Whiskey Review Roundup: Balcones True Blue Cask Strength, True Blue 100, and Blue Corn Texas Bourbon

One of the most interesting things about craft whiskey is watching regional styles develop. Here in the Northwest, energy seems to be coalescing behind single malt. The Northeast has assumed the mantle of rye. And down south, Texas appears to be all-in on richly intense bourbon and American whiskey that takes advantage of the region’s millennia-long relationship with corn as well as a hot, drying environment that encourages a highly extractive aging process.

Balcones Distilling in Waco, Texas, is one of Texas’ most reliable nsources for whisky with a real sense of place. (They’ve opted for the “whisky” spelling rather than “whiskey,” despite their North American location.) The distillery was founded in 2008 in a modest warehouse, with homemade equipment and a deep-seated DIY ethos. Things have changed since then. In 2016, Balcones opened a new 65,000 square foot space in downtown Waco, 25 times larger than its original space.

But Balcones has still hung on to many of its early values, including its devotion to local grain and Texas terroir. It uses barley grown in Texas and corn grown in New Mexico, ferments mashes at controlled temperatures to encourage ester production, and distills all its products on copper pot stills from Forsyths, the same stills used to make malt whisky in Scotland. Balcones doesn’t give too many details about its barrels, only saying that it uses “several different barrel types,” and that Texas’ wide-ranging temperature swings accelerate the aging process dramatically.

Each year, Balcones releases several limited edition annual releases, including three that spotlight their distinctive use of heirloom blue corn: True Blue 100, True Blue Cask Strength, and Texas Blue Corn Bourbon. This review includes the 2017 releases of all three.

Tasting Notes: Balcones True Blue 100

Balcones True Blue 100

image via Margarett Waterbury/The Whiskey Wash

Vital Stats: 100 proof, batch TB10017-2, 26 months old, bottled August 2017.

Appearance: Dusky amber.

Nose: Apricot, corn, tons of caramel, vanilla extract, confetti box cake mix and funfetti frosting. Sherry, too. There’s a little char, a little huskiness, also tobacco, milk chocolate, malt balls.

Palate: First sweet, things quickly go dusky and rather dry. Intense, sticky, and tarry, it’s very rum-like. There’s espresso beans, molasses, honey, spice cake, and then a flash of something lighter—white grapes and a touch of Oloroso sherry. An interesting and lively balance between heavy and spritely. Just the right proof. There’s tannin here, but it’s pretty well integrated.

Final Thoughts Fun! This tastes like eating kids’ birthday cake while smoking a cigar. I like it a lot.

Score: 4.5/5

Tasting Notes: Balcones True Blue Cask Strength

Balcones True Blue Cask Strength

image via Margarett Waterbury/The Whiskey Wash

Vital Stats: 68.3% alcohol, lots of sediment, I think it says 39 months but the label is a little smeared. Dated October 13, 2017. Batch TB17-1

Appearance: In the glass, it’s dark amber with a ruddy cast and heavy viscosity. In the bottle, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a darker whiskey. It’s totally opaque, almost like a PX sherry. 

Nose: There’s powdery sweetness, a bit of caramel-vanilla, and that telltale alcoholic tingle. Otherwise, this nose is very closed. 

With a generous splash of water, I’m noticing a bit more acidity – lemon zest, maybe? – as well as more corn. It’s a well-integrated nose, hard to pick out individual notes, but pleasant and inviting after several minutes with water in the glass. I also get a little bit of that fruity-sulphur quality that often signifies sherry.

Palate: My first tentative sip brings very dark and heavy notes of cocoa bean and coffee followed by a searing alcoholic burn that leaves the tongue be-fuzzed. The oak is quite tactile here, grippy and intense, with a lot less sweet caramel fruit. After the first startling mouthful, I go back for more. Numbed, maybe, to the alcohol, I notice some capcasin—green bell pepper, dried guajillo chile.In the finish, the mineral tang of blood and metal emerges, like licking a frozen swing set (an experience I imagine Texans may be unfamiliar with.

With water, it’s much more inviting, with some interesting earthy notes joining the fray, plus more dried chili. But ultimately, I’m left with the impression that it’s missing something. It tastes hungry, not filled out. The flavors are strong, but they’re not as compelling as the True Blue 100.

Final Thoughts: This doesn’t really taste like True Blue 100 at a higher proof. It tastes like a totally different whiskey, and one I don’t enjoy quite as much. I wonder how they’re different? 

Score: 3/5

Tasting Notes: Texas Blue Corn Bourbon

Texas Blue Corn Bourbon

image via Margarett Waterbury/The Whiskey Wash

Vital Stats: Batch BCB-17-1, 10/5/17, aged what looks like 30 months in oak, 64.6% alcohol.

Appearance: Also quite dark, mahogany, with opacity in the bottle and duskiness in the glass.

Nose: Smells hot, in the literal sense – like there’s heat in this glass. Roasted corn, wood varnish, unsmoked cigar, crackling dried brush, grilled figs, plus vanilla frosting, dark caramel, salted butter, and oak for days. Lots of depth here.

Palate: Tangy at first, with an acidic feel at the sides of the mouth. Oak intensity comes rolling in at the midpalate and barrels all the way through to the finish, which leaves the tongue tingling and a little scorched. So extractive that it almost feels gritty. I get dark caramel and molasses, cinnamon, pound cake crust, vanilla bean (like chomping on the bean, not the extract), cocoa nib, leather saddle, ashy chocolate. There’s almost no fruit to speak of. The long, drying finish brings another flush of iron-rich minerality.

Water makes this taste a little more conventional, with a touch of brown sugar sweetness and more corn character without losing all that dark-and-dirty stuff.

Final Thoughts: Not for the faint of heart, but pleasurable nonetheless. I’m not always in the mood for Balcones’ intense style, but this one works for me.

Score: 4/5

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Margarett Waterbury

Margarett Waterbury is the author of Scotch: A Complete Introduction to Scotland's Whiskies and a full-time freelance writer and editor. Her work has appeared in Whisky Advocate, Food and Wine, Spirited Magazine, Artisan Spirit, Edible Seattle, Sip Northwest, Civil Eats, Travel Oregon, Artisan Spirit, and many other publications. She is...