American single malt whiskey is the fastest growing whiskey category in the US. Traditionally, single malt whisky has been associated with Scotland, and to a lesser extent Ireland. It’s a style of whisky, however, that is produced all over the world, and increasingly in the US as well.
Scotland still leads the world in the total volume of single malt whisky produced. In 2020, Scottish distilleries are expected to produce over 300 million liters, about 87 million gallons, of single malt whisky. American production, by comparison, is just a drop.
The US already exceeds Scotland in one important metric however. The US has over 170 distilleries producing single malt whisky. Scotland by comparison only has around 120 distilleries doing the same.
One of the challenges facing American single malt whiskey producers is that there is no legal definition of what constitutes an American single malt whiskey. In Scotland, a single malt whisky, among other things, must be the product of a single distillery, aged for a minimum of three years, and be produced from a mash bill of 100% malted barley.
In the US, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) has not defined American single malt whiskey. Most American producers generally conform to the Scottish template. They use 100% malted barley, although the aging can vary significantly.
Based on historical TTB guidelines, however, any mash bill that is at least 51% malted barley could be used to produce a single malt whiskey. Likewise, notwithstanding the designation “single,” there is no requirement that the whiskey be the product of a single distillery.
One of the leading innovators of American single malt whiskey is Waco, Texas based Balcones Distilling. Balcones was not the first American distiller to produce single malt whiskey. They were preceded by Steve McCarthy’s Clear Creek Distilling in Portland, Oregon in the 1990s. He was followed by Alameda, California based St George Spirits in 2000 and Denver, Colorado based Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey in 2004. Balcones’ whiskies debuted in 2008.
Today Balcones produces around a dozen different American single malt whiskey expressions utilizing a variety of maturation and cask finishing strategies. This makes them one of the leading proponents of American single malt whiskeys in the US.
All of Balcones’s single malt whiskies, conform to the American Single Malt Whiskey Commission’s standard of identity: (1) Made from 100% malted barley (2) distilled entirely at one distillery (3) mashed, distilled, matured in the United States (4) Matured in oak casks of capacity not exceeding 700 liters (5) distilled to no more than 160 proof (6) bottled at 80 proof or more.
Below are tasting notes on a range of Balcones single malt whiskey expressions.
The Balcones single malt whiskies are distilled in a copper pot still. The distillery has 2 x 12,000-liter wash stills and 2 x 8,300-liter spirit stills. The whiskies carry no an age statement (NAS). All bottles are 750 ml. Several of these whiskies are single barrel selections or part of a Special Release program, so the ABV will vary depending on what edition you get.
The whiskies are all matured in Texas. Like all Texas whiskies, they will mature faster than whiskies matured in cooler climates. This gives Texas whiskies a darker color and more pronounced flavor extraction from the wood.
Unlike Scottish producers that largely use ex-bourbon casks, Balcones uses a combination of both new and refill casks made from American, European and French oak. The wood notes are distinctive and persistent, but generally well-integrated into the background.
Balcones also offers several expressions that have been finished in casks that previously held wines or spirits. The finishing process can last as little as 10 weeks or as much as four years depending on the cask being used, its previous contents, and how often it has already been used
Balcones Lineage Texas Single Malt Whisky, NAS, 47%% ABV
Lineage was Balcones’ first single malt whisky. The mash bill uses 100% Golden Promise barley sourced from both Scotland and Texas.
On the nose, it’s sweet and creamy with pronounced stone fruit and tropical fruit notes. There are aromas of fresh peach and overripe banana, along with some cinnamon and nutmeg notes.
On the palate, the whisky is sweet with a distinctive caramel note, followed by ripe tropical fruits and roasted chestnuts. Initially, there is a pronounced pepperiness, but it fades quickly.
The finish is long, sweet, fruity with a lingering peppery note.
Balcones, Texas Single Malt Whisky, Classic Edition, NAS, 53% ABV
On the nose, the whisky offers up honey notes, along with aromas of pears, ripe bananas, ripe apple, orange zest and a bit of apricot.
On the palate, the whisky is smooth and buttery with a sharp chile-like pepperiness. There are notes of orange marmalade, along with hints of apricot jam. There are some cinnamon and clove notes accompanied by a slight woody bitterness.
The finish is long with cooked cereal notes, a bit of fruit sweetness and a lingering peppery note with just a hint of bitterness on the end.
Balcones, Texas Single Malt Whisky, Rum Cask Finished, NAS, 63.5% ABV
This whisky is finished for, various lengths of time, in casks that previously held Balcones Rum.
On the nose, the whisky is rich and creamy. It offers up notes of caramel, along with fruit notes of dried cherry, baked banana, apple and peach.
On the palate, the whisky is full-bodied and flavorful with a candied sweetness accompanied by a persistent pepperiness. There are additional spicy ginger snap notes, along with molasses cookies, dried tropical fruits, especially dried mango, as well as cinnamon.
The finish is exceptionally long and flavorful with lingering notes of dried fruit, cinnamon, brown sugar and some tingling pepperiness.
Balcones, Texas Single Malt Whisky, Single Barrel Staff Selection, NAS, 57.9% ABV
This whisky expression is a single barrel selection so the ABV will vary depending on the bottling. The single barrel is selected by Balcones’ staff.
On the nose, there is a slight saline hint, which quickly gives way to baked caramel apple. The whisky is creamy with a crème brûlée like quality. There are caramel and chocolate notes, along with some orange zest and sweet cooked fruit notes.
On the palate, the whisky is sweet. There is dried orange zest, baked apple and tropical fruit notes, along with some oak wood notes and a persistent pepperiness.
The finish is long, peppery and slightly sweet with hints of apricot and milk chocolate.
Balcones, FR Oak Texas Single Malt Whisky, NAS, 61.9% ABV
The Balcones FR Oak expression is matured in casks of French oak, (Quercus robur) from the Vicard cooperage in Cognac. French oak imparts flavors of dark chocolate, coffee bean and tropical spices, although the effect will vary depending on the specific forest from which the cask wood is obtained.
On the nose, there are pronounced dried fruit notes followed by milk chocolate, along with orange zest and some baked peach cobbler. There are pronounced cinnamon and clove notes, along with a buttery aroma and some herbal/dried mushroom notes.
On the palate, the whisky is thick and viscous with a mouth coating quality. The overproof alcohol is readily apparent with a pronounced alcohol burn. There is some mild pepperiness, along with noted of dried fruit sweetness, caramel and dark chocolate. There are some cinnamon notes, along with a bit of allspice.
The finish is long, sweet and flavorful, with notes of chocolate, some tropical spices and a lingering pepperiness.
Balcones, Brujeria, Texas Single Malt, Whisky Finished in Sherry Cask, NAS, 62.9% ABV
Balcones’ Brujeria is finished in a combination of Oloroso and Pedro Ximenez (PX) Sherry casks. Oloroso is a sweet, rich sherry that contributes dried fruit, citrus zest and almond notes. PX is a viscous, very sweet sherry that is produced from partially rasinated grapes. It typically adds distinctive notes of dark raisin, figs, dates and prune. Brujeria is a Spanish word that means “witchcraft.”
On the nose, the whisky is sweet and rich. The overproof alcohol is readily apparent. There are notes of dried figs, dates and prune, along with raisin, more golden than dark. There is a bit of a furniture wax note. This is typical of sherry matured whiskies as is the nutty note.
On the palate, the dried fruit notes are more pronounced, especially the dark raisin flavors. There is some persistent pepperiness, along with a dried fruit sweetness. There are caramel notes and hints of sweet pecan pie. There are also some meaty notes, think honey glazed beef jerky.
The finish is long with a pronounced sweetness, along with notes of almond, dried fruit and a persistent pepperiness.
Balcones, Texas Single Malt Whisky, Single Barrel, NAS, 59.5% ABV
This whisky expression is a single barrel bottling of Balcones’ flagship single malt whisky. The whisky ages in a variety of new and used American, French and Hungarian oak. The later are French oak varieties, either Quercus robur or Quercus petraea, that are grown in Hungary. These Hungarian grown oak tends to be similar to French grown oaks, but usually have a much tighter grain and impart more pronounced flavors of chocolate, coffee and spices.
On the nose, the whisky is more floral than Balcones’s mainstay single malt whisky. There are pronounced fruit forward notes of golden raisin, peach and some mango, as well as aromas of creamy custard.
On the palate, the whisky is sweet and creamy. There is some mild pepperiness, along with dried fruit notes of apricot, golden raisin and some tropical fruit. There is a persistent wood note in the background, accompanied by some light caramel, cinnamon and vanilla notes.
The finish is long, sweet and creamy, with lingering dried fruit notes and some pepperiness.
Balcones, Hechiceros, Texas Single Malt, Whisky Finished in Port Casks, NAS, 61.5% ABV
This whisky is finished in port casks. Hechiceros is a Spanish word that means “sorcerers.”
On the nose, the overproof alcohol is readily apparent. There are aromas of sweet honey and cake, along with golden raisin and dried apricot and a distinctive saltwater taffy note.
On the palate, the whisky is sweet and flavorful with a persistent pepperiness. There is a vanilla custard like quality accompanied by sweet cake and dried fruit notes. The port cask influence is evident, but subtle.
The finish is long, with candied sweetness accompanied by lingering golden raisin and pepper notes.
American single malts are very different from Scottish single malts. This is particularly true of Texas single malts where the hot climate produces whiskies that are more flavorful and heavily extracted with more pronounced wood influences.
Stylistically, these whiskies fall in between bourbon and single malt scotch. The wood influence is more pronounced than in Scotch whisky, though less so than the typical bourbon. Likewise, the sweetness also tends to be in between with more pronounced caramel and sweet notes than Scotch, but less so than bourbon.
The Balcones single malts reflect their Texas roots. They are bold and flavorful, rich in wood extracted spices and flavors and often have a pronounced stone fruit character. The latter feature gives them more in common with Irish single malts than they do Scottish, although Texas single malts remain in a unique aroma and flavor category.
These expressions share a common DNA, which expresses itself consistently across the single malt range. The different finishes impart some distinctive notes, but the core Balcones DNA is unmistakable.
These are excellent whiskies. They should appeal both to the Scotch drinker and to the bourbon enthusiast. What I find most encouraging and exciting, however, is that Balcones is just starting to hit its stride. These are all relatively young whiskies. Under the right conditions, with additional aging, they will develop even more nuance and sophistication.
Moreover, the different cask finishes are just an inkling of how full maturation in alternative casks will shape the aroma and flavor profile of the resulting whisky. Many additional expressions are in the works, so hang on. When it comes to Balcones single malt whiskies the best is yet to come!
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