotch yeast. So some of what’s unique about a lot of our American whiskeys styles is that we’re making them with a scotch yeast, and not a bourbon or a Kentucky strain that’s traditional. We’re doing all pot stills as well.

TWW: What has ten years given you, in terms of perspective, distilling here at Balcones?

Himstedt: It still feels just as fresh as it did when we started. Except it feels a little bit less unknown, because we obviously have a decade of experience now. We used to ask weird questions and try weird things, but we really had no idea. It was a very uniformed exploration. And now it feels like that we can waste a little bit less time. We don’t have to go down roads that probably aren’t gonna lead anywhere. We have a better idea, which ones those are. Which ones are really promising and, which ones would just be flippant.

I think we’re fully satisfied. There’s a contentment with what we’re doing. But I definitely feel like there’s always room to keep getting better and better and learning. We’ve got a great team of people. Really happy to be doing this and, to have that be what we’re doing tomorrow and the next day and the next year and the next decade.

Some of the massive Balcones distilling equipment (image copyright The Whiskey Wash)

TWW:  You’ve got more bottlings to come out, later this year, beyond the rye. Can you just mention those briefly?

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Himstedt: We’re gonna do a release of the French Oak single malt, which we’ve only done once before, back in 2014. Got a few single barrel things. We’re gonna finally sell some second fill, refill barrel malt, that we’ve always used kind of in making the regular one single malt release. Yeah, there’s ten things coming out just for the 10th anniversary. Not all of those are necessarily gonna be ongoing things. Some of it’s just sharing with friends and fans. Things that go on behind the scenes that maybe we’ll turn into something. But they’re good enough to see the light of day. .

TWW: Awesome. We look forward to seeing what comes out later this year, and seeing you guys celebrate another ten years of success.

Himstedt: Thank you.