Please enjoy our Balcones Distilling Tour Review!
Balcones Distilling – The beginning
In 2008, Balcones Distilling quietly sprang to life in the unassuming Texas town of Waco. The following year, this former welding shop turned homemade distillery began producing its own whiskies and by April 2010, it became clear that the tiny underpass (the building sets under the 17th St bridge) operation was something special. The reason being was that the distillery, not yet a year and a half old, walked away with a double gold medal in the corn whiskey category at the 2010 San Francisco International Spirits Competition. The Balcones Baby Blue Corn Whisky had wowed the judges.
Success has its price
More recognition and awards continued to follow, and in no time Balcones had a demand that outweighed their supply. To solve this problem, the distillery desperately needed more space, not to mention larger pot stills. In 2011, the solution began to slowly materialize when the distillery purchased the historic Texas Fireproof Storage Company building located in downtown Waco, just a few blocks from Balcones’ original home. In 2015, after a few years of wrangling, Balcones began construction on its new facility. Retrofitting the 100 year old historic property was a Texas-sized undertaking. The result however was impressive. By February 2016, the distillery now had 4 stories, 65,000 square feet of space, and perhaps most importantly, new custom Scottish pot stills with which to continue to create their original brand of Texas whisky.
In 2016 with its new digs in place, Balcones eagerly began to welcome visitors. As of January 2022, tours are offered on Thursdays at 4:30 and 6:00pm, Fridays at 2:00, 3:00, 4:30, 6:00pm, and Saturdays at 12:30, 2:00, 3:30, 4:30, and 6:00pm. Visitors must be 19 years old to book a tour and 21 years of age to partake in the tasting at the end of the tour. Please note that the distillery cannot accommodate infants and children on tours. The Distillery Tour lasts about an hour as one covers on foot the various areas of Balcones’ distilling process. Tours can be booked online and the cost is $20 + tax/fees. If you’re short on time, Balcones’ Bottle Shop is open for bottle sales, tastings, cocktails, and beer. Bottle Shop hours are as follows: Mondays: 12pm-5pm (bottle sales only); Tuesdays-Saturdays: 12pm-9pm; Sundays: closed.
Our visit to Balcones Distilling
Our tour kicked off on a crisp November fall morning. Alex Elrod was our guide extraordinaire. He is the Single Barrel & Brand Education Manager for Balcones. A perfect fit since we were here to learn what makes Balcones Distilling a unicorn among the 2063 distilleries currently operating in the U.S. (Figure is from the American Distilling Institute as of February 26, 2021.)
After quick introductions, Alex began with a history lesson. Much of it noted above, he relayed the company’s journey from its humble beginnings to its now very spacious campus. The name of the distillery comes from the Balcones fault which runs through Waco. We learned that it is customary to name Scottish distilleries after local geographic features. So what do Scottish distilleries have to do with Balcones? Stay tuned. Alex also pointed out that although early success allowed the company to expand quickly, from day one, the primary directive has been to make the best whisky possible and this continues to be the driving force for Balcones. With a bit of background covered, we followed Alex outside where the show and tell part of our Balcones education began.
As is the case with most larger distilleries, Balcones stores much of its grain outdoors in gigantic silos. This was our first outdoor classroom stop. According to Alex, there are 2 main grains in use at Balcones, Blue corn and Golden Promise malted barley. The Blue Corn is grown in the panhandle city of Amarillo, sent south to Abilene for roasting, and arrives at Balcones ready to use. Blue corn is the grain of Balcones Baby Blue Corn Whisky and is also used in other whiskies such as the Balcones Texas Pot Still Bourbon. The Golden Promise malted barley on the other hand makes the trip across the pond from Scotland. This grain puts the single malt in Balcones Texas Single Malt Whisky. These are not the only grains in use at Balcones, but they are the mainstays of many of their product lines.
Balcones Single Malt
Speaking of product lines, Balcones Baby Blue Corn Whisky, released in 2009, was the first TX whisky released since prohibition. The distillery specialized in American Single Malts from day one. While single malt whiskies have traditionally been made in Scotland, Balcones has helped to launch American single malt as a recognized and valued category in the spirits market worldwide. Balcones creates their single malts much the same as the Scottish distilleries. While there is no current (as of this writing) legal definition of an American single malt whisky like there is for bourbon, Balcones follows the rules of the American Single Malt Commission.
American Single Malt must be:
– Made from 100% malted barley
– Mashed, distilled, and matured entirely at one distillery in the the United States
– Matured in oak casks of a capacity no more than 700L(184.92gal)
– Distilled to no more than 160 proof
– Bottled at 80 proof or more
The most notable difference between the American and the Scottish single malt rules is the time aged. While the American variety has no requirement on time of maturation, Scottish single malts require no less than 3 years of maturation.
Milling and Mashing
Next it was time to learn what happens to all this grain. Back inside, the next lesson was milling and mashing. The process for making single malt whiskies differs slightly from making bourbon. Balcones wants to create the most authentic American single malt; one that would be a Scottish single malt if Balcones was plopped somewhere in the Scottish highlands. That being the case, the distillery has 2 separate milling and cooking systems. They use a roller mill and mash tun for single malt batches. Whereas, a hammer mill and cereal cooker prepare the grains for bourbon/rye batches.
To clarify further, the hammer mill basically pulverizes the corn and other grains used for a bourbon cook. The milled grains are then sent to the cereal cooker where water is added and the grains are cooked. Once the process is complete, the entire contents of the cereal cooker are transferred to the fermenter. Then, there is nothing left to do but rinse and repeat. As for a single malt batch, the malted barley is crushed more gently by a roller mill. It then enters the mash tun along with water for its mash(cook). Once the mash is complete, the mash tun by design allows only the liquid to be transferred to the fermenter. The grains left behind must be sent to the spent grain vessels outside before another batch can be started. Interestingly, Balcones’ mash tun is a hand me down purchased from the Speyside Distillery in Scotland.
At Balcones there are 7 fermentation tanks, each holding 7,000 gallons. The fermentation lesson took place back outside. The massive tanks are located adjacent to the back end of the building. We followed Alex up the slew of stairs and were rewarded with a bird’s eye view of the fermenters as well as a great view of the surrounding downtown area. According to Alex, Balcones’ fermentation takes approximately seven days. Liquid yeast is hand pitch into the fermenters as they are semi-open. One might wonder how fermentation can take place during the brutal summer heat in Texas. The answer is each tank is fitted with a glycol jacket which allows the tanks to maintain their optimal temperature for fermentation. We let the yeast get back to work and made our way back inside to continue our Balcones’ education.
Grains, Tanks & Breweries
As mentioned earlier, the 65,000 square foot building has provided the much needed respite for helping to resolve Balcones’ supply and demand issue. We continued on the first floor with Alex making note of various distillery areas that are certainly important, but don’t stand out in the limelight so to speak. One is the inside grain storage area. Here, 2,000 pound sacks of Texas grown elbow rye, a staple of the Balcones Texas Rye Whisky, were waiting their turn at the mill. We viewed the distillery from its underbelly with its dizzying array of piping running every which way imaginable. These tanks are for the low wines; those tanks are for the feints (tails); those stainless steel beauties are our microbrewery. Wait a minute. What? Microbrewery? Yes, with a square foot to spare, in 2020, Balcones tucked its own little brewery in a corner and sells its brews exclusively in their visitors center. How’s that for unique!
Dumping and Bottling
For the final 2 stops on the first floor, our lessons included the dump station and bottling. At the dump station, a handy hydraulic lift picks up each barrel with ease, dumping the contents into the stainless steel trough-like apparatus. A fine screen at the bottom of the trough filters out the unwanted char that makes its way out of the barrel along with the liquid. Alex explained from here the whisky is then sent off to one of the holding tanks. The whisky is held in the tank where it can be proofed down or batched with other barrels. When the whisky in the tank is finished, the spirit is sent next door to bottling. The bottling line at Balcones is semi-automated. Bottles are filled, labeled, and capped by machine; then visual inspection and casing are done by hand. Not only is Balcones distributed throughout the United States, but its international markets include Australia, the UK, and the EU.
Our lessons on the 1st floor had come to an end. So, we next took a step back in the process and headed to the 4th floor via the building’s original elevator lift. Stepping out of the lift, we were now surrounded by bountiful barrels. Alex explained that Balcones stores about 3,000 barrels onsite at the distillery. They warehouse remaining barrels in two 6 story buildings located on the outskirts of town, each with a 25,000 barrel capacity. Furthermore, he pointed out the variety of barrels in use. For example, Balcones uses new American oak barrels and new French oak barrels. That’s just the beginning. Used port, Oloroso, PX sherry, and even Texas Madeira casks are filled with Balcones Texas Single Malt Whisky for a new twist on their original classic whisky. Also in use are Spanish barrels which they fill with their single malt whisky and age by incorporating the solera method (the fractional blending of barrels so that the finished product is a mixture of ages and whereby the average ages gradually increases as the process continues over time). Thank you, Wikipedia.
For a distillery operating at the 12 year mark this is amazing. Balcones embraces innovation as though its lifeforce depends on it. Perhaps it does. So while Balcones has its line of classic/year round whiskies, they also offer annual releases and special releases. Whether it’s a new barrel, used barrel, or perhaps one of each, every whisky bottled showcases Balcones’ hard work, innovation, and creativity.
Bird’s Eye View
Before leaving the barrels behind, we were excited to get an overhead peek inside the stillhouse. We followed Alex out onto the narrow 4th floor catwalk where we gained a grand view of Balcones’ 4 enormous copper pot stills. Also providing an imposing view were the helical lyne arms of the spirit stills. As we would learn shortly, these 2 massive circuitous copper portions of the still are crucial in creating the unique flavors of Balcones’ whiskies. As we stood two stories above the floor of the stillhouse taking in the amazing view, I was thankful that our visit was in November and not July. While we could definitely feel the toastiness of the air even on this fall day, the temperature in July would most certainly be unbearable.
Balcones’ Pot Stills
We would take our final lessons back on the second floor. Alex led the way to the stillhouse and here we met the still operator, Josh. We learned that in keeping with Scottish traditions, Balcones double distills using both a wash still and a spirit still for their system. In fact, Balcones Distilling has two of each. Each set, along with the spirit stills’ coiled lyne arms, were designed and built by the famed Scottish still building company, Forsyths. These stills were specifically designed to mimic the original stills used when Balcones opened. Any change in a still, whether in design or size, can affect the final product. Balcones did not want its whisky to change at all in flavor with the move to the new distillery. According to Alex, scaling the stills to their current size was a challenge, particularly the lyne arms. Had the lyne arms remained straight, they would have spanned the entire length of the stillhouse and wound up in another room. The solution to maintaining the lyne arm length and conforming to a small footprint was to coil them atop each spirit still.
Each copper wash still is 3,200 gallons while each spirit still is 2,200 gallons. Once fermentation is complete, the job of the wash still is to decrease the volume of the wash and to rid it of any remaining solids. The product of this first distillation, called “low wine”, has an ABV of around 25%. The low wine then heads to the spirit still. This second distillation at Balcones takes a lengthly 12 hours (most distilleries run 8 hours). Balcones carries out this process low and slow which allows the cuts to be made with greater precision and in turn rids the distillate of unwanted congeners.
We thanked Josh for his time and his crash course in Balcones’ distillation techniques and then made a quick stop in the blending room, where we met Gabe RiCharde, Stillhouse Manager for Balcones Distilling. Blending doesn’t usually make the cut on most tours, so we were happy to get a peek at the process. This room had no nifty bells or whistles nor any shiny copper gadgets, just counters and tables covered with small yet wide mouth jars. Each jar was labeled and coded noting the spirits’ type, age, and barrel. Gabe chooses barrels for blending by batching them by date of distillation. He also pointed out that aging isn’t linear, meaning barrels filled around the same time aren’t necessarily all ready at the same time. Some bottles in the room are ready, and there will be some that are not. The goal is to consistently bottle the best whisky.
With some hands on show and tell so to speak, we were going to put this objective to the test. We followed Alex and Gabe next door where we eagerly took a seat, excited to sample a few of Balcones’ single malt whiskies and bourbons. On the table were Balcones Lineage Texas Single Malt Whisky, Balcones Dusk & Dawn Texas Single Malt Whiskies, Balcones Texas High Rye Bourbon, and Balcones Texas Wheated Bourbon, the latter two at barrel proof. Balcones has an amazingly wide range of products. Gabe spoke first and in greatest detail about the Lineage. According to Gabe, this newest (2020) classic release is very approachable making it a good gateway whisky. Lineage is made with both Scottish and Texas grown malted barley, matured in both new and used barrels for 3 years, and comes in at a respectable 94 proof. Although this whisky is a great place for newcomers to start, the distillery has many other products to intrigue, captivate, and delight the more seasoned whisky drinker as the 4 remaining whiskies showcased. After sampling the line up, there was no question that Balcones produces innovative and high quality whiskies.
Time to move on
While we could have easily stayed the rest of the day sampling the distillery’s hard work, it was time to to move on. However, no self-described whiskey nerd would ever depart without a visit to the gift shop, and so this was where we made our final stop. Once again Alex and Gabe led the way and offered some much appreciated direction as to our whisky purchases. So many whiskies and swag, so little room in the suitcase. We made our choices and thanked our more than gracious host, Alex, and of course, Gabe for the incredible experience. And with our heads still spinning from the wealth of whisky knowledge imparted upon us, we took our leave.
Thanks to Balcones Distilling as well as several other attractions, such as Magnolia Market at the Silos, Waco is no longer a sleepy little Texas town. So what makes Balcones unique? A Scottish-ish distillery located in the heart of Waco, Texas? Perhaps. Is it the distillery’s incorporation of these Scottish distilling techniques in a climate that unlike that of Scotland’s, has Texas-sized extremes? Maybe. Could it be visiting the distillery tasting room and discovering the distillery’s own beer. Possibly. Most likely though, it’s the whisky. Innovative award winning Scottish style single malts (and bourbon) in Texas. Enough said.
But wait, there’s more!
Be sure to check out the information table below. We hope you have enjoyed our Balcones Distilling Tour Review! If you would like to read about more distilleries, check out our many Distillery Reviews!
Balcones Distilling Information
|Distillery Name||Balcones Distilling|
|Days of operation||Mon 12-5pm:...(bottle sales only)
|Paved Drive / Lot||Yes|
|Motorcycle unfriendly features||No|
|Number of tours per day||Thursday:.....4:30 & 6pm
Friday:..........2, 3, 4:30 & 6pm
Saturday:.....12:30, 2, 3:30, 4:30 & 6pm
|Length of Tour(s)||1h|
|Advanced topic tours?||Not currently|
|Advanced topic tour names||NA|
|Tours by owners /distillers available?||No|
|Number of different types of tours||1|
|On-Line Tour Reservations Available||Yes|
|Advanced Reservations Recommended/Required||Yes|
|Cost for tour(s) in $||$22.20|
|Number of samples included in tasting||4|
|Tasting Only Option?||Yes|
|Tasting Only Option Cost||$12 for flight of 3 tastes|
|High-end tasting option?||Varies|
|High-end tasting option cost?||Most whiskies available for tasting|
|Designated Driver Option||No|
|Souvenirs included with tour?||No|
|On-Site bottle sales?||Yes|
|On-site food: Restaurant/Cafe/Snacks||No|
|On-site Cocktail bar||Yes|
|On-site event space||No|
|Should I visit? (Yes, Perhaps, No)||Definitely|
|Unique Features||Scottish style whiskies produced in TX as well as Texas Bourbons. Also serving Balcones own microbrewed beer in the distillery bar.|
|Date Visited||November 2021|
|Notes||Mondays are only for bottle sales, bar is closed|
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